Hollywood's Most Exclusive Commissary: The Grill on the Alley Turns 30
This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For the industry's most important players, the convivial yet conservative Grill on the Alley -- which turned 30 on Jan. 31 -- represents a still point in the churning world of entertainment. The throwback 4,600-square-foot Beverly Hills restaurant, half a block from Rodeo Drive, with its white-jacketed servers and menu of un-ironic classics (calf's liver, anyone?), is lit daily with stars, from Amy Adams to Anthony Hopkins. But it's the dealmakers ringing the room's infamously difficult-to-claim booths that have enshrined it as one of the business' ultimate midday meccas, ranked No. 4 in THR's most recent annual Power Lunch survey. To celebrate The Grill's anniversary, two dozen regulars -- including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dick Wolf, Brian Grazer and Bob Daly -- tell its story, from why they love their booths and how they avoid letting guests pay for their tabs to what Ron Meyer finds the "least appealing" thing about the place.
The Grill, first colonized by a klatch of top William Morris men (Norman Brokaw, Fred Westheimer) and still very much a boy's club, now has been around long enough to see its share of Ozymandias-like leaders come and go. There was the late Sony chief John Calley, who jokingly requested tables away from the agent "hard hats." And, then, of course, there was Michael Ovitz, who after a tiff with the Palm deemed The Grill CAA's "corporate cafeteria," though he was known to skip the pretense of eating there, simply stalking the room to check out who was meeting with whom. (These days, says an insider, "He wouldn't come around here.") Three decades on, 9560 Dayton Way -- an address Grill co-founder and CEO Bob Spivak made up by fooling the city of Beverly Hills' building department with a letter he sent to a mailbox he hammered onto his just-leased property -- remains, along with the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge, an enduring pantheon of Hollywood dealmaking. "You have to work your way into The Grill," notes producer Al Ruddy gravely. Observes manager Will Ward: "When you're a kid and first going to lunches with your boss and walk into the room and see Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch -- these mythical creatures who transcend even a studio head -- there's just not very many restaurants that have that."
BOB SPIVAK: The idea of The Grill was to update and upgrade the traditional American grills -- Musso & Frank in Hollywood, Tadich in San Francisco, Toots Shor's in New York -- and to do it in an era when people were not used to straightforward and honest anymore.
DICK WOLF, WRITER-PRODUCER: I remember Toots Shor's. The room was laid out in a remarkably similar way. There was a hierarchy of tables going around.
RON MEYER, VICE CHAIR, NBCUNIVERSAL: As soon as it opened, I started going. It has this fabulous ambiance. If they were trying to create a Tadich Grill, they completely succeeded. When my office was nearby during the CAA days, I went there almost every day. Even though I now have to drive quite a ways, I still try to get there once a week.
JOHN BURNHAM, PARTNER, ICM: I was working at William Morris at the time it opened. It was like three blocks, so you could be there in two minutes. They filled a certain void: an old-fashioned kind of restaurant, the guys in the white jackets.
SPIVAK: It began with the William Morris guys. Norman Brokaw, Walt Zifkin, Mike Simpson, Fred Westheimer, John Burnham -- they were always in. But the three key regular guests early on who really gave the restaurant credibility were the lawyer Ed Hookstratten, whose clients included Tom Brokaw and Vin Scully, and the business manager Jerry Breslauer, who had Steven Spielberg and Bruce Springsteen, plus Dick Carroll, a Beverly Hills clothier who brought in Fred Astaire.
HOWARD WEST, PRODUCER: The restaurant was, and still is, walking distance from my office. That was the first attraction. 'Oh, new restaurant. What is it? Alley on the Grill? That's a dumb name.' Turned out to be very smart.
PETER BENEDEK, FOUNDING PARTNER, UTA: A lot of what drew people there in the beginning was having it on the alley. There was something about it being on the alley -- something interesting and cool. People in L.A. like something about it feeling East Coast, just like people in New York like how Michael's feels a little West Coast.
SPIVAK: We wouldn't have done that location if we couldn't have gotten the alley entrance. It's mid-block on Wilshire, a very fast street, and there's no stopping until 7 o'clock. The location had been three or four restaurants in the previous five years.
BOB BOOKMAN, AGENT, PARADIGM: I remember going to the failed Japanese restaurant with the entrance on Wilshire that was there before it. I think it was called Tokyo.
SPIVAK: I went to the building department and asked to place the entrance on the alley. They wouldn't let me due to an ordinance against businesses opening onto an alley that they had in place. So I pulled maps and realized I had less than an inch of Dayton frontage and went to a hardware store, bought a mailbox and painted 9560 Dayton on it. Just made that address up. Then I went to the post office, mailed myself a letter, got it delivered and showed the canceled stamp to the building department. They approved it!
ARNOLD KOPELSON, PRODUCER: We call it the commissary. Everyone comes in there. So I know who's coming and what deals are being made.
ADAM KANTER, AGENT, RESOLUTION: Commissary describes it perfectly. But the difference is that at a commissary, you know a few people; at The Grill, you know everyone.
WALTER HILL, DIRECTOR-PRODUCER: You run into people there -- people you actually want to meet.
IRWIN WINKLER, PRODUCER: You see friends and you see some people who aren't friends -- and you walk quickly past them on the way to your booth.
WOLF: You know vaguely where people are going to be. You literally avoid one half of the room if you don't want to see people. It's a little bit like the Wimbledon ladder, but a lot of people have been in the same place for a long time.
PAMELA GONYEA, MAITRE D', THE GRILL: Awards season, there's a moment when people are campaigning. Sometimes I will tell whoever is seating somebody to walk them up the side so they can go past certain people. I'll tell the host, "Take your time," so they can stop and talk.
RANDALL EMMETT, PRODUCER: In a transitory business, it creates an anchor. There's a warmth in there of the business coming together. I can't tell you how many times you see people who you haven't seen in a while. It's a crossroads of the world.
BOB DALY, CHAIRMAN, AFI: Mondays are especially big because the other restaurants, like e. baldi, are closed.
WEST: When you're there, you're on the curve, picking up on who's being hired and fired, that dialogue. It's a center for information, confiding in each other.
AL RUDDY, PRODUCER: It's not a celebrity restaurant. They come, but they're brought. The room is full of no-bullshit business types. Your Jake Blooms.
SPIVAK: There are very few people who get "the hush" in The Grill, where people just grow quiet when they walk in. One is Springsteen. Another is Baryshnikov. Then there's Ali. And Reagan got the biggest hush of all.
GEORGE SHAPIRO, PRODUCER: One of my favorite experiences used to be sitting in one of the far booths every six weeks or so with Bernie Brillstein. Bernie would be in the middle between Howie [West] and I. We would talk about everything, right on back to the mailroom.
STEVE MOSKO, PRESIDENT, SONY PICTURES TELEVISION: Howard and George and I had a lot of lunches together talking about Seinfeld. The full syndication history and the millions discussed at those tables will always be memorable to me. Howard would always order a bowl of soup and a shrimp cocktail. George would always ask about 50 questions of the waiter and then order the fish of the day. I'd get a salad. Then there'd be a big fight over who would pay.
GONYEA: People attempt to pick up each others' tabs -- at their table or across the room. Waiters have to get my approval. There are people where no one picks up their check. They don't want anybody to pay for them. I would have to ask permission, and sometimes I know just not to ask. I'll tell the person who wants to pay, 'I'm so sorry, but he's really strict about making sure he pays his own check.' There are a handful who insist the check be presented to the desk because there's no chance that the other person is going to grab it at the table because then it's awkward for them.
WILL WARD, CO-FOUNDER, ROAR: You know you're going to run into at least two agency heads, two senior partners at major law firms and one or two studio heads on any given weekday.
BRIAN GRAZER, CO-FOUNDER, IMAGINE ENTERTAINMENT: 1984, the year it opened, was the year Ron [Howard] and I released Splash, which paralleled in some ways the year we were able to actually get a booth in a place like The Grill.
DOUG WALD, MANAGER, ANONYMOUS CONTENT: I've been going for about 20 years. I'd started a management company, working out of a teeny-tiny office in Beverly Hills a 30-second walk away, and I decided to try to make The Grill my place because that's where the action was. They took me under their wing. Even though I wasn't a big shot, they treated you like you were. It was definitely a strategy: Let me put myself in the room with all the players.
RUDDY: When I first came, there were the Ed Hookstrattens and the old network guys who owned the restaurant. So I was happy to be expected after a period of time, delighted to get a table at 1:30 or 2 o'clock. The day after I got my Academy Award for Million Dollar Baby, I came to have lunch. And all the guys at the restaurant started clapping -- Walter Mirisch and all of the others. It's like a club.
MEYER: There's very much a community feeling to the place. But people don't intrude. The way it's designed, you're not very exposed. You say hello and then you move on. It's not a meeting place for meeting people randomly. You go there to do what you have to do.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG, CEO, DREAMWORKS ANIMATION: You're always going to be able to get a half-dozen phone calls returned as a bonus to your visit.
SPIVAK: Unbeknown to me when I started The Grill, the Hollywood industry eats lunch at 1 o'clock. The world eats lunch at 12 o'clock. I figured out real, real fast that you could only take so many reservations at 12:30, and 1, and 1:30, because of course those tables don't turn around with exact regularity. There was a big demand. Most of them I would say I'm booked and I would push them. But there was the group that you couldn't push, and I had to learn real fast who they were. It was kind of a monster. That was survival.
GONYEA: I remember coming before I worked here, and we had to be out of the booth by 1 for the 1 o'clock hit, which is very typical of something that might happen with me now, telling people, "We need it back by 1!" So I remember thinking: "I better figure out what I want to order!"
FRED SPECKTOR, AGENT, CAA: I think I have a stressful job, but imagine taking reservations there for all of these high-powered people.
RUDDY: You can have an intelligent, cloistered business conversation -- and that more than anything else is the appeal. It's great food and a quiet zone if you want to talk about a deal or resolve a tenuous situation.
MACE NEUFELD, PRODUCER: So many of the other restaurants, the music is blasting and there isn't proper sound-proofing.
KOPELSON: You can hear each other and you don't have to lean forward.
MEYER: Another important thing is that they honor reservations.
SPECKTOR: Seldom do you have to wait more than two or three minutes. But if I had to wait a few minutes, which I detest, I'd do it there.
GONYEA: They know that you're in a bind. They're just like, "Oh my gosh, what happened today? There are so many people here." I'm like, "I know!" And I just fan myself with my checks up there.
WINKLER: For all the talk about who sits where, people wouldn't be going there if the food wasn't great. And it is great, traditional food. It's not high Asian fusion or French classical food. It's very American -- Cobb salad to a piece of fish.
SPIVAK: The single biggest-selling item is the Cobb salad, today since the beginning. Ours is the traditional Cobb. Same recipe, same salad that Bob Cobb made at the Brown Derby.
JOHN SOLA, FOUNDING CHEF AND EXECUTIVE VP OPERATIONS, THE GRILL: When Bob hired me, we would go out to places like Musso & Frank and the Derby and the Apple Pan, just to see the simplicity of it. At the time, there were all of these fancy restaurants with very little on the plate, lots of moves but not a lot of substance. He wanted to look to 30 or 40 years prior, things like liver-and-onions and top-line dishes -- dishes like what became our Dover sole.
SPIVAK: We wouldn't put anything on the menu that was trendy at all. At least for the first 10 years. Then we started to realize that there were some items creeping in to American cuisine, becoming classic preparations themselves, and so we opened up the doors to blackened fish. Then a Chinese chicken salad. More recently, a seared sashimi.
KANTER: If you're a picky eater, they'll tailor it to you.
GONYEA: We try really hard. Ari Emanuel had been vegan. I started carrying some tofu in the kitchen. We got wraps, and we tried it. I said, "Look, we'll make it work." He'll do a whole-wheat wrap with greens. I personally go buy tofu from the grocery store to make sure we have it. He hasn't been doing it as much lately, but for a while it was enough that I wanted to be sure we had something for him. Grilled tofu and balsamic glaze on a nice salad. It was great, and he was very happy. Sumner Redstone likes diet cranberry, so we make sure we have that too.
SOLA: With the fish, before we were parmesan-crusting with mustard butter. Now it's a lot of pan-searing over a bed of spinach or avocado with lime or lemon juice. Lighter and cleaner. Times change. Doctors' orders.
FRED SILVERMAN, PRODUCER: They used to serve planked steak: chopped meat on a plank, surrounded by mashed potatoes. That was in my heavier days. As you grow older, you become more conscious of your weight. That's where the soft-shell crabs come in.
KOPELSON: When the stone crabs are in season, I feel like I'm back in Florida.
SOLA: We developed a corned beef hash that came out of doing a Reuben. That dish was a staple. Now people are starting to eat healthier, so we're doing chicken hashes.
RUDDY: That chicken hash, you can't find it anywhere in the world. I mean, give me a break -- have that with a Bloody Mary for lunch and you're set for the week.
HILL: John Calley was always there in his MGM/UA and Sony days, when he was driving in from Santa Monica and Culver City. He was willing to commute a pretty good distance for his hash.
MOSKO: When I went with Calley, they would give him a booth and he'd say, "Don't put me over with the hard hats," meaning the agents.
NEUFELD: Calley used to have a driver when he was the chairman of Sony. I'm just a civilian who walks the block from Via Rodeo.
MEYER: The least appealing thing about The Grill is parking.
DALY: There's no valet. You have to park down the street at Via Rodeo. If they had valet parking, it'd be perfect -- from a convenience standpoint. But I have a driver, so I'm spoiled. It doesn't bother me at all.
BENEDEK: These days, I can't walk there anymore. It's a little too far from the UTA office, so it requires some planning. But I try to go once a week. Yet they treat me as if I were there three times a week.
GRAZER: You can be gone for months, on location, and you come back and they remember your table. It's a steady constant, not a variable.
EMMETT: They all know you by your first name. They know what you're working on, your projects and the birth of your children.
RICK ROSEN, TV HEAD, WME: It's probably hard to get a job here as a waiter. There's no turnover.
DALY: It's the same people. I know all the waiters. They know you. They know your preferences.
BOOKMAN: Some of those waiters have been there forever. It's like, "Oh, my God, you're still here?" Their expressions never change. At The Grill, the actors are in the seats, not serving you.
KOPELSON: They are not breaking in the people.
RUDDY: It runs like a clock.
GONYEA: At other places, like Providence and Melisse, the service is a quieter tone -- they're doing ballet. We're tap-dancing.
KATZENBERG: They do a fantastic job of getting you in and getting you out.
KANTER: They don't know how to say "no," or "we can't do that."
STEVE OLIVER, SERVER FOR 27 YEARS: For any request, the answer is, "Yes -- what's the question?"
KATZENBERG: The Grill has become Hollywood's clubhouse. Thank goodness there are still some traditions and institutions out there that never age.
HILL: It's aged into itself over the years. Time has burnished it a bit, all to the good.
BOOKMAN: The change has always been subtle there. It has stayed relevant by being comforting.
ROSEN: It hasn't changed much over the years. I don't really want it to.
SHAPIRO: It's like a great marriage: If it's working, you love it more every day. There's so much warmth there.
WEST: We had The Brown Derby. We had Chasen's. We had Morton's. They all disappeared. What we have left is The Grill. As I speak, I'm going to The Grill today with a client.
BOOKMAN: It's one of those ineffable things: If you plan to open that kind of restaurant, it won't work. You can't "brand" it, to use that dreadful word. But you can get lucky.