With Scientology's eight million members worldwide, one would have thought Renaissance, the restaurant located in the Church's Hollywood Celebrity Center, would have been brimming with diners. But on the Tuesday night I went with a group of friends, we had the place all to ourselves, eerily alone at a dim corner table in the glass-walled pavilion overlooking the Center's small but scenic garden, while in an adjacent pavilion scores of baggy-clothed, Urban Outfitter types were taking in a lecture entitled 'Clear Body, Clear Mind'.
Most of the friends whom I had invited had demurred, feeling uneasy about setting foot in the veritable lions' den of LA's most infamous religious cult, let alone eating there. The brave-hearted few who accepted my invitation let it be known that they had taken the precaution of informing room-mates and family members, lest their timely return be hindered.
My intention had been to put aside any consideration of the restaurant's association with Scientology, to try to evaluate the dining experience on the classic criteria of food, service and ambience. After all, Renaissance had the reputation of being one of LA's better restaurants (Zaget's gives it four stars). Yet, as soon as we set foot inside the gilded lobby of the Manor Hotel, a faux 17th-century château replete with Claude Lorrain knock-offs and a looming, life-size bust of L. Ron Hubbard, I realized this would be impossible. Hubbard's office, or rather its faithful reproduction, is located just off the lobby, its door ajar so that guests can peer inside. Though dead since 1986 (a fact never mentioned in any Scientology literature), the papers on his desk and the way his chair is pushed back suggest he'll be settling down to work at any minute. It's an illusion duplicated, in every detail, in all ten Celebrity Centers around the globe.
A full-service hotel, the Manor, where Renaissance and the Celebrity Center are located, is unfortunately closed to the general public. Serving exclusively as a retreat for Scientologists from around the world who 'seek to regain their spiritual abilities and freedom', it is the site of endless Dianetics seminars, Auditing sessions, Clear Expansion Committee meetings and Sunday sermons as well as tango lessons and concerts by such luminaries as David Carradine and the Cosmic Rescue Team. Interestingly, a large portion of the Center's activities are devoted to TV and film classes such as 'How to Break into Commercials', 'How to Get an Agent', and 'Making It in Soaps'. With one foot firmly in spirituality and the other in entertainment, the Celebrity Center is the crossroads where individual dreams of superstardom meet Scientology's own ambitions of wealth and power. Indeed, from its inception in 1954 Hubbard understood that movie stars, musicians, artists and other 'opinion leaders' could be effective marketing tools, and Scientology has actively courted celebrity members ever since. Thus John Travolta functions not only as a representative but also as propaganda minister, using his status to shepherd into the culture such Scientology-based projects as last year's Battlefield Earth.
At the Manor Hotel, Scientology literature and Hubbard book displays adorned every table, much of it geared towards the already converted. Picking up leaflets such as 'Inspector General Network Bulletin No. 44' with its bold 48 pt. headline 'Wake-Up Call: The Urgency of Planetary Clearing' or the slim blue pamphlet urging you to 'Send Your Reports on Matters of RTC (Religious Technology Center) Concern Rapidly and Securely to RTC', you are forcefully struck with the realization that you're in foreign territory where, despite everyone's friendly appearance, they just don't think like you. Beneath the surface of the Center's Zen atmosphere lie a highly charged, almost military, sense of mission and an extreme insularity: outsiders are regarded as either possible recruits (Pre-Clears seeking help), civilians (engram-burdened souls) or enemies (SPs or Suppressive Persons). Concomitantly, Scientology's coded lingo reinforces its own strict, hierarchical structure and filters out unbelievers. When one pale young woman in a white blouse and navy blue skirt (Scientology staffers emulate US naval attire) inquired if I was there for the FLAG Conference and I responded, 'Flag?' she narrowed her eyes and backed away: I had been exposed.
Amid such trappings it seemed hardly surprising that dinner was a little tense. Conversation was held in stage whispers as we became convinced our over-friendly waiter was eavesdropping (the service, I should say, was excellent). Later, our collective paranoia grew and there was a careful search under the table for hidden microphones. As for the menu, it featured a nice selection of lite, French-Californian fare with some fine vegetarian entries and a hearty array of yummy side-dishes, such as polenta, sautéed mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes. The wine list included excellent choices: I can recommend the reasonably priced Michelton 1996, a smooth Australian Shiraz with lovely cherry overtones. For starters, the vegan white bean purée was unanimously praised, though there was a brief moment of panic after someone thought it tasted a bit funny. As for main courses, the grilled Ahi special, served on a bed of crispy onions and topped with a puttanesca tapenade, was too dry, while the country-roasted chicken with rosemary spring potatoes was savoury, if a bit unadventurous. The poached salmon on wild rice could have used some spicing up, but the two pasta dishes, penne primavera and cappellini a la checca, proved a safe bet and, though I did not try it, the risotto with rock shrimp seemed enticing. I would also recommend the crème brûlée for dessert, easily large enough for two.
All in all, the entire dinner for six, including two bottles of wine, came to $240 with tip. A genuine bargain for a dining experience not to be found anywhere else in Los Angeles.