At the Movie Studio Commissaries, the Elite Eat to Meet and '5 Stars' Means a Crowded Table

updated 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Once upon a time the movie studio commissaries in the land of Hollywood were so studded with great stars that mere mortals might have been temporarily blinded had they been allowed in. Leggy—a term then in vogue—starlets paraded in and out, hoping to catch the eye of kings named Gable, Cooper and De Mille, and the menus glowed with such spécialités as the John Barrymore Ham Sandwich and Lana Turner Salad. But then there came into that land a barbarian horde called Independent Producers. One by one the studios dwindled or fell; the dazzling cafeterias lost their luster and strange new stars shone, often briefly, in restaurants with alien names like La Scala and the Bistro until, as one survivor named Burt Reynolds recorded, "They wouldn't dare name dishes after stars anymore because they disappear so quickly. No one wants a John Agar Salad."

What follows is a guide to the food and folklore of Hollywood's longest-running lunchrooms. (A four-star rating is divine; less than one star, the dumps.) It is also the story of how studio commissaries regained their splendor—or part of it, anyway—and how the stars again came to shine down upon great bowls of Caesar Salad ($4.25; small, $2.50).

Paramount

[3½ Stars]

Blockbuster Hit: Cold poached salmon ($7.25)
Flop: Cold cream of avocado soup ($3.25)

Café Continental, at Paramount, was born in 1928, died in 1970, and was triumphantly resuscitated in 1979. Today it has a ferny patio, a sumptuous, airy dining room, cane-back chairs and white tablecloths, and the food is wonderful. A "Junk Food" listing offers world-class french fries, and the non-junk includes fat and sassy bluepoint oysters. Hedy Lamarr, Ronald Reagan and Bob, Bing and Dorothy Lamour can't be seen there anymore, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis no longer try out their routines at Café Continental. But today's regulars include Penny Marshall, John Travolta, Sly Stallone, Henry Winkler (a superregular) and Warren Beatty (the biggest current head-turner). "Five greats and 10 near greats are always waiting in line for lunch," says VP Larry Mark, with pardonable exaggeration.

20th Century-Fox

[2½ Stars]

Biggest Hit: Chinese chicken salad ($5.00)
Best Supporting Dish: Reuben sandwich ($4.25)
Flop: Chili con carne ($4.25)

A recent story making the rounds in Hollywood had it that a stunning new star, while working out at a Beverly Hills health club, met a debonair fellow who said he was with 20th Century-Fox. She was about to make a movie there and, hitting it off, they spent a night on the town together. The next day she went to Fox's commissary and ran into her date again: He was the maïtre d'.

In the old days she would already have known him. The Fox commissary near Century City was built in 1928 and for years was so popular, says VP Bernie Barron, "It was impossible to have a meal there in less than two hours." But when hard times hit, Fox in 1971 converted the place to a faster-food outlet. "It was terrible," Barron admits, "but we wanted to send a signal to the employees that we were going to stop the losses." The execs got the message, all right—they ate elsewhere in droves, often disappearing for whole afternoons. "We couldn't afford to have 150 top people leaving every day," Barron recalls, "so we decided to provide the best food in town and become the social center of the studio."

They largely succeeded. The atmosphere, as at most studio commissaries, is noisy-high-school-cafeteria, but the old Art Deco aura has been restored, including a huge mural showing where Fox movies were shot (Warner Oland shows up as Charlie Chan in Shanghai, for example). There are potted plants and polished wood tables, and the daily patronage is up from 250 to 1,100. The 52-seat executive dining room was listed by W as one of last year's "in" U.S. restaurants.

Of course, the Fox clientele has changed: Tyrone Power, Will Rogers, Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth have been raucously replaced by the likes of Olivia Newton-John and Mel Brooks. "They give oversized salad platters," Gene Wilder once said. "That means that after Brooks has 'tasted' one-third of my lunch, I still have a normal portion for myself."

MGM

[1 Star]

Modest Hit: Chopped Greek steak ($6.30)
Flop: Tuna salad ($5.20)

The commissary at MGM in Culver City, the Lion's Den, once boasted a row of tables pushed together and reserved for the likes of Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Each day they rolled dice, in a cage on one of the tables, to decide who would pay for lunch. But the glory room was one reserved for Louis B. Mayer—in part because of his bad table manners. Mayer would enter the main dining room, survey it, and point at whoever struck his fancy; the chosen would then obediently join him in the private salon. Meanwhile, in the main room, Judy Garland would plunk her feet up on the table and regale the contract players with her boisterous gab. On one occasion, back in the days when she seemed to be all eyes, little Elizabeth Taylor strolled in with her pet chipmunk on her shoulder. Envious, Margaret O'Brien allowed as how, if pets were permitted, she was darn well going to bring her own. "What pet do you have?" little Elizabeth asked. "An elephant," little Margaret replied.

Alas, today the dice table is gone, the private room can be reserved by almost anyone on the lot, the chair seats are aqua plastic, there are saltines on the Formica tables, and the food is at best decent, if cheap. The most famous dish is the chicken soup. Legend has it that the broth was born when several crates of prize chickens Mayer had ordered for his ranch were sent to the commissary by mistake; some say Mayer never did find out what became of his prize birds, and some say that the very same carcasses are still being used in today's soup.

The Lion's Den has its own giant map painted on one wall, with Leo in the middle, showing MGM's old shooting locales. Its 270 seats are often filled, and in the crush you could spot—if you could get in—perhaps Victoria Principal, Jack Nicholson and Suzanne Pleshette. Manager Wayne Doerr sums it up succinctly, if not succulently: "Our food is considered so good that people want to eat here."

Burbank

[½ Star]

Mild Success: Baked ham on onion roll ($4.50)
Flop: Watercress omelet ($5.25)

The commissary in Burbank is the Balkans of studio eateries. It is run by an uneasy alliance of Warners, Columbia, the Ladd Co. and legions of smaller producers, and the cuisine is widely considered Cordon Noir. It was not always thus. The old Warners' was divided into three sections: one for commoners, one for stars and one for Jack Warner, which no one could leave until he finished telling his windy jokes. "Back in those days everybody ate in the commissary—Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Errol Flynn—they'd all want to be seen there," publicist Ruth Crane says. "Now it doesn't matter where you eat." Still, R.J. Wagner, Stefanie Powers and Jon Voight hang out at the commissary, and there are those who love it. Says Paramount's Larry Mark fondly: "It's like eating at a wonderful greasy spoon in the country."

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