AT CYNTHIA'S THERE ARE SOME things you can take for granted: The meat loaf will be spicy; the garlic mashed potatoes will be saucy; and Cynthia Hirsh, who owns the place, will be more than a little of each. Especially on Fridays, when the doyenne of this upscale but gastronomically down-home Los Angeles eatery greets her guests in see-through black lace. The special tonight? "You're lookin' at it, handsome," she says, before barking her standard greeting: "Sit your ass down!"

Among those who eagerly obey that command are some pretty recognizable faces—Marisa Tomei, Larry Hag-man and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few—who think of Cynthia's as the place to binge on heartland comfort food like lamb chops and corn fritters. "It's like home cooking," rhapsodizes R&B producer Babyface, whose favorite dish is Cynthia's tuna fish sandwich. Rene Russo drops by for the fried chicken, and George Michael snaps up the crab cakes when he's in town, but it's Cynthia's cobbler desserts that earn the highest praise from the celebrity sector. "This," declared a blackberry-smitten Steve Martin, "is God."

A divine way to describe one of the relatively simple dishes Hirsh calls "American cuisine with a little bit of this and a little bit of that." And even when Cynthia's menu drifts toward the nouvelle shores of seared ahi tuna and lobster ravioli, Hirsh still anchors her dishes in the age-old guidelines found in her grandmothers' recipe boxes. "I cook only the stuff I like to eat," she says.

A former caterer for television shows like General Hospital, The People 's Court and Roseanne, Hirsh has long known how to treat her more celebrated customers. "I wait until they talk to me," she says, "then I give them my shtick, and they love me forever." Or at least they love her cobbler. As the Zagat survey explains—or perhaps warns: "Nothing is ordinary here, including Cynthia."

The extraordinary 46-year-old restaurateur was born in St. Louis to George Turner, a weight lifter who went on to own a chain of gyms, and Barbara Winchester, who sold aluminum siding. Cynthia and sister Bobbi, 45 (now a psychiatrist in Colorado), moved to Irving, Texas, in 1964 after their parents' divorce (Hirsh also has four half siblings). After dropping out of the University of Texas in 1973, Cynthia ventured to L.A., where she soon met liquor wholesaler Peter Hirsh, who was then an engineer at the recording studio where she worked as a receptionist. Married in 1977, Hirsh gave birth to son Teddy in 1984, but when domestic life proved too confining, she enlisted a friend to help her sell homemade sandwiches to West Hollywood businesses. "We were pulling down about three grand a week till the health department caught up with us," she says with a laugh.

Armed with the proper paperwork, Hirsh started her catering service for TV shows—which is where she learned how to handle outsize Hollywood egos. "One day I got into a fight with Roseanne," she says. "I told her to stop sticking her fingers in the desserts. I mean, like anyone wanted to eat them after she did that."

Then in 1986, after working as a chef for a few months at an Italian restaurant ("It taught me what not to do"), she put $25, 000 that she had borrowed from a girlfriend into a prototype 45-seat Cynthia's in a storage room adjacent to her catering kitchen. Although Hirsh first hoped the dining room would help sell her catering business, the restaurant proved so popular—especially with the glitterati—that it soon eclipsed her on-set business (although she still does a bit of that too). A 1992 Los Angeles magazine story that asserted Cynthia's had fed "more studio power hitters than Spago" put her on the Hollywood map to stay. Today she makes no apologies for the sticker price on her $18 fried chicken plate or the lamb chops at $24. "I'm not getting rich," she avers. "And my son's got to go to college."

Separated from her husband since 1993, Hirsh channels her domestic impulses into creating a home away from home for her customers and takes pleasure in coddling her favorites. "Nicolas Cage walked in one night when we were packed," she says. "But I didn't care. He's a great actor, and it's my restaurant. So what the hell, I gave him a table." Although she doubled the size of her dining room in 1995, she takes pains to ensure that the ambience inside her unadorned storefront remains intimate. Hirsh, who calls herself (and many others) "Princess," says she runs "the restaurant like people are coming to my house. We do things the Princess's way or no way, and it seems to work."

PETER AMES CARLIN
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold.