Was the late, great Kate Mantilini the last gasp of the old-school Hollywood hangout?
The coming of the Oscars makes everyone opinionated, a philosopher, and turns Los Angeles into the showbiz Sorbonne. We go French. Our conversation gets hot, stubborn, stupid, rude, pretentious, enlivening, illuminating, and like decking the halls or lighting the menorah, assumes the religious qualities of ritual. We do do this every year. Yes, we complain about all of it, but for these weeks, complaining is community, and you must admit, community—this thing we Angelenos allegedly lack—is a beautiful thing.
So it’s only natural that, this year, as the screeners and screenings come around again, I think back to Kate Mantilini’s Beverly Hills location, where the Academy, that symbolic portion of the community as maddening and mighty as the Oscars, had its unofficial clubhouse. After 27 years, it closed in June.
I think I can speak for more than half of us when I say it was never about the food. It was about those two blocks of Wilshire, from the Academy across Doheny, to (that rare thing in LA) a late dinner, moreover, a dinner you could walk to from the theater. That was important. Eliminating the car (again, rare) meant conversation could flow unbroken from the lobby of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater or the Writers Guild Theater across Wilshire, where, invariably, impromptu clusters of picture people would form, and the debate could pour out onto those two blocks and swell into dinner. Because, as we all know, in LA, “Where do we eat?”—the impossible question—is like coitus interruptus, like throwing a Rubik’s Cube into an orgy. But when it came to Mantilini, the question didn’t even need to be asked; we would just start walking.
Inside, we would keep walking. The restaurant was built for moving from table to table. Once anathema to Hollywood dining, privacy is now at premium; in the hot restaurants of right now, you can’t see anyone, and what’s lost is the sense of community dining, Mantilini’s long suit. The place was brightly lit and open: You could glimpse every table from every other table. It gave the restaurant a commissary feel, both thrilling and politically charged, like the opera in The Age of Innocence (book or movie).
Today, the commissary feel is harder to come by. The city is bigger, the business is bigger (way bigger), and the ascendance of foodie culture has challenged, somewhat, the cache of familiar spaces. More and more, there are more and more places to eat, or to try. With all that choice, it’s harder to run into people the way, say, at Morton’s, people would go expressly to run into people; where running into people was good business and good fun.
Maybe Soho House has some of that, but of course, it’s a club. Mantilini’s was always democratically above and below the line, just like the commissaries, and as such, true to the best spirit of our community, complaining and all.