I Ate Brunch At The Scientology Restaurant -- And Lived To Tell The Tale
Los Angeles is a city of seekers, a magnet for those who want the perfect body and the perfect soul. Seeker Lunch is our series about the diverse and offbeat faiths in our city -- and the food on their tables. Consider it a snack for the spiritually curious.
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Before my friend and I head to brunch at the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, we vow to not get separated under any circumstances and we spend eight minutes debating a safeword before finally settling on "pizza." I'd watched "Going Clear." I'd heard the horror stories about Scientology's manipulative practices. I'd read the articles in the New Yorker. And the Los Angeles Times. And Time magazine. I remembered the controversy over South Park's Scientology episode. I knew how easy it was to get sucked into the organization and how hard it could be to leave. But I'd also heard that Scientology hosted a luxurious Sunday brunch.
One summer morning, I convinced my friend to clear our thetans over some mimosas and eggs Benedict -- or whatever they served at the Celebrity Centre's restaurant, the Renaissance. My curiosity and gluttony will usually trump my common sense. Like director and former Scientologist Paul Haggis says, "I tend to run towards things I don't understand."
Invented in 1954 by prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is a mishmash of Eastern philosophy, management theory and scifi, all rooted in Hubbard's self-help manual, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." The church, famous for its business savvy, also owns some killer real estate. That includes "at least two dozen historic properties" in the Los Angeles area, according to Gizmodo. The crown jewel is the Manor Hotel, a magnificent Normandy-style building at the base of the Hollywood Hills.
Designed by architect Arthur E. Harvey and built in the 1920s, the castle was a favorite of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and other vintage Hollywood stars. When Scientology bought the building in 1973, it was called the Chateau Élysée and had seen better days. In 1987, it was designated a historic-cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles, preventing anyone from gutting it completely. In the 1990s, the church invested in a major renovation of the building and it is reportedly worth more than $75 million.
The turreted, seven-story mansion is now ringed with tall gates and has security guards posted at every entrance. It's an eerie presence. Like a modern haunted house, it looms over Franklin Avenue, across from alt-comedy club Upright Citizens Brigade and a bustling chicken joint -- the sort of architectural and cultural juxtaposition Los Angeles excels at.
On this sun-soaked morning, we approach the Celebrity Centre, nervous, hungry and hopeful we'll see Tom Cruise. We tell a low-key security guard we're here for brunch at the Renaissance. "Are you Scientologists?" He asks. We shake our head no. He politely informs us that it's no longer open to the public. I wonder if the Food & Wine story, "Suppressive Supper," had something to do with that. The guard points us towards other brunch spots in the neighborhood but we're on a mission for pancakes with a side of L. Ron Hubbard so we ask if we can at least get a tour.
"Of course," he answers.
An immaculate young woman, dressed in dark slacks and a pristine white button-down, appears. She asks us what we do. We are a comedian and writer, we tell her. She lights up. "What we do here is help artists," she says. Later, she'll mention that she is a second-generation Scientologist.
We explain we're eager to learn more about the history of the building and to see the inside. She leads us outside past gigantic old rubber trees and a cafe filled with young actor types, lounging around in well-ironed clothes. Everything is manicured and green, like a fairytale. We enter the side of a building and our guide leads us into a cozy but characterless room with a couch and a TV. We give her our information, avoiding certain details (full disclosure: I don't reveal my real mailing address).
She turns on an informational Scientology video. It has blown-out lighting and polished actors talking about choice and freedom through tight smiles. They tell us that Hubbard's teachings are the study of "knowledge," "truth" and "knowing yourself."
Our guide asks if we have any questions. It's a lot to process, we admit. She takes that as a cue to start another video.
This one is about the dangers of painful experiences, like the trauma of eating a rotten deviled egg -- an actual example in the video. In another vignette, the story of a dramatic break-up, a woman with black mascara streaming down her face smashes a guitar and tosses it out a window. Other stock traumatic memories include fights with family, a dog hit by a car and the death of a child. These are intercut with shots of severely backlit young people studying Dianetics. "It was like they were trying so hard to say, 'Look, how normal we are,'" my friend later says.
We are finally led into the building's grand lobby. It's decorated in a neo-French style with ostentatious details like a trompe-l'oeil ceiling fresco of ancient columns dappled with vines and ornate wood walls that clash with Crayola-colored 1970s-style Scientology posters hanging everywhere.
Our guide points us to the wall text, which (as I recall) reads: "That the spirit can be saved. And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body." Essential to the Church of Scientology is the belief that every individual is a Thetan, an immortal spiritual being who has the ability to live countless lifetimes.
It's one of many philosophies that led the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association to spurn Hubbard when he submitted his work to them in the 1950s. As a result, Scientology considers psychiatry to be life-threatening. The organization forbids members from seeing psychologists and opposes antidepressants and other mood-altering drugs. In fact, Scientologists believe that when you reach a high enough level in your understanding of the religion, you don't just ditch your neuroses and allergies, you become resistant to the common cold.
Our guide doesn't shine much light on the history of the Manor Hotel but she leads me through a half-hearted "stress test," supposedly to identify the irritants in my life. For those who have never taken one of these, it involves an E-Meter, a contraption that looks like a fancier version of two frozen orange juice containers wrapped in tinfoil and attached to a machine that supposedly reads the electrical currents in your body. The technique is essential to the group's practice of auditing, which supposedly helps you eliminate mental images linked to those aforementioned traumatic events. (There's a lot of "supposedly" when writing about Scientology.) After you're freed from these images, you can advance to the next level of Scientology, usually for a fee.
It's hard to know who's less inspired by my E-Meter reading, me or my guide, but she's excited to tell us all about Scientology's TV show. And how anyone can watch it -- at any time! I look at my friend and try not to grimace. Our guide stands up and leads us down a long hallway, partly illuminated by an eight-tiered cross, the group's symbol, which resembles a starburst. I sense the presence of bacon.
"I hear there's a restaurant here," I say.
"Yes! That's where we are headed. There's Sunday brunch this morning."
"Do you think we could try the brunch?" my brave friend inquires.
"Absolutely!" she says.
We trek through another long hallway with intricate molding painted in a pastel hue. Above us are six floors and more than 35 hotel rooms to accommodate visiting Scientologists. The smell of sizzling meat grows stronger. My stomach growls.
Finally, we make it to the Renaissance. It's on the first floor of the Celebrity Centre, located directly on the right of the grand lobby. The entryway is adorned with a framed menu from the 1930s, when a filet mignon dinner at the Manor Hotel cost $1.50 and you could order smoked ox tongue, gooseberry cobbler and creamed turnips. These days, the Renaissance describes itself as an "award-winning" and "5 star rated" French-Californian restaurant. Its dinner menu includes seared scallops and yellowfin tuna, duck risotto, pasta dishes and other upscale steakhouse options like top sirloin, pork chops and rack of lamb.
Our guide ushers us into a large ivory and white room with tall, arched entryways, gold crown molding and a chandelier suspended above us. It's like being inside a wedding cake. The seating is in an enclosed terrace with morning glories hand-painted on the walls. Every table is covered in a white tablecloth and adorned with a single rosebud in an elegant vase. An elaborate breakfast buffet stretches for six feet or more.
I feel like Cinderella finally arriving at the ball, only my Prince Charming is a plate of fluffy pancakes with roasted potatoes, strips of bacon, a mushroom omelette, a salmon filet and deviled eggs, presumably untainted. My friend marvels at the brunch lasagna, both in theory and execution. I like the pancakes so much -- soft at the center yet somehow crisp and buttery -- I go back for seconds, adding heaps of fresh fruit. The coffee is hot and strong. The orange juice seems freshly squeezed. Although the church bans alcohol consumption within 24 hours of an auditing session (could our guide smell last night's whiskey on my breath?), Scientology has no dietary restrictions. Thankfully, Xenu's warriors don't skimp on cream and butter.
Looking out over the perfect, manicured garden, we do our best to channel the decadence and debauchery of Old Hollywood. Aside from the pre-meal proselytizing, this is the kind of brunch you go to with your elderly relative, the one with an unadventurous palate who hoards ketchup packets in her purse.
"You think Tom Cruise is here?" I whisper to my friend.
After real estate, there's nothing Scientology loves more than a celebrity adherent. "As far back as 1955, Hubbard recognized the value of famous people to his fledgling, off-beat church when he inaugurated 'Project Celebrity,'" a 1990 Los Angeles Times story reported. "According to Hubbard, Scientologists should target prominent individuals as their 'quarry' and bring them back like trophies for Scientology."
Hubbard's list of prime targets included an odd mix: Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney, Marlene Dietrich and Groucho Marx.
"If you bring one of them home," he wrote in a Scientology magazine, "You will get a small plaque as a reward." Seems totally worth it for nabbing one of cinema's legendary recluse's.
The church reportedly still works hard to attract famous types -- John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Elizabeth Moss are reportedly members -- but today, at the Celebrity Centre, my friend and I feel like the stars. We even have our own admirers. During our meal, about an hour long, I have that prickly, indefinable feeling that we're being watched. The minute we settle our bill -- $14 each for the buffett and another $3 for coffee and juice -- our guide appears with a wide smile.
Earlier, she had casually told us to come by her office if we wanted to know more, but now she wants to be certain we don't leave without taking the personality test. Don't we want to better understand ourselves? Don't we want to know how to handle stress?
"We really have to go," I say. "We're helping a friend make pizza."
"No problem," she says. "You can make an appointment to come back later this week."
I shake my head. No matter how incredible the pancakes or the architecture, I'm never coming back.
Renaissance Restaurant at the Scientology Celebrity Centre: 5930 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. No phone number; they know where you live.
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