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Monday Night at Morton's

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SYLVESTER STALLONE DOES IT. SO DO Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Collins, Victoria Principal and Wayne Gretzky. Creative Artists Agency boss Mike Ovitz does it too, as do record mogul David Geffen, Fox chairman Barry Diller, Disney chief Mike Eisner, billionaire Marvin Davis and just about everyone else with aspirations to be counted among Hollywood’s power elite.

What they all do is one of movie-dom’s high rituals, called Monday Night at Morton’s, a festival of gossip, deal making and general schmoozing in a cozy insiders’ salon in West Hollywood. “Morton’s is the reigning example of ‘thereness,’ ” says producer Don (Days of Thunder) Simpson of the little restaurant’s clubby ambience. “If you’ve been out of town or out of touch, you can go to Morton’s to check back in. It’s good for business, and it’s good fun.”

But why Monday night? “I honestly don’t know,” says proprietor Peter Morton, 43, whose twin sister, Pam, manages the dinner-only eatery. “Probably because most of the other restaurants in town are closed on Mondays,” theorizes maître d’ Rick Cicetti. Says Giant Records chairman Irving Azoff: “Morton’s was perfect for work junkies who don’t like Monday Night Football.”

However the ritual got its start, it evolved into perhaps the truest test of one’s standing and position in a town that thrives on such things. (“Sometimes there are more people table-hopping than there are waiters,” Azoff notes.) Arranging who sits where is like playing chess with egos. “There are only 24 tables,” Cicetti points out, “and everyone wants to eat between 7:30 and 8. It takes a lot of juggling and diplomacy.”

One evening, for example, both of Sly Stallone’s exes, his first wife, Sasha, and Brigitte Nielsen, had reservations. The maître d’s solution was to put a couple of tables between them, including one with rocker Eric Clapton and producers Lili Fini and Richard Zanuck, and another with Mariah Carey. From experience Cicetti knows that Ovitz, Eisner, Diller and agent Ron Meyer prefer the tables situated along the right wall; that some diners, like Bruce Springsteen and Raquel Welch, actually want to go unnoticed in a back corner; that Magic Johnson prefers the center of the room; that Eddie Murphy nearly always needs a table that will seat at least eight.

“We actually go there for the food,” claims agent Morgan Mason, a Monday regular with wife Belinda Carlisle. The menu can be described as California light, featuring such house specialties as a sashimi appetizer or a grilled lime-chicken entrée. The bill can be steep ($120 for two), and house accounts are awarded only to the most select, including Johnny Carson and Norman Lear, but major credit cards also are accepted.

Snobby or not, Morton’s Morton, whose record for creating hot eateries is unblemished, knows what he’s doing. He learned his trade in his father’s string of fish-and-steak restaurants, also called Morton’s, in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Denver with a business degree, he fetched up in England where, in 1970, he opened his first eatery, a London hamburger place named the Great American Disaster. It was anything but. The next year he linked up with fellow expatriate Isaac Tigrett to launch the first of the now renowned Hard Rock Cafes.

When his partnership with Tigrett soured, Morton moved to L.A. and kept all rights to the American Hard Rock franchise west of the Mississippi. While pondering the Hard Rock’s future, Morton corralled such backers as producers Jerry Weintraub and Tina Sinatra and in 1979 started the Los Angeles Morton’s—”a place that would have a real L.A. vibe,” he says.

“The timing was right,” says movie producer and Morton’s investor Steve Tisch. From the Brown Derby in the ’40s to Ma Maison or Le Dome more recently, “there was always a place that feeds the business,” Tisch says. “Morton’s became that place.”

Today, Peter Morton’s empire stretches from Chicago to Sydney, with Hard Rock Cafes in 11 cities bringing in more than $100 million annually. Yet, amid all the flash, the understated elegance of Morton’s may still be closest to his heart. “I’m not interested in commercializing it, ruining it or prostituting the name,” says the proprietor, who drops by for dinner there about once a week and demands no special privileges. Where does he sit? “At whatever table is open,” he says.