Just Call Joan

Nobody knows L.A.’s dining scene better than Jean Luther. She was doing restaurant PR before there was such a thing. More than a publicist, she’s a kitchen confidante

THE DISTANCE THAT Joan Luther will travel to not taste, smell, or eat restaurant food is astonishing. Take for instance a trip last October, when Luther Flew from her home in Beverly Hills to New York City and, in a period of five days, visited the restaurants Craft, Hue, WD-50, db Bistro Moderne, Rocco’s on 22nd Street—which she described as “uglier in person than on TV”—and the Richard Meier-designed 66, and ate nothing. In 15 restaurants the closest she came to touching food was watching her husband, Bill, order lunch at 66. “He had a very nice hot-and-sour soup,” Luther remembered. “Looked good. And the couple beside us—from Dallas, knew George Bush—their food looked good, too. I asked them, and they said, ‘It’s delicious.'”

Luther likes to hear about food more than she likes to eat it. Ruth Reichl, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, swears that in 25 years of meetings she has never seen Luther eat lunch, and Colman Andrews—who edits Saveur and has known Luther since he was a teenager, when she was a staple at his parents’ Brentwood parties—believes Luther might live on nothing but meat and coffee. Such profound reserve near prepared food would be of no interest if Luther herself were not a restaurant professional. She is, in fact, a publicist for chefs and restaurant owners. Not many people realize that chefs, like actors, hire PR agents, but in L.A., where dozens upon dozens of restaurants open or go broke every year, chefs need all the press they can get.

Andrews’s suspicions about Luther’s diet may be true. I love listening to her describe the glories of the flesh. “Oh, I’m beefy all right,” she told me one night. Luther was sitting in a Beverly Hills steak house, sipping coffee and waiting for a 22-ounce rib eye, which, on arrival, proved to be about the size of her head. “Meat, meat, meat. I’m not a big sauce girl. I don’t like fish. Soup? No. I like a good old-fashioned T-bone! Lamb chops—English, very expensive, and all that fat! I like fat. I used to eat porterhouse—a difficult steak, too chewy Now I like a rib eye, on the bone—I have to have that bone—and all the fat. Mmm. I don’t eat butter, I don’t eat cheese, and you have to get your oils someplace. I’ll eat chicken. Or turkey! I love all the goop. I’m a cruncher. All that skin and those little tiny bones to crunch? Mmm. I guess I just like impact.”

In New York Luther was busy shepherding Alain Giraud around town. Giraud, who is executive chef at the West Hollywood restaurant Bastide, is also a Luther client and had been chosen by Bon Appetit magazine to be named Chef of the Year at its annual awards ceremony. The event was being held in SoHo, inside a multistory Italian restaurant named Fiamma Osteria. Restaurant publicists are pleased when their clients show up at national awards shows, because a chef’s star status makes their own job easier throughout the year: keeping critics up to date on kitchen and menu changes, scheduling Food Network appearances as well as cooking demonstrations in local malls, arranging events like book signings and fashion shows in their clients’ restaurants to create media interest, and blanketing the country with press kits so that when a stringer at a paper in, say, Minneapolis writes a travel story about visiting Los Angeles, she will include Bastide as a place to eat. Luther has been doing restaurant PR longer than anyone else in Los Angeles. She is now 75 and took her first job in 1948, slipping into the Brown Derby to collect the names of diners like Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan for the society pages. When Bastide opened last year, Luther invited over Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale, the department store heiress.

The French restaurant is not Luther’s only client. She also represents Sona, G. Garvins, Maple Drive, Kate Mantilini, the Grill, and a half-dozen other restaurants. At one time or another Luther has done PR work for almost every chef in L.A., and on the whole, she knows more about the city’s restaurants than anyone else. “That’s a nice-looking steak,” you might comment to Luther while eating out, at which point she’ll tell you about the difficulties the restaurant is having with the butcher; the executive chef’s drinking problem; the maitre d’, who is looking for another job; the pastry chef, who has already quit; and the unhappy owner, who is putting the whole shebang on the market in the morning and then fleeing the country for France.

At the Bon Appetit awards, about four dozen people wearing black—as well as the chef Mario Batali, who looked NASCAR bound in orange shorts, a bright down vest, and tennis shoes—stood around drinking cocktails. Luther was dressed in crisp black slacks and a fuzzy long-sleeved shirt whose collar rose up so high I thought it might swallow her head whole. She has the pronounced frame of a birdcage, teensy hands, flitting eyes that in conversation continually search the air overhead for her thoughts, and thick, short, thatched hair that looks like Kansas wheat pressed down by an impending cold front. She is never not in movement. Colman Andrews thinks that Luther has the knack for “belonging wherever she goes without dressing like a 30-year-old,” and it’s hard to imagine her fazed by anything. Once, in the 1950s, a very proper friend of Luther’s confessed that she’d had three abortions; Luther glanced down at the woman’s feet and replied, “Say—where’d you get those shoes?” She was a WASP raised in the Miracle Mile and went to Immaculate Heart before attending USC, but going on about her day in New York she sounded like Mike Myers’s Jewish talk-show hostess on Saturday Night Live:

“Went to db Bistro and Alain had the $29 hamburger. And the french fries? Tremendous. They bring them in a paper napkin. My God! Isn’t this evening amazing?”

Giraud, who wears his gray hair long like Prince Valiant, approached Luther with his wife, Catherine, a sunny blond with a heavy French accent.

“Hey Grandpa!” Luther shouted. Just then, a stylish man breezed by wearing a dark tunic that could have been lifted from Nehru’s closet. “Say;” Luther asked, jabbing a thumb in the passerby’s direction, “who is that man?”

“That is Jeremiah Tower,” Giraud replied, gazing after the famous California chef.

Luther looked stricken. “Oh, my God!” she gasped. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that.” Luther went back to scanning the room for recognizable faces. Seeing no one she knew, she shot off in search of Bon Appetit‘s editor-in-chief, Barbara Fairchild, calling back over her shoulder, “I’m going to go find Barbara to see who’s new in the zoo!”

Eventually, the entire group was chaperoned to Fiamma Osteria’s fourth floor, where Giraud—after gulping a lot of water and rocking nervously in his seat—stood and gave a gracious acceptance speech. “I want to thank my wife,” he began, “my staff at Bastide, and Joe Pytka for challenging me.” Pytka, the television-commercial director who financed Bastide, has the look and bearing of an unhappy Viking, and was dressed that evening in a black suit that appeared to have spent the night on a train. He seemed generally fed up with everyone, yet nothing drove him nuts like Luther did. “Joan! Joan!! Joan!!!” Pytka growled at Luther’s every attempt to make sure he was happy or was aware that a Scotch expert he should meet was in the room.

Luther was undeterred. She took down the Scotch expert’s name and most recent book title, promising to buy it as a gift for Pytka, who’s a Scotch nut. This might have been guile—trying to please Pytka, her employer—but Luther’s tenacity around restaurateurs like him is part of the reason they still hire her.

“The thing that makes Joan successful,” says Reichl, “is that she’s just an unstoppable steamroller in her job. When I was the restaurant critic with the L.A. Times, I went to a holiday party with my mother. Joan came up to me and gave me a wrapped present. I said, ‘Joan, don’t be ridiculous—you know I can’t take it.’ She said, ‘It’s just a sweater.’ I said, ‘Joan, you know better. You can’t give me a present. Take it away’ ‘Oh, all right,’ she says, and she takes it back, and I go into another room. A half hour later I come back into the room and see my mother. She’s sitting in the corner wearing a brand-new sweater.”

I once thought that if I studied the grammar of Luther’s words long enough, I could understand who she is, where she came from, and what restaurants mean to her. Luther is notoriously short on insights into herself or her life experience. One night at dinner I watched as she turned to her husband, Bill, a retired broker, and exclaimed, “You know, I was just thinking about the fire that burned down Daddy’s store”—Luther’s father ran a discount house in the 1950s—”and I thought, ‘I never asked Daddy what happened.’ Interesting.”

It’s the second sentence in that remark that I find really interesting. Luther has a clipped, abbreviated way of talking that favors adjectives over verbs, adverbs over pronouns, and smooshes together people and places and her opinions of them for immediate effect. Instead of wading through a sentence like “Ken Hansen, who owned Scandia, was a brilliant floor manager, though he was known to throw a hot tureen of soup at a waiter when he got upset,” Luther will parse it like a school kid at the chalkboard, blurting, “Ken Hansen-Scandia’s owner—brilliant, tough.” The uninitiated are left scratching their heads. Here she is describing a New York restaurant she recently visited: “Then, the other day; Hue. The bar—gorgeous. Then, downstairs—absolutely unbelievable. Spectacular!” Verbs and pronouns vanish from Luther’s sentences, as if her nouns and their descriptors were just dying to shake hands. It’s a grammar of introductions.

When Luther began working in publicity, first at the Brown Derby and then at Hollywood Park, the Times‘s editorial number was Madison-52345, the Herald’s was Richmond-81212, and the two most important women for a young publicist to know were Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper—both of whom Luther was on friendly terms with. She spent 25 years at the racetrack, making sure the society writers mentioned an appearance by Cary Grant or Rosalind Russell in their columns the following day. At Hollywood Park Luther met everyone—generals, heiresses, directors, real estate magnates, politicians. She built up a wealth of connections and contacts from every precinct of L.A., which she would eventually put to use for her clients. She pursued and then made friends with Dorothy “Buff” Chandler—the powerful wife of the Times publisher—lunching or speaking with Chandler nearly every day for 30 years until her death in 1997. If you were a restaurant owner and you wanted to show up regularly in the Los Angeles Times, it was nice to know that your publicist dined out daily with the publishing family.

When Luther and Chandler ate hamburgers together at Perino’s, which sat on Wilshire Boulevard in Hancock Park, they knew that upstairs the powerful interest group called the Committee of 25 was busy picking out the next mayor or governor. “This was a small town organized around the Navy League and the Catholics,” Luther told me once, “and at night when you piled into the restaurants you knew everybody.” Compressed in size, L.A. life assumes cartoon dimensions in Luther’s memories: the day a mad bomber almost blew up Luther along with Louis B. Mayer inside the producer’s Hollywood Park box; the afternoon Luther lost her horse in a claiming race to “Chiang Kai-shek’s right-hand man”; the evening she took home what appeared to be a bum to feed him—what else?—steak and coffee and discovered he was actually “Sid Richardson, one of the richest oilmen, who asked if he could get President Ike on my phone.” (Richardson did.) It was a town built on a handshake and who you knew, where the next mayor was chosen over hamburgers, and when you hear Luther speak the equivalent of Morse, as in “Joachim Splichal, brilliant, a comeback kid, owns this town,” or you read one of her terse press releases—like a recent Bastide notice consisting of a single sentence—you understand the power that restaurants hold for her, and her approach to them in her job. Restaurants are places where you can say the least possible to get the most done.

ALL RESTAURANTS TELL STORIES about themselves to their diners. The right story can make a dining room popular no matter how the rapini tastes, and the job of a publicist like Luther is to ensure that the press understands what story a restaurant wishes to convey. In New York’s SoHo, which is crowded with tiny trattorias and smaller brasseries you can barely squeeze into most of the day, the sprawling space of Fiamma Osteria—site of the Bon Appetit awards—came off like that of an established department store. If you live in SoHo, it seemed to say, and have arrived at a place in life where you no longer have to fight over a Frisbee-sized table on a dirty sidewalk, here is the menu for you.

When Giraud was getting set to open his restaurant, he had doubts about the story Bastide would tell L.A. Bastide was paid for by Joe Pytka, whose TV ads for Pepsi and IBM can cost $1 million to produce. Pytka spent three times that on his restaurant, and Giraud was concerned that potential customers would hear about the expensive French designer flown in to pick out the flooring and the glass-bead curtains, about the all-French wine cellar, about the prix fixe menu, about the fact that Bastide is closed Saturday nights so the chef can stay home with his kids, and think, “They’re snobs.” “I was worried the people would kill us,” says Giraud today. Pytka told Giraud not to worry; Bastide would sell itself. Still, Giraud fretted. “When you see a Pepsi in the lips of Cindy Crawford,” says Giraud, “you say, ‘My God, I want some of that now.’ It’s not so easy with a restaurant.”

Does PR work for restaurants? Public relations firms claim to have charted the effect a positive review from Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila will have on the reservations desk—a spike of calls that lasts the span of two weeks. A press kit, however, doesn’t get Virbila through the door. “PR is a tough thing to measure,” says Michael Cimarusti, the chef of the Water Grill. “A review is important, but how do you measure its effect? Hand out cards in the restaurant? And if you spend $40,000 on PR in a year, what do you measure as a fair return—$120,000 in business? What’s true is that PR will not save a restaurant that’s failing—you still have to be there every day to make sure the fish is cooked and the beef is rare.”

Giraud went searching for a public relations firm to help explain Bastide. In general, such firms charge between $2,000 and $5,000 a month, and in Los Angeles most restaurant PR is handled by only a dozen or so women and their companies. Some are quite formidable. When you visit the Sunset Strip offices of Mary Wagstaff, whose company, Wagstaff Worldwide, claims a database of 3,500 journalist contacts, a staff with degrees in international relations and media studies, and an expertise in relationship marketing, Wagstaff will sit you down, lock you in her tractor-beam gaze, and explain her 12-point strategy for your business, which may or may not include an appearance on Blind Date.

Eventually, Giraud chose the Beverly Hills firm Joan Luther & Associates, which is housed in the kitchen area of the publicist’s second-story condo and at the moment consists of Luther, her 26-year-old assistant, Andrea, and a black Scottie named Darren. Like any chef, Giraud knew of Luther, though compared with others his history may have been tied more closely to hers. In the 1980s, Giraud gained notice in Los Angeles while working with Michel Richard at Citrus. Richard himself had been a pastry chef in Santa Fe until Luther, out looking for a kachina doll, walked into his shop and decided he had to come to Los Angeles. “I don’t know what it is with Joan,” says Reichl, “but she looks at people and says, ‘This is someone going somewhere, and I should cultivate them.'” After Luther found a property for the Frenchman and assisted him with financing, Michel Richard Patisserie opened in Beverly Hills.

Luther has helped other outsiders open restaurants that didn’t seem to have a chance in hell—once taking on two attorneys who had an idea for a pizza parlor called California Pizza Kitchen. She opened the first nine, then moved on. In the early 1980s, Luther heard of a young German unhappy with his post in the Regency Club’s kitchen, then found a developer who was looking for a chef to place in his new building. The German’s name was Joachim Splichal; today he is the head of the Patina Group. On every occasion, Luther opened her beaten leather notebook that carries all the politicians, heiresses, real estate magnates, and wealthy oilmen she’s collected over the years, and started dialing. I once asked her what the PR plan had been for her Beverly Hills steak-house client Mastro’s. “You go after the hospitals,” she said matter-of-factly “‘Get the doctors in there’ was my plan.”

Luther’s tastes were formed in an era before wine was even served at dinner in L.A., and Giraud’s decision to hire her seemed contrary. Bastide’s staff and their translator spoke different restaurant languages. One night I sat down to dinner at Bastide with Luther and her husband. Bill and I had the crabmeat pillow with salmon caviar, porcini mushroom soup, poached lobster on a vegetable fricassee, loup de mer with black truffle, and a few other things. Luther ordered the rib eye and coffee.

“Oh, we had good food here in L.A.!” Luther exclaimed, stabbing at her plate. “There was Johnny Wilson’s Ready Room, the Tally-Ho, Somerset House before that, and the Cock ‘n Bull on Sunset.”

“That was on La Cienega,” said Bill, turning over his loup de mer to examine it.

Luther’s eyes searched the air overhead. “No, you’re thinking Tail o’ the Cock,” she replied. ‘Anyhoo. They had jam and the best pickles—I looovvved those pickles—and you started out with a Welsh rarebit and a real English crumpet.”

Bill’s face went soft and drift, as if he’d just thought of a pleasant summer memory. “That was a good rarebit,” he murmured. “I did love that Welsh rarebit.”

“Oh, and there were great steaks in this town!” said Luther, sizing up her rib eye. “And wonderful salads! French-fried onions! Weren’t they good, Bill? Oh, there were meatballs, and remember the shrimp? You could have shrimp up to here! Amazing! Hot mushrooms! Cheese sticks! Rangoon crab! Bongo Bongo soup!” Luther smiled sweetly at her husband. “Don’t you miss the Rangoon crab, darling?”

Bill looked up from his loup de mer, but you could tell he was still thinking of a really good rarebit he once ate. “Bongo Bongo!” he exclaimed, distracted.

After you hear about the steaks that were cooked in butter at Ted’s, and the Pacific Dining Car’s Big Fat Bill who’d cut the meat with the fat on it, and the deep-fried chicken at Willard’s, and you think about the decades-long tsunami of cholesterol the pair lived through, you can only gawk in wonder that the Luthers are still here today. “Joan is steak-and-potato,” says Giraud. “I told her we were doing prix fixe at Bastide, and she didn’t get it. I told her we were closed Saturdays, and she said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that!'”

This is, of course, why Luther turned out to be perfect for conveying Bastide’s story to the press. Giraud’s restaurant was not her kind of restaurant—there were no 22-ounce steaks cooked in butter, no french-fried onions, no cheese sticks, or jam and pickles. But Luther filtered Bastide through a restaurant education picked up inside long-gone restaurants like Carolina Pines and Murphy’s—where the corned beef and cabbage was so goo—and spelled out Bastide’s highbrow story in her own plain terms. When the Times’s Virbila reviewed Bastide, awarding it a rare four stars, she described the limited menu that Giraud feared would turn off so many diners by writing, “Ordering is painless: Choose from three prix fixe menus.” It sounded like pure Luther.

THE LAST TIME I SAW LUTHER, she was at a tasting event on a Universal Studios back lot, where 50 or so restaurants had set up flimsy booths and were busy passing out plastic plates of foie gras spring rolls and barbecued everything. Luther had on a pretty pink shirt and a little pair of white pants that showcased her miniature knees whenever she sat down. Everywhere she went, male chefs took her presence as an invitation to talk like swells. “What’s up, baby?” Bastide’s Kevin Meadows called out when Luther strolled by. “So, when ya stopping by to say hi?” growled Warren Schwartz of the Saddle Peak Lodge, sidling up to the publicist’s elbow. At Rocca’s booth, Don Dickman—who is Luther’s client—appeared agitated.

“I have something to tell you,” Dickman said, glancing around furtively as if he were about to describe a UFO sighting. “A party of five comes in the other night at the last moment. Last-minute reservation. I went out—it’s S. Irene Virbila.” Dickman stopped speaking to let the full horror of his story sink in. “Well, what could I do?” he shrugged. “I cooked for her—but I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry, baby,” Luther deadpanned like a seasoned boxing coach. “You’re her type.”

At every booth I was introduced by Luther to the chefs. Each one smiled and shook my hand, but a moment later I could see the same look drift over every face: “Who is this guy and why should I be shaking his hand?” It didn’t matter. What the chefs couldn’t see was that I was time traveling. I was in an earlier L.A., where the Navy League ran the town, where hungry Houston oilmen came home with you at night for steaks and then got the president on the phone, where a handshake was everything and who you were was the sum of who you knew—especially who you knew when everyone piled into the restaurants at night. “Joan is the last person that knows anything about a world of restaurants that are vanishing,” says Bon Appetit’s Barbara Fairchild. “When she tells you about Perino’s or Scandia, she is physically, mentally, and emotionally back in that moment.”

Luther stopped by the Bastide booth—where Giraud was busy passing out little cups of ice cream and strawberries—and then Sona’s booth, and the Grill’s, and all the other clients that were in attendance. Most of the land surrounding Los Angeles was on fire that afternoon, but her chefs seemed happy; Luther looked pleased, and for a moment everything seemed under control.

The next day Luther went back to work. There were problems with one chef who was putting too much on the plate. Another chef wanted too many diners through the door. And Joe Pytka was thinking of shutting down Bastide’s lunch service, switching the night hours, and changing the china. “Oh boy,” thought Luther. “Here we go again.”