By Curtis Rist
Updated March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

ON ONE RECENT NIGHT, ARSENIO Hall and Magic Johnson were spied table-hopping next to the dark-brown shuttered windows and potted palms, while music producer Lou Adler dined quietly in the back with his wife, Page Hannah, Daryl’s sister. On another evening, Carroll O’Connor and rapper Dr. Dre sat at nearby tables. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been known to slam-dunk the fried catfish, and Richard Pryor admits he’s powerless over the peach cobbler. There are soul-food restaurants, and then there is this place—elegant and upscale—where Madonna, Clint Eastwood and civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks have dropped in for a bite of gumbo or grits.

At Georgia—set deep in the heart of Los Angeles’s mostly white-punk Melrose Avenue—the fried chicken-and-collard-green cuisine (no chitlins yet) is “the kind of food a lot of us grew up on,” says Pryor. The 3-year-old restaurant has borrowed more than a few licks from Wolfgang Puck’s star-studded Spago—with one critical difference. “You see people from all walks of life,” says black comic Paul Mooney. “Once I thought I spotted Jimmy Hoffa. I couldn’t be sure, though, because white people all look the same to me.”

Walk into any other fancy L.A. hangout—Spago, included—and, as in most cities, you’ll likely see a sea of white faces. But that’s not what co-owner Brad Johnson, 38, had in mind. “We wanted to fill a void,” Johnson says, “for a group of people who have been neglected and underserved.” In short, he wanted a place that was hospitable to whites but where ordinary African-Americans (those willing to spring for a $15.75 plate of smothered pork chops, at any rate) would be as well treated as high-wattage celebs—a policy that has inspired fierce loyalty among blacks, rich and famous or otherwise. “People are very aware they’re recycling the black dollar,” says Mooney. “You have to show solidarity.”

Johnson—a budding movie producer whose first film The Truth, starring Higher Learning’s Omar Epps, goes before the cameras in Manhattan this month—didn’t set out to be the Guru of Grits. The son of Phyllis Johnson, a former secretary (who is Italian-American), and her ex-husband, Howard, a retired restaurateur (who is black), he didn’t get hung up on his own ethnic background while growing up in Englewood, N.J., where he lived with his mother after his parents divorced. “I was too busy wishing my hair would either be kinky enough to make an Afro or straight like the Beatles,” he says.

Johnson attended the University of Massachusetts on a basketball scholarship, graduating in 1979 with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. For three years, he helped out at the Cellar, his father’s Manhattan restaurant, then went out on his own, first with a Cajun joint, then a nightclub. Following the birth of his son, Bryce, now 7 (with a former girlfriend, Star Search contestant Tracey Ross), he left for L.A. to help start Roxbury, a Sunset Strip club that was a magnet for the likes of Shannen Doherty, Tori Spelling and Ashley Hamilton.

Exhausted after three years (“Owning a nightclub is not much different than hanging out in one five nights a week,” he says), Johnson took up a suggestion from pal Denzel Washington to bring soul food to L.A. Together they organized an eclectic group of investors, including Washington, basketball stars Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson and actress Connie Stevens. Johnson even lifted his father’s fried chicken recipe, once a favorite of jazz great Miles Davis. (“If I were a less modest person,” says Howard, 71, of his son’s knack for success, “I’d say he got it from me.”)

Designed to satisfy appetites and promote brotherhood, Georgia faced a challenge when its owners signed a lease in May 1992—one week after-the Rodney King verdict and the riots that followed. Even though Johnson fretted that blacks and whites “were going to stay away from one another”—leaving his dining room an empty, demilitarized zone—he was booked solid when it opened 10 months later. But he was not so fortunate last October when he said yes to a celebration dinner for O.J. Simpson’s dream team, hastily arranged after O.J.’s acquittal. When Johnnie Cochran held an impromptu press conference in its lounge, Georgia became a target for angry callers. “They even called me nigger,” says Johnson, still outraged.

Usually, though, the Georgia scene speaks of togetherness. On the celebrity level, that translates into Spike Lee, Liza Minnelli, Samuel L. Jackson, Placido Domingo—and, on one recent night, Ellen DeGeneres and the cast of her sitcom Ellen. “We wanted to create an elegant restaurant,” says Norm Nixon, “but we also wanted to introduce our culture to another community. And it worked.”


TODD GOLD in Los Angeles