A Legendary Los Angeles Bar and Restaurant Remembered

Ports was a one-of-a-kind place, sadly missed
Ports Restaurant

Forty years ago today, on Feb. 9, 1970, a burly actor named Jock Livingston (below right) and his artist wife, Micaela, opened an extraordinary, eccentric, and eventually rather legendary restaurant called Ports, across the street from Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Its name had nothing to do with fortified wine from Portugal or safe havens for maritime crafts — the place had formerly been a bar called Sports Inn and Jock had climbed up a ladder (which must have been quite a sight) and removed the first letter and the last three.

For six or seven years in the 1970s, Ports was where I went instead of going home. It was the center of my social and romantic life. I cooked there a few times when Jock and Micaela went on short vacations, and served as manager for months to work off a massive bar tab I'd run up. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that it pretty much defined who I was for a good chunk of the decade.

The Livingstons had been partners with artist (now winemaker) Ardison Phillips at an establishment called The Studio Grill, a few blocks down the street. The Grill had an eclectic menu, with echoes of China, Spain, the Balkans, and more, and a low-key, jaunty European feel to it. Jock and Ardison weren't meant to be partners for long, as it turned out. You could sort of guess that by looking at them. Jock was an imposing man — big, bearded, deep voiced, an Orson Welles-like presence. (He’d won an Obie in 1959–60 for his role as the General in Genet’s play The Balcony off-Broadway; he had a memorable cameo as Alexander Woollcott in the Julie Andrews vehicle Star!) For years, he greeted guests wearing a long white lab coat, which made him seem at once avuncular and vaguely sinister. Ardison was shorter and more energetic, almost to the point of seeming skittish sometimes; he sported ascots. The two had been friends, which is why they'd opened the Grill together, but at least by the time I knew them, they seemed to have come from different planets.

The two men began to have disagreements about menu, staff, and wines. Eventually they made a deal to run the restaurant on alternating days. The arrangement didn’t last for long. As Micaela once told me, "On 'his' days, Ardison would not let me in while I waited for the butcher to prepare my meat for the empanadas I used to make for the restaurant (cooked in the kitchen around the corner at our house). One fine evening, I put on an evening dress, walked into the Studio Grill, and threw a brandy cream pie [her ennobled interpretation of cheesecake] at him, managing to hit his shoulder. After that I always walked on the other side of the street and never spoke to him again. Shortly after, we moved down the street to Ports."

Ports quickly became what I used to call (paraphrasing the title of a BBC radio satire show of the 1960s), not so much a restaurant, more a way of life. It was a sort of multicultural bistro-dive with a menu that ranged even farther afield than the Grill's, and it drew a clientele that was as various as the food it served. (One habitué once noted that at Ports you were always running into somebody you had last seen in Tangier.) It looked nondescript from the outside, and not all that damned descript within, but there was something about it that drew people. It was the kind of place where you might find (as I did) Michelangelo Antonioni, Claes Oldenburg, and Milton Glaser all dining in the small front room, at separate tables, their combined presence a coincidence; or Francis Ford Coppola presiding over big, wine-laden tables at lunchtime; or Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman talking Texas music at the bar. It was the kind of place where you might trade witticisms with Tom Wolfe (he always won) or exchange insults with a snarky Yalie turned Hollywood wannabe named Oliver Stone or drink away the afternoon with Rip Torn, talking about the Hollywood blacklist.

Warren Beatty came into Ports on occasion with Julie Christie; Robert Redford was a discreet presence sometimes. One night Richard Gere came in with a date and Jock bought them green Chartreuse after dinner — a gesture Micaela tried to talk him out of, on the grounds that Gere wasn’t at all the kind of person who belonged at Ports. Micaela had very definite ideas about the people who dined and drank (and worked) at the establishment, and she expressed them with a biting wit. When one brash young man was overheard complaining loudly that he'd been sitting there for 10 minutes and hadn't gotten menus, she said, sotto voce, "You haven't even earned your napkins yet." When a regular described a vapidly handsome young waiter as looking like an 8x10 glossy, she added, "Yes, and only on one side."

The food at Ports wasn't really the point after a while, but it was always pretty good. The Livingstons had traveled widely — among other things, they’d lived in Amsterdam (the original interior of Ports recalled that city’s "brown bars") and hung out in, yes, Tangier with Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin — and their menu reflected a whole world of flavors. You could get deep-fried oysters, cold curried chicken consommé, watercress-and-cheese pie, eggplant parmigiana, sea bass in lemon-caper sauce, sweetbreads and black mushrooms in oyster sauce, Pernod flan. Couscous was usually served on Thursdays and sometimes whole suckling pig made an appearance, always paraded through the dining room with ceremony. My favorite of all Ports dishes was albondigas en chipotle — parsley-flecked meatballs of finely ground beef in a thick, spicy, smoky, luminescent chile sauce, topped with a thick layer of well-browned melted cheese. I usually ate the cheese first, seasoned with bits of sauce and meat, and then would send the dish back to the kitchen for more. The night my father died, rattling his last in a Santa Monica hospital, I headed straight for Ports, ordered a bottle of rioja, and downed two orders.

When people weren’t eating and drinking at Ports, they talked, or read books — a motley one-shelf library surrounded the front room for some years — to themselves (or aloud). At one point there seemed to be an awful lot of backgammon going on; I was good at the game, but I used to lose money with alarming regularity to Bonnie Raitt’s bass player, Freebo. There was music — from a wonderfully bizarre jukebox — which I helped stock from my frequent travels — whose selections ranged from bebop and Italian pop to Argentinian tangos and Finnish polkas, or from the battered old upright piano just inside the door (on which the underrated jazz pianist Freddie Redd performed regularly for a while). One night the left-wing songwriter Earl Robinson, author of "Joe Hill" and the Paul Robeson classic "Ballad for Americans" (which had the unique distinction of having been used as a theme song by both the Republican and the Communist party national conventions in 1940), somehow found his way into Ports and sat down at the piano and started playing — at least until Jock, who could be beastly when he drank too much (which, increasingly, seemed to be almost every night) told him to shut up and leave, for reasons that made sense only to him. 

Jock died in 1980. Three months later, a Ports-loving actor named Philip Compton appeared, and for the next 10 years or so, until Micaela left to care for her ailing mother, he helped her run the restaurant. He took it over after she left, and Ports survived, changed, expanded, earned a whole new set of customers, and inspired whole new sets of memories. It closed in 1992, replaced initially by a place that had plaid napkins and served meatloaf.

I stopped going to Ports regularly in the early '80s. I'd gotten married and moved to Venice, many miles away. When I'd stop back in on rare occasion, it wasn't the same. It looked different. The menu had changed. Jock was gone. I was older, and looking for different things. Frankly, I hardly noticed when it went out of business. But I remember it today as vividly as if it were still thriving, just around the corner. Which, sometimes, I very dearly wish it were.

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