NYC's Michael's Restaurant: Awkward Run-Ins, Big Deals Revealed by 27 VIPs in Dishy Oral History

Illustration by: Steve Brodner

It's where Barry Diller and Irving Azoff don't speak, an estranged Bill Clinton and George Stephanopolous made peace (sort of), Hoda Kotb found Kathie Lee Gifford, and Roger Ailes goes "to annoy liberals." As the epicenter of Manhattan's elite turns 26, its dazzling, dizzying array or diners delivers and oral history worth every bite.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Shortly after Michael McCarty opened Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica in 1979 — establishing himself, at age 25, as one of the pioneers of California cuisine — he set his sights on New York. He reckoned that if his Hollywood clientele would schlep to what was then the relative wilderness of Santa Monica for his hospitality, they would seek him out on their business trips east.

"I wanted a place in Midtown with a garden, a fraternal twin to Santa Monica," says the restaurateur. He found the space quickly. But it took almost 10 years of negotiations before the owner of the Italian restaurant then at 24 W. 55th St. agreed to turn over the keys.

McCarty, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, brought California light to the space — white walls and colorful art by David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler and his artist wife, Kim McCarty. The menu offered a similar aesthetic. "Michael did something that, at the time, was kind of brilliant," says chef-author Ruth Reichl, who was the first to acknowledge McCarty's talents in a 1978 piece for New West magazine. "He understood that the three-martini lunch was over and that people wanted to eat light food."

The New York branch of Michael's opened in the fall of 1989 and was an instant hit. "All of my Hollywood clientele had their New York offices nearby," McCarty says. Talent agents and book editors all came. Bicoastal A-listers Barry Diller, David Geffen and former CAA chief Michael Ovitz joined media powers that included New York magazine founder Clay Felker and NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. Actress Gretchen Mol worked the coat-check room before she was discovered.

Now, in its 26th year, Michael's remains a hangout where unions and alliances — personal and professional — are made: Today's Al Roker had his first date with his future wife, ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts, at lunch in 1994, and Irving Azoff and Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan hatched the partnership there that would spawn Azoff MSG Entertainment in 2013. ("We were sitting at Table 1," says Azoff.)

"What happens here affects what goes on out there," says lunch maitre d' Lore'al Sherman, who notes that Bill and Hillary Clinton, then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have been through the doors. And every other week, McCarty, 62, still flies in from his home in Malibu to preside — with a booming voice and a bone-crushing handshake — over one of New York's last media fishbowls, where the websites Mediabistro (via "Lunch" columnist Diane Clehane) and New York Social Diary monitor who's in the restaurant every Wednesday — the day to lunch at Michael's if one seeks to be counted among the power elite.

CLIVE DAVIS, CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT My history goes back to the original restaurant in Santa Monica. It was the early years of Arista, and I needed a place to hold special dinners and celebrations. Michael's was beautiful and hip at the same time. I urged Michael to open in Manhattan.

BARRY DILLER, CHAIRMAN, IAC CORP. I've known Michael since he was in L.A. I went to his restaurant there in, like, truly the Stone Age. And I've gone to Michael's for, I don't know, 300 years. It stays the same, which is a compliment.

MICHAEL MCCARTY The fundamental idea of this restaurant today is the same as it was then: It's the mix.

GIL SCHWARTZ, CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, CBS It was the nexus of publishing people, television people, agents and assorted bullshit artists. Remarkably, the same people are frequenting it today.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Michael is the ultimate Irishman. He knows everybody by first name right off the bat and comes bouncing around the room. He's the Toots Shor of his generation, albeit a lot more refined.

The unassuming West 55th Street entrance.

LORE'AL SHERMAN Michael will read every single newspaper so that if one of his customers is in the news, he can say congratulations.

KATIE COURIC, YAHOO GLOBAL NEWS ANCHOR It's a cross between a peacock farm and a high-school cafeteria. It's so New York.

BONNIE HAMMER, CHAIRMAN, NBCUNIVERSAL CABLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP It's always fun to see who's dining with whom. Having lunch there with a friend from a rival company is the surest way to get the gossip mill going.

DAVID PATRICK COLUMBIA, FOUNDER AND EDITOR, NEW YORK SOCIAL DIARY The front room is where the really good tables are.

MCCARTY Our garden room in the back has a whole set of clientele that only wants to eat there. They're primarily big finance and big art world.

IRVING AZOFF, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, AZOFF MSG ENTERTAINMENT My partner [Madison Square Garden Co. executive chairman] Jim Dolan and I hatched the plans for Azoff MSG Entertainment while we were sitting at Table 1.

GAYLE KING, CO-ANCHOR, CBS THIS MORNING The CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, was on the show, and we clicked. We also both went to the University of Maryland. Afterward, he invited me to lunch at Michael's, where he invited me to be on the board there. I thought, "This is so cool — yes, yes, yes!" And then my contract said, "No, no, no!"

MARTIN BANDIER, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, SONY/ATV PUBLISHING I haven't done business deals there primarily because there are too many people there who are in the same business. It's not a place to make a secret deal. The next day it would be announced in the trades or in the newspapers.

TOM WOLFE, AUTHOR I've been there a total of two times, and what I remember is that the meal was of no interest that I could see. There are certain places in New York where people mainly watch each other. It was that way at Michael's.

ROGER AILES, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, FOX NEWS CHANNEL About three times a year, I'll go to Michael's so I can irritate liberals.

MICHAEL KEATON, ACTOR I enjoy going because I'm a news junkie. It's one of the last places where journalists hang out, and everyone there is about as up to speed with what's going on as you can get.

MARIA SHRIVER, NBC NEWS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT I usually can find someone that I know there, and the food is clean: great roasted chicken, great fries, iced tea.

MCCARTY Blythe Danner is a shad roe aficionado. She says, "Call me the moment it gets here." We make it with Vidalia onions and bacon lardons. We like to serve it with a Bombay Sapphire martini straight up with five olives. Perfect combo.

ESTHER NEWBERG, PARTNER AND CO-HEAD OF ICM PARTNERS' NEW YORK OFFICE I especially like their seasonal things — the tiny scallops are wonderful.

COURIC I took John F. Kennedy Jr. to breakfast there. I could barely eat because he was so gorgeous.

NEWBERG They charge for bread! It used to be $3 a roll. Now it's $5 for the basket. After I pointed it out to [author and former sex-crimes prosecutor] Linda Fairstein, she walked in one day with a white napkin over her arm and a giant basket of bread and started serving the restaurant.

SHERMAN In 1995, when the verdict for the O.J. Simpson trial was announced, we weren't connected to the Internet in the way we are now. We found about it from someone who came in and had been watching CNN. The maitre d' at the time got a piece of paper and wrote "NOT GUILTY" in big letters and went from table to table. People were eating their Cobb salads, and I'll never forget their faces.

SHRIVER Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rose and a group of men used to meet, and they'd bring a mystery guest. And one time, I was the mystery guest, which I liked because I was the only girl at the table.

SHERMAN The Ladies Who Lunch [see photo below] have been coming since the 1990s.

LYNN SHERR, AUTHOR AND FORMER 20/20 CORRESPONDENT We do not call ourselves that. We call it a ladies' lunch.

ANNA QUINDLEN, AUTHOR, FORMER NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED COLUMNIST Actually, we refer to one another as Smart Bitches Consuming Protein.

NEWBERG We've been going once a month for 23 years. There are nine of us. It started because [60 Minutes correspondent] Lesley Stahl and I went to Wheaton College [in Massachusetts] together. She loves ladies' lunches, and when she first got to 60 Minutes, she said we should each pick people that we didn't know but would like to know and invite them to lunch.

ADRIAN ZACKHEIM, PRESIDENT AND PUBLISHER OF PORTFOLIO, SENTINEL AND CURRENT Esther has quite a sardonic sense of humor. In early 2001, I published a book [by John Heilemann] at HarperCollins about the Microsoft antitrust case, and one of Esther's clients, Ken Auletta, published a similar book at more or less the same time. I'm sure she was moderately aggravated by it, and so she had a waiter bring a tray of quarters over to me with a note on it to the effect that I was betraying her.

NEWBERG I sent him 30 quarters — 30 pieces of silver. He laughed. I didn't.

SCHWARTZ Michael's is very loyal to people who are loyal to it. Even if your status in the real world vacillates, your status at Michael's will remain relatively stable if you continue to frequent Michael's.

STEVE MILLINGTON, GENERAL MANAGER, MICHAEL'S Bianca Jagger came in with a guy one afternoon. We were very busy, and so they waited at the bar. David Patrick Columbia came in. So I motion David to his table — he sits at Table 8 and this is where he sits three times a week for 15 years now — and Bianca saw this and she and the guy she was with came over and sat down. I said, "Listen, you've got to get up now." She said, "You are not going to make me." I said, "Yes, I am. You have to be patient." She said, "We're never coming back." And I said, "I'm sorry for that, but that's just the way it goes."

The ladies' lunch group includes (from left) Quindlen, Fairstein, author and philanthropist Jurate Kazickas, Newberg, Stahl, American Museum of Natural History president Ellen Futter, corporate governance consultant Faye Wattleton and Sherr; they were photographed March 23. Not pictured: federal judge Kimba Wood.

COLUMBIA When I started the New York Social Diary website in 2000, I was going to Michael's practically five days a week looking for stuff to write. It was then that I realized that Wednesday was the day to go there. So, every Wednesday, I began posting a list of who was dining.

LAUREL TOUBY, FOUNDER, MEDIABISTRO I did the first column [on who lunches at Michael's] in 2005. I didn't know anybody. So I brought someone who did. I mapped out the tables and named who was there. Eventually, publicists would email me to say, "So-and-so is going to Michael's tomorrow."

MICHAEL WOLFF, COLUMNIST, USA TODAY AND THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER If you have lost a job or endured any kind of humiliation in the business, the thing you want to do is show up at Michael's the next day. It shows that you are still standing.

BROKAW I'm not going to name names, but I know two or three people whose careers hit some potholes, and they kept on coming to Michael's. And that kind of helped them.

JOE ARMSTRONG, FORMER PUBLISHER, NEW YORK MAGAZINE Robin Williams decided to do a national tour that included his Carnegie Hall debut on March 27, 2002. He and I had done a bunch of charity work in the 1980s and had become friends. So I said, "Robin, when you play Carnegie Hall, I would love to give you a lunch at Michael's. He said, "Why don't you get Bill Clinton and why don't you get Billy Crystal and then whomever else you want."

WOLFF I was scheduled to have lunch with [former Clinton adviser] George Stephanopoulos [that day], and I got a call from Lore'al. She said, "I just want you to know that President Clinton is going to be in, too." I thought, "Oh, yes, of course. They don't speak."

ARMSTRONG Stephanopoulos wrote All Too Human, which was critical of the Clintons, and they considered it a real attack because Bill was still in office.

WOLFF I got off the phone and thought, "Boy, this is going to be great. I've got to call George." But then I thought, "If I call George, he won't go." So I called a bunch of people to confer with them about what I should do. And, of course, they all immediately made reservations. And then I called George. He said, "Oh shit. I've got to call you back." When he did, he said, "OK, let's do it. I've got to face this sometime."

ARMSTRONG When I walked into Michael's, they showed me where Stephanopoulos was sitting, and while I'm reseating the table so Clinton doesn't have to stare at him, Robin [Williams] comes in. I said, "Don't talk to me for a minute, I'm trying to figure this out." So Robin goes over and stands in the middle of the waiters with a napkin on his arm.

SHERMAN All of our waiters stand at attention in a line at the entrance so they can escort our guests to their tables. Robin saw the waiters and stood at the end of the line. As the guests were escorted to their tables, they'd see Robin standing there and go, "Oh!" And he'd say, "How are you? Nice to see you."

ARMSTRONG Near the end of lunch, I see Stephanopoulos get up. He comes over and stands by Clinton. And Clinton looks up and says, "Oh, hi, George," but he does not stand up. George says, "Nice to see you." And Clinton didn't say anything. Stephanopoulos says, "I just want you to know that I got married," and Clinton says, "Well, good for you. Are you happy?" George says, "Yes, I'm happy," and Clinton says, "OK, well, good to see you." We had journalists [Diane Sawyer and Liz Smith] at the table, but we acted like it didn't happen. And Clinton acted like it didn't happen.

SCHWARTZ As I recall now Bill shook his hand but did not get up. Everybody was studiously trying not to gawk, but it was well appreciated by everyone that we were in the hottest spot in Manhattan at that time.

MCCARTY After Joe brought in that table, we christened him "The Mayor of Michael's."

HARVEY WEINSTEIN, CO-CHAIRMAN, THE WEINSTEIN CO. President Clinton told me that if we won best picture for The King's Speech, he was going to take me to lunch. He loves the competitiveness of the whole Oscar campaign. If you want an analyst for any campaign, he's your guy. He can size up the field in five minutes. So, when we won, I said, "You choose the place," and he said, "Michael's."

SHERMAN Working here is like being a director. You've got a cast. You've got a show. Curtain's up! Is there chemistry in the room?

FREDDIE GERSHON, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, MUSIC THEATRE INTERNATIONAL I brought Mel Brooks to lunch. This is how he works a room. Michael came over and Mel said, "I have a question for you. These are the Rockefeller Apartments. Is it true that Nelson Rockefeller died in the saddle?" His voice is getting loud and people stop speaking at other tables. Michael said, "I wasn't there, but that's the report." Mel said, "I've got to put this into a movie. He's governor, powerful, one of the most famous families in all of America. He has a mistress. She says, 'I'm coming, I'm coming!' And he says, 'I'm going, I'm going!'"

MILLINGTON Jimmy Iovine has been in here with Bono. They were here from like 1 o'clock to 4 or 5 in the afternoon just hanging out. Bono was singing to Jimmy. Another time, Iovine came in with Dr. Dre and Jay Z.

BOB SCHIEFFER, FACE THE NATION MODERATOR When Katie Couric was named CBS Evening News anchor in 2006 [replacing interim anchor Schieffer], everybody wanted to make sure that she [felt] welcome at CBS because it can be a closed society. I thought that the best way to do that was to take her to Michael's. Unbeknownst to anybody, I called my friend Lloyd Grove at the New York Daily News and said, "If you happen to be in Michael's, you might find an interesting couple sitting at the corner table." Sure enough, he showed up, and I actually brought her a carnation corsage like the ones at a high-school prom. We had a great time, and the next day in the Daily News, there was a picture of Bob and Katie, old buddies having lunch.

HODA KOTB, CO-HOST, TODAY Kathie Lee & Hoda exists because of Michael's. One day [in late 2007] I was having lunch there with a producer who was working on the fourth hour of the Today show, and we saw Kathie Lee at a table. And we needed a guest co-host. So we thought we'd go over and schmooze her and be cool. And then we asked Kath, "Well, what are you doing a week from Wednesday?"

KATHIE LEE GIFFORD, CO-HOST, TODAY They ambushed me.

KOTB She said, "I'll let you know." And a week or so later, she came on as a guest co-host. It was a great hour of television, and when it was over, the head honchos from NBC, who don't leave the ivory tower very often, came across the street to talk to Kathie. And when she was leaving, I said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

LESLIE MOONVES, PRESIDENT AND CEO, CBS CORP. In I think it was 2009, I had lunch with [late] 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, who was 89 or 90. I wanted to thank him for all he had done for CBS. We're having a nice talk, and I'm about to pay the bill, and he said, "Don't you have something you want to tell me?" And I said, "No." He said, "I thought you were calling me here to fire me." I said, "Mike! You were at CBS for your entire life. You're here for as long as you want to be."

The ladies' lunch group.

MILLINGTON George Lucas and Mellody Hobson dated here for a long time; Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, too. One time, she and Elvis' mother joined him. It was Elvis' birthday. I sang "Happy Birthday" to him, and Elvis' mother brought him a lovely silver tea set from England.

AZOFF Shortly after Barry Diller ceased being chairman at Live Nation [in 2010, after reportedly clashing with other board members, including Azoff], we were seated back to back. I was prepared to be a gentleman, but of course he got through the entire hour and a half without making eye contact and managed to escape the restaurant.

DILLER Except for a brief, unpleasant interlude, I've managed to ignore Irving Azoff for most of my life.

ROBYN WOLF, DIRECTOR OF SPECIAL EVENTS, MICHAEL'S During awards season in 2014, Paramount held a luncheon for its nominated films. We had Martin Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio in the room for The Wolf of Wall Street. In the middle of lunch, a handler tells me they need to get DiCaprio and Scorsese together privately because they're going to be presenting at an awards show and they have to discuss what they're going to do. I have nowhere to put them, so I offer to take them to our offices in the basement, which are literally next to the steam room. So I'm taking them downstairs and I'm yelling at Marty to be careful because there are these metal lips on each step so no one falls. And he's a shuffler. I finally put them in the office, and I can hear them giggling. The two of them are like father and son. After they come out, I start walking over to take them up, and Leo takes Marty under his arm and they walk up the stairs. There's such warmth there.

KING I was present for Oprah's first Michael's meal. I took her there just a year ago. And then she went again and ran into Paul Simon. They had a little bonding moment.

GERSHON In today's culture, restaurants are very trendy for a short period of time. Michael's has survived. And to a large degree, it's because of who Michael is and the fact that he hangs out as frequently as he can. He and his amanuensis, Steve Millington, are really smart hosts in the highest tradition.

SCHWARTZ One of the things Michael always says — he looks at you and he points his finger — is, "Keep doin' it." And that's what they do at Michael's. They keep doin' it.

•••

A Guide to Who Gets the Best Seats

Longtime customers are often given priority over celebrities when it comes to getting the coveted tables (like Table 1, where Bill Clinton, Michael Keaton and Warren Buffett have dined) in the front of the house. Just don't get stuck at one of the less desirable tables toward the back. Here's where the power regulars perch.

April 9, 8:54 a.m. Roger Ailes' title changed to chairman and CEO of Fox News.

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