For Stars (and Crocodiles, Too) Rebecca's Is the Hot New Hangout

updated 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's hot. It's spicy. It's got Madonna. And Warren Beatty. And Dennis Hopper. And two crocodiles. And a giant octopus. It's crowded. It's expensive. It's almost impossible to get into. It's the latest, absolutely guaranteed-hip restaurant. Its name is Rebecca's, and it's just about the most important nocturnal sociological phenomenon in all of Venice, Calif.

Rebecca's owners, Bruce Marder, 38, and his wife, Rebecca, 33, have taken traditional southern Mexican food, given it a classic French spin and nudged it over the top into trendy. Their neo-nacho approach includes such esoteric entrées as lobster enchiladas and charred squab Jalisco-style, for which the bill—ay, chihuahua!—will be roughly $35 a person, unless you develop a relationship with their $5 margaritas.

L.A. Times food writer Coleman Andrews calls Rebecca's "drop-dead trendy," adding, "its food is much better than it has to be." The Herald Examiner's Merrill Schindler says, "The more the waiters ignore you, the more you feel you're in the right place."

Bruce Marder has no doubts about why Rebecca's is packing them in. "I think I'm one of the best chefs in L.A., and maybe the U.S. There's not any food I like as much as mine." This from the man who is described by his wife, without a hint of irony, as "modest."

The two met in 1980 at the wedding of his partner in the West Beach Café, an artsy hangout that still stands across the street from Rebecca's. "I tried to hit on her," he says. "She was married but in the throes of getting a divorce. A year later we met again at the restaurant and have been together ever since." They were married in 1981.

Since Rebecca's opened last year on Cinco de Mayo (May 5, a big Mexican national holiday) with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John among the opening-night diners, the Marders have carefully divided the labor. Bruce is in charge of the kitchen; Rebecca's primary job is to stand near the door of the 160-seat restaurant and be diplomatic with disappointed would-be customers. "They really show their animalistic tendencies," she says of the rudeness of those who are denied a table. On occasion they can also be creative. Recently the restaurant got a phone call saying that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his family were on their way over. When the entourage arrived, however, they turned out to be six UCLA students in fatigues and designer sunglasses. "People call me all the time and say they're Goldie Hawn and then in walks a 6' brunette or something like that," says Rebecca.

Bruce, modest as always, thinks it's only right that reservations are hard to come by. Nor does he apologize for the prices. And he thinks that celebrities are just terrific. "If Madonna or Diane Keaton wants to sit at a table, it doesn't hurt business."

Diners who do manage to get a reservation, which can sometimes take as long as two weeks, find themselves in a Mexican restaurant unlike any in Mexico or anywhere else. The Marders, who pooled the efforts of 48 investors, including Lee Majors and restaurant king Joe Spano, put $1.5 million into making Rebecca's a showpiece of modern art. The aluminum crocodiles and crystal-beaded octopus, the works of designer Frank Gehry, hang from the ceiling. (Zagat Guide's comment: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.") And yes, Madonna has hung out at Table Number 3, on the periphery of the action. Dennis Hopper likes to get right in the whirl. Beatty sits with his back to the room.

To get away from the whirl which they themselves have created, the Marders retreat to their art-filled Santa Monica home. Once a month they take their young sons Max and Dylan to the restaurant. "We sit at the front table and it turns into a night of showing off the kids," says Rebecca. "If they're going to be celebrities, you've got to start them off early."

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