November 11, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable
Planet of the Gapes

           Aping the Oscars, Kliegs slash the murk. Even the cops are mesmerized, scorching the slow roll of hired stretches, cockroaches on wheels. I really love it when our town’s traffic gets paralyzed by something besides an explosion of asbestos or a water-main break.

           Tonight, it’s Planet Hollywood, hype-deep in ballyhoo, photographers aperture-to-aperture along the sawhorse perimeter like tatting on Grandma’s quilt, more flash per foot than I’ve ever seen, flown in from Mars. The frenetic rubberneckers chorus: “Who’s that?” “Nobody.” “Is that someone?” “Oh wow…isn’t that…you know who?”

           Your name actually printed on the invitation, sent with a personal tape (I’m still Beta, so it didn’t play). Planeloads from the Coast. Eddie Murphy. Linda Hamilton. Richard Harris. Esther Williams. Yes, Esther Williams. Soaring ice sculptures towering over a small fortune in shrimp. Easily $40,000 worth of lobster, giant chunks, perfectly cooked, piled into the shell, nothing itsy-poo here. Somebody must have catered, I guess. But no.

           “We’ve been cooking shrimp since 5 A.M.,” says a chef proudly (and not over-cooking them, either). Hard Rocker Robert Earl, the beanery-adept of the partnership here, has his elite shock troops out in force, an army in white, kitchen sharps from his Hard Rock Cafes in Orlando, Boston, and Washington. They’ll be trainers here till they jet on to Paris, Cancun, Berlin, Dublin -- opening soon.

           The stars arrive, preceded not by trumpets but by frantic bruisers hyperventilating into cellular telephones -- the smaller the star, the bigger the entourage, hustled into a VIP lockup. Of course, I’m hopelessly starstruck. But you’re supposed to be cool, caustic, cynical. So where is King Kong? Inside now, and tumbling into the flow, herding for air, we muse that the first hit of architectural splendor turns out to be the grandeur of the Metropolitan Tower lobby, borrowed for the overflow.

           Back for lunch the next day. A line stretches halfway to the Parker Meridien. They were already lemminged up at 11 A.M., when Sly Stallone arrived to cut the ribbon. This canteen was producer Keith Barish’s idea: Hollywood East, a hangout. But not much happened till he joined ranks with Robert Earl. Bruce Willis, Sly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Hughes (Home Alone) were recruited as co-conspirators. Why, you wonder, do they want it? They don’t really need money. But they like money. “They like a new challenge,” says Earl. (Arnold is so smitten, he’s got Earl and Barish opening upscale Schatzi for him, Adam Tihany designing, in Santa Monica.)

           Small, pasty-faced, vibrating in his own black shirt with careering planets, Earl gives a quick tour of the treasured memorabilia -- a vitrine in homage to James Dean, the dress Judy wore in The Wizard of Oz (“We paid $250,000 for that”), R2D2 and C3PO, E.T.’s bicycle, the dress Jack Lemmon wore in Some Like It Hot, the periscope from The Hunt for Red October, a slosh of blue at the bar -- a swimming pool on its side.

           You were expecting a movie set, a carnival. You were planning to be dazzled by cinematic illusions. With Anton Furst as designer, you look for a dark vision. “I had to hold myself back,” says Furst. “It’s not a movie, not a theme park. A restaurant should be comfortable, not intimidating.” So it’s a luncheonette in a museum, with snippets of film on the screen overhead -- the greatest dances, the greatest kisses, the greatest gunshots.

           “I guess last night’s opening cost about a million dollars,” I venture. Robert Earl twitches contentedly. “Seven hundred and fifty thousand,” he corrects me. I introduce him to a restaurateur from out of town. They take each other’s measure. “It’s a helluva thing to say, but I run the biggest-grossing restaurant in the world,” Earl tells him. “Hard Rock at Universal Studios in Orlando.” He whispers into my friend’s ear, “Half a million dollars a week; don’t tell her.”

           It’s the first fifteen seconds of Planet Hollywood’s fame. And the room is packed with real people, the kind of people who couldn’t get a table at 150 Wooster till it was slouching toward Armageddon. The “BBQ” pizza on the menu could have been named for this crowd. I’m thinking about Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting: the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. But in fact, the BBQ pizza is great -- crisp-crusted, with a tangle of smoked chicken and pork, grilled onions, molten dabs of Monterey jack and cheddar. The savory Creole pizza with blackened shrimp, sausage, and chicken is even better. And the apple strudel is spectacular --“It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mother’s recipe,” says the waiter--imported from a Zip Code where no one is jaded and everyone is sweet. Let’s hear it for Mom.

           So maybe the turkey-stuffed pot stickers are slightly pallid and greasy. The people love them. And the strangely revisionist Chinese chicken salad with the icy noodles (well, it’s the first day, for goodness’ sake) goes back scarcely dented. The blackened shrimp are fragrantly cindered and decently cooked, and Craig Claiborne loves the Buffalo wings, not to mention the Chinese steamer they come in, even if the “chunky” blue cheese is not sufficiently chunky.

           Every pop favorite of every familiar food culture is here, redesigned for comfort. “Italchos,” deep-fried pizza dough brushed with barbecue sauce, a turf for grilled onions, smoked chicken, and cheese ooze -- sublime junk food. Chinese tacos, a seriously boring mince to wrap in iceberg-lettuce leaves. Good enough Caesar. Hollywood bowl--delicious chopped chef’s salad. Veggie-burger-- if you want it, you deserve it. And fajitas sizzling in a customized black-iron tray. Pizza bread that would be better with a real hit of garlic and more Parmesan -- and if someone had seasoned the chopped tomatoes and mozzarella in the accompanying small ramekin. The good and the bad in mammoth portions, not so expensive -- pizzas $8.95 to $10.25, sandwiches and pasta $8.25 to $11.95, giant platters with good skin-on fries, apple coleslaw, and undistinguished corn relish, $11.95 to $17.95.

           Suddenly, the buzz ratchets up a notch. And there he is. Sly himself, with his latest adorable. He stands in the one spot that makes him visible in almost every cranny of the joint, and turns. Slowly. Flexing his smile. Clean, fresh, as if he travels with his own lighting grip. From all corners, a crowd converges. The line, the 40-minute wait, the slap of insiders cutting the queue…everything is worth it now.

           You think it’s crass? “It’s disgusting,” cries a journalist friend. “It’s blatantly about money.” Well, nobody ever promised that the banquettes of Le Cirque would be cleared by the arrival of Planet Hollywood. Twenty-five hundred people got fed on Wednesday, and another 2,500 Thursday. “And I spoke to every one of them,” says Earl (whose idea of fun is business), “and 2,400 of them thought it was great.”

           Is he worried about poaching from the crowd at Hard Rock? Never. Hard Rock gets the overflow. “The shopkeepers couldn’t be happier,” says Earl. “Harry Macklowe is out trying to buy up every empty space on 57th Street.”

           On Saturday, Adam Tihany, who’s been designing Earl’s 20,00-square-foot castle in Orlando for years (“It just keeps growing,” says Tihany), stops by with his offspring for lunch. There’s Mickey Mantle’s honcho Bill Liederman with his daughter. Kids dashing around transfixed by the masks from Planet of the Apes, the knife from Psycho. Sean Lennon with Mom. At 11 P.M., the wait was two and a half hours. By closing, the doorman had clocked 3,200. At $15 to $20 each. “And that doesn’t include merchandise,” says Earl.

           What’s good for Slybrucezenegger could be good for New York City.

Planet Hollywood, 140 west 57th Street