Elton John’s Maple Drive Oscar Party (2/3)
Stage right of the piano there was an oyster bar with handsome young men dressed just as handsomely in white buttoned kitchen jackets. They filled mignonette ramekins, speared lemon wedges with cocktail forks and effortlessly cracked open Kumamotos, tucking them into clean white beds of ice. And all the while they would laugh good-naturedly at the clientele’s jokes and top up their fluted glasses of Tattinger. Near the oyster bar there was the hum of the open kitchen; the occasional adrenaline burst of flame from a sauté pan; the aural buzz of metal scoops on ice and infused vodka sloshing into bar glasses; the steady delivery of dishes to the expediter managing the line with the focus and gravity of an air traffic controller; and way, way, way back in the mix, buried there for the aficionado, the ever-so-faint sound of the dishes staged and prepped for washing.
In its original review of the restaurant LA Magazine wrote that the grey architecture of cool surfaces and sharp angles was “neo-Flintstonian.” Certainly some of the walls pitched at odd-angles inspired this, but there were other Flintstonian details, in particular a space odyssey, monolithic slab of water-sculpture on the terrace that guided water down its serrated granite edge. It is true that these water flow sculptures are everywhere these days – the original owners would shudder to know that smaller scale knock-offs can now be found at Costco – but twenty years ago major film stars and their bored, been-there, done-that agents couldn’t resist, like children, poking the sculpture and letting the water trickle over their fingertips for a moment as they headed out.
Another sculpture, this one in brass, adorned a quiet, far wall in bas-relief. It showed five adjacent upright poses of the same African-American dancer. Her height was no taller than a Barbie doll and no more than half the volume of her body was exposed in any one segment, and yet the seductive lines of her upright breasts, the miniature nipples exposed through the tight cling of brass shroud, her elegant jaw, the lovely tendons of her neck, her hips and shoulder blades variously rotated – all of it awoke something life-sized, a foolish desire to touch a piece of metal, to run your fingertips over her, to test her tiny, impossible figure for the human warmth and softness of a woman. You needed to obey the impulse if only to honor the magnificent illusion, something like reaching into the 3-D space in front of your glasses to touch the protruding palm you know isn’t there.
She was, all five of her, without question, the most beautiful thing in the restaurant, the lovely and genuine hidden within the larger spectacle, like the lovely and genuine sadness revealed in the movie star’s public piano playing. Despite dismissive sniping from her less theatrical older siblings, it is to Los Angeles’ spiritual credit that she understands how surprisingly well-suited the genuine and the spectacle are for each other; it is a city where the two forces are never very far apart.
The restaurant was part of a relatively small constellation of restaurants that had the physical size and reputation to host Oscar and Grammy parties, and on awards nights the winners would make their way up the concrete and steel and the red carpet, moving past the hunting dog photographers banned from the house but who barked and brayed and scratched at the door all the same. Inside the winners would get a smile from a Demi Moore at court chatting with a semi-circle of friends or they would be welcomed, as if in a kind of elementary school dream, by Elton John, the party host, who would shake their hands with his friendly, toothy smile and his improbably chubby fingers, those piano playing hands, the same hands that had played the soundtrack to their youth now warmly touching their own on this special evening. The winners would float deliriously about the restaurant accepting praise for the shining, golden heft of their Oscars, idols they would hold so tightly in their warm hands as to bring them within striking distance of human body temperature.
The waiters and waitresses were young and attractive in their black and white vests. Their colorful antique silk ties had been carefully selected to compliment their natural coloring and style. And they knew their stuff; they had learned their lines, and it gave them a command of details that lent them a kind of illusory, edge-of-table power. Should they have needed the information for quick reference, crib sheets of the major and minor investors were tacked up in the waiter stations over the bread warmers. The investor names were broken into three columns over two pages and they read like an index in a year’s end issue of Variety. To invest in a restaurant like this one was to pay a kind of unspoken protection fee, to manage the discomfort and uncertainty of being seated without humiliation, either according to your station or to the one you had once belonged.