by Seth Abramovitch and Gary Baum
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – The former power spot is a ghost town amid ballooning backlash of its Sharia law-endorsing owner, the Sultan of Brunei.
On any ordinary weekday, every table at the Beverly Hills Hotelâ€™s iconic Polo Lounge is filled to capacity with industry movers and shakers like Steven Spielberg, Ari Emanuel and Jeffrey Katzenberg, all regulars at the 73-year-old power spot.
But these days, the room is a ghost town.
Caught in the middle of the ballooning Beverly Hills Hotel boycott — a direct response to a decision by its owner, the Sultan of Brunei, to institute Sharia law in his country, which calls for the stoning to death of gays and adulterers — a Hollywood Reporter field trip on Wednesday for the midday meal found 1 p.m. to be as busy as 1 a.m.
Major philanthropic events like the Motion Picture & Television Fundâ€™s Night Before the Oscars party, a luncheon for the Carousel of Hope Benefit, the J.J. Abrams-chaired Childrenâ€™s Defense Fund gala and THR’s own Women in Entertainment breakfast have already canceled bookings at the storied Pink Palace. Now, it seems, the mass shunning extends to the property’s loyal power-lunching ranks.
Two hours earlier, an anonymous reservation call was placed, and a gracious female voice on the other end fielded the request for a highly sought-after booth for two. What would typically yield a “Sorry, we’re booked” instead earned a cheerful “We’ll do our absolute best!” For the eatery ranked No. 2 on THRâ€™s 2014 Power Lunch survey, this did not bode well.
At a little past 1 p.m., these reporters’ beat-up Japanese SUV pulled past rows of parked Maybachs, Aston Martins and Bentleys and was swiftly whisked off by one of the hotel’s famously overworked valets, who on this day sat idle.
From the scene inside the hotel’s circular lobby, one might not get the immediate sense that anything was wrong, as bright-eyed desk clerks described amenities to a smattering of arriving guests while a number of well-heeled patrons lounged nearby.
But upon entering the Polo Lounge, located to the far right of the lobby, it became instantly clear that something was amiss. The mossy green front room, including the mighty Booth 1 â€“ a coveted piece of U-shaped real estate where Viacom chief Sumner Redstone has broken bread countless times with Tom Cruise â€“ sat entirely empty.
In the middle of the lunch rush, a lonely pianist, tinkling out the likes of Coldplayâ€™s â€œSpiderwebsâ€ and â€œNadiaâ€™s Themeâ€ from The Young & the Restless, was accompanied only by wandering white-suited waiters with too little to do.
Whatever action there was took place on the outdoor patio, but a trio of friendly hostesses said getting a table there would require a wait. (Despite sunny skies and comfortable 66-degree temperatures, only about half the outside tables were occupied.) Instead, THR chose to be seated at a prime booth in the second, smaller dining room overlooking the terrace, where about one-third of the tables were filled.
THR took note of the slow scene to one employee, who dispiritedly acknowledged, with eyes surveying the atmosphere beyond us, â€œYes, itâ€™s been quiet these past few days.â€
The majority of the sparse crowd appeared to be hotel guests, not business lunchers: a long-haired rocker type and female companion in thigh-baring jean shorts; a man in his 60s whispering to a blonde man in his 20s; a South Asian family of four digging into a complimentary basket of crispy flatbread; two women in their 50s gossiping over a pink leftovers container.
And while business was still being conducted amid the low din of the dining room, a sense crept in that it was on a far more modest scale than usual. Non-disclosure agreements involving a potential true-life story, possibly for a made-for-TV movie, traded hands at a nearby table of four.
Star wattage was in short supply but not completely absent, as a single, recognizable actor held court in an outside booth, squeezed between three companions plotting career strategies: It was Dev Patel, star of HBO’s The Newsroom and Slumdog Millionaire. A representative from Patel’s camp said the London-based actor was in town on business and was completely unaware of the boycott, adding that he “has no intention of going back there.”
Tucked not too far away in a corner table for two was Paris-born philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen, sometimes called â€œthe homeless billionaireâ€ for his penchant for living exclusively in luxury hotels. He dined with a friend.
An attentive server swooped in to take beverage orders and relay the specials, but THR stuck to the classics: the finely chopped McCarthy Salad ($33, named for Neil McCarthy, a polo player who frequented the lounge) and the Maine Lobster Salad ($39, refreshingly citrusy). Both arrived promptly and were delicious.
Dessert took us to the Fountain Coffee Room on the lower floor, the same legendary lunch counter where Marilyn Monroe once sipped on milkshakes. The signature Chocolate Coconut Cake was as moist as ever and the coffee strong. As for the clientele â€“ four men, each engrossed in a solitary lunch â€“ Sharia law seemed the furthest thing from their minds.
But upstairs, the mood was undeniable. In just one week, the Polo Lounge has transformed from one of Hollywood’s hottest haunts into its loneliest luncheonette.