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How Ma Maison Became a Birthplace of California Cuisine

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That’s Joan Collins having lunch on the patio and Lauren Hutton two tables over. There are Jack Lemmon, Jacqueline Bisset, Swifty Lazar, Rod Stewart, Billy Wilder. Orson Welles is here, but you can’t see him; he’s eating inside, alone, hidden in an alcove just to the right of the entrance. Wolfgang Puck is in the kitchen.

Just another afternoon at Ma Maison, circa 1979.

A menu cover from the 1980s designed by French artist and Pablo Picasso muse Françoise Gilot. (DIGITAL COLLECTIONS OF THE LOS ANGELES PUBLIC LIBRARY)

For more than a decade, Ma Maison, which opened 50 years ago this December on Melrose Avenue at Kings Road, was L.A.’s quintessential everyone-who’s-anyone restaurant, its most glamorous celebrity sandbox—the Chasen’s or Romanoff’s of the ’70s, the West Coast Elaine’s, the pre-Spago in more ways than one.

The man behind the place was a tall, handsome, deep-voiced young Frenchman named Patrick Terrail, descended from French restaurant royalty: his grandfather and great-grandfather had run famous Paris restaurants; his uncle, Claude Terrail, was then in charge of the celebrated La Tour d’Argent. Patrick was a bit of a black sheep. He’d moved to the U.S. at 17, studied hotel management at Cornell University, and worked at the Four Seasons and El Morocco in Manhattan before heading to L.A. and taking a job with Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. In 1973, he decided to open a restaurant of his own, borrowing part of the $40,000 start-up money from Gene Kelly, one of his Uncle Claude’s regulars in Paris.

When Ma Maison fired up its oven—singular, the kitchen was that small—no one could have predicted what the restaurant would become. The interior, furnished on the cheap, had a generic imitation bistro look. The front patio, where it turned out everybody wanted to sit, was a cliché of low-rent SoCal outdoor living: AstroTurf flooring, white plastic chairs, café umbrellas.

The menu was hardly more ambitious—salade Niçoise, pâté maison, brochettes of chicken and beef. Patrick himself did some of the cooking at first. George Christy, reviewing the restaurant for this magazine, called the pâté “a joke” and the brochettes “tough, stringy, not especially flavorful.”

Things changed in 1975 when Patrick hired a young French-trained Austrian chef named Wolfgang Puck, who reproduced the old menu briefly but soon started turning out cream of sorrel soup, steamed oysters with baby vegetables, grilled chicken with sherry vinegar—dishes that might seem tame today but were cutting-edge California-nouvelle at the time. (It’s probably no accident that such future culinary stars as Mark Peel, Susan Feniger, Gordon Hamersley, and Josie Le Balch worked in Puck’s kitchen.)

For a couple of years in the latter 1970s, I had lunch every Thursday at Ma Maison, and I remember vividly the way it felt to walk into the place when it was running at full speed: exciting, a bit daunting, a little unreal, like opening a door into a secret chamber filled with everybody you’d ever heard of and being made to feel somehow at home even though you weren’t really part of the crowd.

Friday was supposed to be the day to lunch at Ma Maison, but whoever was casting Thursdays did a great job. Bisset and Lemmon were almost always there, but you’d also see Goldie Hawn, Michael Caine, Ursula Andress, Suzanne Pleshette, Ray Stark, John and Mo Dean, David Hockney (who drew one of the menu covers).

In the ’70s, Ma Maison was L.A.’s definitive celebrity sandbox.

Puck’s cooking and his amiable personality, inevitably described as “puckish,” were key to the restaurant’s success. But Patrick, who wore dark, double-breasted suits with Charvet ties and red carnation boutonnieres even on hot afternoons, contributed a showman’s sense of image-building—the famously unlisted phone number, the trophy-cars-only parking lot. He also had a wicked sense of humor, hanging the awards Ma Maison regularly won from the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association dangerously close to the urinals in the men’s room. (When he overheard a regular joking that he preferred cheeseburgers to this fancy French stuff, Patrick sent a busboy down the street to bring back a sackful and served them ceremoniously in place of whatever the guy had ordered.)

In 1981, Puck—by then a star chef—left to open Spago with his future wife, Barbara Lazaroff. To replace him, Patrick imported Claude Segal from the Michelin-starred La Ciboulette in Paris. His food was good and the celebrities kept coming, but some of the magic seemed to be slipping away, and the restaurant suffered a major blow in 1982 when Segal’s sous-chef killed his girlfriend, actress Dominique Dunne (Joan Didion’s niece). A rumor went around that Patrick had paid for the man’s attorney—it wasn’t true—but the affair cost the restaurant a number of prominent customers.

Celebrities still ate at Ma Maison after Segal left in 1985 (Warren Beatty threw a party there for Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston), but Patrick must have sensed that the restaurant’s time had passed, and he closed the place and sold the property late that year. Puck, of course, went on to become one of the most celebrated chef-restaurateurs in the world.

After licensing the Ma Maison name to the new Sofitel Hotel at Beverly and La Cienega in 1985 and running a version of the restaurant there for a few years, Patrick moved to Georgia, where he got married and, for a time, ran a bistro and a regional magazine—both now defunct. He seems to have no regrets.

“You can only run one great restaurant in your life,” he likes to say.

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