MICHAEL CHOW HAS been playing with the markers of art and commerce since he hung out the shingle on the first Mr. Chow restaurant, in London in 1968. From the time it opened, the chic Knightsbridge eatery—and the subsequent outposts in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, and Miami—has become the last word in scene cuisine: the champagne-fueled place for the bon ton to go for a wonton. Presciently anticipating the convergence of the culture and lifestyle industries, Michael hitched his wagon to the fashion and art worlds from the outset. (His first wife, Grace Coddington, a top model in the ’60s who is now the creative director of Vogue, no doubt made entrées into the fashion milieu a little easier.)
In the tortuous decade prior to opening Mr. Chow, Michael left architecture school to train as a painter. He wound up at the swinging Robert Fraser Gallery in Grosvenor Square, a beau monde salon of sorts where the debonair blade, who by then was sporting shoulder-length hair and Yves Saint Laurent suits, met the leading artists of the day, like Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Jim Dine, Patrick Caulfield, Paul Huxley, and Clive Barker—many of whom swapped art for a generous tab at Mr. Chow.
As a result, the paintings on the walls (and the artists who dined there) became as much of a draw as the restaurant’s storied Beijing Duck. Michael is wont to remind people that every major artist has signed his guest book, which is also full of drawings by a slew of luminaries including Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, Francis Bacon, and Jasper Johns—“everyone except Picasso,” he says. A proto-meta-celebrity for the pre-Internet age, Michael Chow became famous for being famous among the famous.
“In some ways, my father has been very lucky,” says his eldest daughter, China, 38. “He is incredibly hardworking, has a great eye, and has mastered the art of running a restaurant down to the tiniest detail. But he also has a knack for popping up in the right places at the right time—London in the ’60s and ’70s, when that city was the cultural center of the world; New York and L.A. during the art and showbiz booms there. It’s uncanny.”
MICHAEL CHOW OPENS the imposing wooden front doors to his mansion in Holmby Hills, a discreet enclave in Los Angeles nestled between Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. The affable lord of the manor greets me not in his signature dapper threads (his suits are all custom-made by Hermès) but in knee-length shorts, long black socks, and a T-shirt; his paint-splattered moccasins bring to mind the Jackson Pollock–esque men’s runway offerings of recent seasons.