Happy Days Are Here Again as Peter Morton Opens a Hot Spot That Makes Hollywood Hanker for the '50s

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Your eyes do not deceive. Up there above the entrance to the Hard Rock Cafe in West Hollywood is this fin-tailed 1959 Cadillac nose-diving through the roof. No, it's there not because a mixed-up motorist missed a turnoff on the Santa Monica Freeway but because Peter Morton had it put there. And when the Los Angeles restaurateur creates a hot new eatery, there is always cool logic behind the whimsy.

Morton, 35, is incurably nostalgic. What he envisioned for the Hard Rock was an experience out of a movie made by his friend Steven Spielberg—"something created for kids but loved by adults. When people walk in here, I want them to say, 'Ah, so that's what America was like back in the 1950s.' I want them to feel the prosperity and fun of a time when Eisenhower was on the golf course and rock 'n' roll just started." The Happy Days motif is underscored inside the Hard Rock by a vintage, glass-encased Fonzie jacket, courtesy of Peter's pal Henry Winkler. Other memorabilia include a red-and-chrome Harley-Davidson street behemoth once owned by Elvis, an original Chesterfield poster with the youthful countenances of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and a mechanical monkey that had its brush with fame twirling, spitting water and making faces on behalf of Lone Star Beer.

The place is campy and noisy and it works. The Hard Rock (seating capacity 250) has packed them in from the day it opened last October. Winkler, of course, and Stan Dragoti, Stevie Nicks and Pam Dawber are among the luminaries who stop in. "It's like a small town of its own," says Catherine (The Dukes of Hazzard) Bach. "With the music going and the waitresses in their '50s outfits, you forget you're in a real restaurant—until you bite into one of the great barbecued ribs."

The menu, in fact, leans heavily toward basic meats, which are grilled over a mesquite fire for that outdoor flavor. The cuisine is sort of upscale fast food, and the prices are modest. The house specialty, those ribs, comes in a tangy sauce containing ground-up watermelon ($6.95, with salad and baked potato).

Morton isn't at all embarrassed to tell anyone, "I can't cook a thing." Still, like his father, Chicago restaurateur Arnold Morton (La Mer, Arnie's and Morton's), he has a demonstrable knack for creating eating emporiums that attract attention. Though Peter and his twin, Pamela, moved to posh Bel Air with their mom after their parents divorced, the kids kept in close touch with their father. Even at age 10, Peter recalls, "I was determined to end up in the restaurant business."

His big break came in London when he was 22. Traveling abroad with a mint-fresh business degree from the. University of Denver, Morton found himself hankering for a hamburger of the robust American kind. Finding only pallid imitations, he had an idea. A hasty phone call home to Dad and friends netted a $60,000 loan, and seven months later the British capital had a small (52-seat) establishment named the Great American Disaster. Only four days after GAD opened, "the line snaked around the block," Peter beams. "I beat McDonald's to Europe."

In short order, so to speak, Morton followed up with two more successful places, including the original Hard Rock Cafe just off Piccadilly. In 1977, wearying of the expatriate's life, he came home to L.A. to extend his winning streak with Morton's, a pink-stucco salon featuring a rattan-covered ceiling, towering potted palms and a high-decibel jazz sound track. Morton's drew an immediate following from the sports and entertainment worlds, with Rod and Alana Stewart, Richard Gere, Jack Nicholson, Joan Collins, O.J. Simpson, Steve Garvey, Vitas Gerulaitus, Diana Ross and Valerie Perrine among the loyalists. "Every place Peter has is fun," says Dinah Shore. "I like them because they aren't dripping in chic."

Surprisingly, for someone with an innate sense of public dazzle, Morton is quite shy. He neither table-hops nor backslaps. "People come to my places to eat dinner with their friends," he explains, "not with me."

To at least one woman, that reticence was part of his charm. "Right away, I thought he was a challenge," says British model Paulene Stone, widow of actor Laurence Harvey. Recalling her first meeting with Morton in London, she says, "He was really bright and well worth getting to know." Paulene, now in her 40s, and Peter were married four years ago and are the parents of a 22-month-old son, Harry. (She also has two teenaged daughters from previous marriages.) The current Morton homestead is in the West Hollywood hills, but the family plans to move soon to a new place in Beverly Hills that comes with a tennis court to satisfy Peter's other obsession. He plays a serious game and hangs out with the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

As for winning in the restaurant business, no one who knows Morton has any doubt that the Hard Rock is his latest, not his last. And which decade might he choose to slip back to next? If he knows, he isn't talking. After all, a large part of the Morton magic is his ability to surprise.

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