“WE WERE IN LOVE! We were so in love I was terrified. He was my best friend; it was this, like, soul mate connection. I can’t explain it.” The tipsy girl mines her emotion memory and details the inexplicable to three rapt friends and everyone else within yelling distance. “Are you gonna go to the earlier acting class? Cause if you go to the earlier class I’ll go to $5 yoga.” With the slumped posture of the dejected, two thespians discuss the motivation for their busy day ahead, in the chipper tones of the blindly optimistic.
For when they aren’t cavernous playhouses, where individual conversations blur to a dull roar, restaurants are intimate dinner theatres; diners and staff the actors – projecting their best lines and flubbing their worst – or, the unwitting audience. Being unscripted, unrecognised and dentally flawed is where their greatness lies, for in the words of Lauren Bacall, “when you’re talking about a great actor, you’re not talking about Tom Cruise.” Cortez, in LA’s cool Echo Park, is filled with eaters and actors; at the communal tables, in the tiny dining room, players sit shoulder-to-shoulder, closer than you’d stand to someone in a crowded elevator. Once we’re seated, our exuberant waiter begins her monologue, bouncing on her heels and using wild hand gestures to emphasise the local, sustainable and seasonal method of the place. She is immersed in her role; she is Olivier mid-speech, Jackman mid-song-and-dance, and Brando mid-sandwich. Act one is three solid mezze dishes, for $14; Lomo Iberico de Bellota, quail eggs with cumin and sea salt, and roasted spring onions with romesco. As we fumble with the painstaking peeling of mini eggs, our conversation veers toward the inappropriate and mostly obscene over sharing of best friends. In such close quarters our cackling and cussing draws sideways glances from our neighbours, the piqued interest of an audience only fuel to our filthy fire. On her return the waitress asks if she knows me from somewhere, I reply in the negative, breaking Tina Fey’s first rule of improvisation; she scurries to the wings to run through her affirmations and shake it off. Act two is flatiron steak with salsa verde and coriander potatoes ($16/$31), plus Greek style braised greens with garlic and lemon ($6/$10). The steak tastes of flames, the sauce is sharp and the braised greens elicit rapture; simple food executed with aplomb. Our actor paces the boards between tables, runs her lines on new customers and finds her sense of truth through rigorous rehearsal. We pay our bill and tip generously, a bouquet of roses tossed at the feet of our leading lady. If dinner at Cortez is a performance, then releasing the button of my jeans on the drive home is my standing ovation.