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."