I had lunch at Nate and Al’s yesterday. Everyone calls it that even though all the signage is clearly without the apostrophe “s”. The place has been in operation on Beverly just north of Wilshire since 1945 and doesn’t look like it’s had any major updates since 1965. Not that it’s dirty or rundown – just perfectly preserved, like your grandmother’s house.
It was a typical workday lunch crowd in the Beverly Hills eatery that’s been a staple of showbiz breakfasts and lunches for almost 70 years. The room was filled with insiders, outsiders, old timers and Young Turks. I was there to meet a writer/producer to discuss notes I’d recently been asked to give on a script he’s writing. We both had the potato salad with our sandwiches — it’s the best, creamiest, mustard-based potato salad you’ll ever eat.
If you’re a fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you know that Nate & Al was featured in two great episodes – most notably, the episode in which Jerry picks up food for a take-out dinner with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner at Carl Reiner’s house (Season 2). Seinfeld had the Roast Beef. Reiner had the Tongue Sandwich. Brooks had Chicken in a Pot.
I half expected to see Lee Wasserman sitting at his favorite table (Table 31) when I walked in the door at Nate & Al yesterday. Man, how I would have loved to see Wasserman there. For the last forty years of his epic 65-year run as the last Hollywood Mogul, Lew Wasserman was hardly ever written or spoken about without the attending phrase, “the most powerful man in Hollywood.” He was the consummate star maker, dealmaker and eventually kingmaker. He’s an endless source of interest to me and I never pass up a chance to ask about his legend when I meet people who actually knew and worked with him.
Wasserman’s office was in the “Black Tower” that he built on the Universal studio property at the apex of his power. In a masterful deal in the late 50’s Wasserman’s MCA – then the most powerful talent agency in the world — slowly began to take over Universal. A decade or so later, when the U.S. State Department finally told him he couldn’t be in both the agency business and the studio business he chose the studio. Wasserman knew content was king. And even if the content Universal was churning out at the time was fair to middling, he believed owning content was akin to owning gold or real estate. Get all you can.
Lew Wasserman ate most of his lunches in the studio commissary during the workweek. But on Saturdays and Sundays he ate breakfast at Nate & Al’s. And for the last twenty-five years of Wasserman’s life his regular breakfast companion on Saturday and Sunday was his grandson, Casey Wasserman. According to observers, the elder Wasserman and his only male heir sat together in Lew’s booth practically every Saturday and Sunday at 7:30AM, eating pumpernickel bagels, spread with cream cheese and topped with crispy bacon. Yes, please.
It appears that those breakfasts were the basis of Lew Wasserman’s evolution in Casey Wasserman’s life from doting grandfather to mentor to consigliore. If that booth could talk…
The world in which Wasserman reigned no longer exists. But it appears Casey Wasserman has bridged the gap and made the necessary adjustments to thrive in the new world order. I’m sure his grandfather would have been proud to see Casey Wasserman on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter a few months back with Casey’s (and Lew’s) good friend, Bill Clinton.
Next time I’m here on a Saturday, I think I’ll wander into Nate & Al around 8AM and see who’s sitting in the booth at Table 31.
By the way, as delis go I’m partial to Jerry’s when I’m in Studio City, Uncle Bernie’s if I’m in the Valley west of the 405 and Canter’s when I’m in Hollywood. But Nate & Al is the gold standard for all delis and the best one in Beverly Hills. I welcome your comments — both affirming and dissenting.