There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” So wrote the greatest essayist in the English language, Samuel Johnson (1709–84). He meant that unique blessing of happiness, warmth, good-tasting food, companionship, humor, and safety that we feel at a good restaurant or bar.
I have known this feeling at many different taverns in my lifetime, from the modest “Hot Shoppes” of Silver Spring, Maryland, my childhood hometown, to the elegant power and majesty of “Morton’s on Melrose,” by far the most prestigious restaurant of the entertainment world in West Hollywood, a few minutes from my home in Beverly Hills.
I will offer only a few small examples of the glory that Morton’s offered to me. In the late 1980s, I was sued by the late, great comedienne Joan Rivers on a strange and mistaken allegation of libel. I got torrents of hate mail and hate reporting the day that lawsuit was announced. But when my dear friend Sid Dauman and I walked into Morton’s on Melrose for dinner, the entire clientele, all of the waiters and chefs and bartenders and hostesses, stood up and applauded. I felt safe. (Joan eventually dropped the case.)
One rainy evening at about the same date, my wife and I walked into an almost empty Morton’s (people in L.A. do not go out in the rain). The only other guests in the dining room were Barbara and Frank Sinatra and two bodyguards. When we sat down, Frank Sinatra waved solemnly at us and said, “Guess it’s just us, Ben,” and went back to eating.
I have never felt as if I belonged in this town as much as I did at that moment, not even on a night when our game show won six Emmys.
Years later, my friend Barron Thomas and a staggeringly beautiful young woman named Mary Francis were seated near the bar where a mob of magnificently sexy young women were drinking one mixed drink after another. I asked Mary Francis, as young as they were, “Why are they here? To meet a rich man? To find an agent? To get a good free meal from an older man?”
Mary Francis looked at me calmly and said, “They don’t know why they’re here.” It was a dazzlingly smart answer.
I used to eat either lunch or dinner four or five times a week at Morton’s, and the other meals at Spago or the Polo Lounge or Mr. Chow. I always felt welcome and at home. It was like being rescued after being marooned at home writing screenplays on my typewriter all day, alone. It took the edge off and allowed me to feel peace, progress, and prosperity all at once. Pam Morton, manager of Morton’s, sister of Peter Morton, founder of Morton’s on Melrose, was a great pal of my wife. She kidded me constantly, but she was a perfect hostess and made us feel sheltered from the storm. It’s probably been 10 years since Morton’s on Melrose closed, but I still think we should be going there every night.
Now, in a time of domestic anguish worse than any since the Great Depression, the bars and restaurants are closed like a drum here in our town. It’s lonely. I am a wizard chef, and we eat well at home. I sautée and my wife and her nurses and I eat steak or salmon fillet almost every night.
It’s invariably delicious. But it’s not the same as Morton’s. Even the best salmon on Earth, Skuna Bay, and Prime Ribeye steak, cooked with love, do not make a tavern, do not offer the great women we had in droves at Morton’s, do not make the Chairman of the Board wave to me.
I pray that we will get a reopening soon. We’re losing our minds here, Gov. Newsom. Please release me and set me free to frolic in my favorite tavern, whether it’s McDonald’s or Morton’s. We need company and music and the feeling of a good tavern.
Samuel Johnson was rarely wrong.