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TO REALLY feel the pulse of Beverly Hills, you have to understand what lurks in the shadows behind sunny Rodeo Drive lined with flowers and palm trees, Alfa Romeos and exclusive boutiques with branches in Milan and Paris.

The answer is simple: money and power -- and plenty of both.

Take power dining, for example. Where else but in the ZIP code with its own television show ("Beverly Hills, 90210," 8 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 29) would making deals at meals be such an obsession?

Is that the chef's special on the silver tray heading for a table in the dining room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire? No, it's a telephone, with pad and pencil on the side, hold the balsamic vinaigrette.

The luxurious Regent Beverly Wilshire caters to power diners such as Lee Iacocca, Michael Eisner and Warren Beatty, surrounding them with satinwood and ebony paneling, seating them on green velvet and natural leather, and protecting them from bright light with Scalamandre silk balloon curtains.

Not only does a telephone arrive at a table on request, but if diners close the deal, they can sign the contract and ask the waiter to have it faxed right off. In the meantime, the $23 prix fixe business lunch is guaranteed to be delivered within 45 minutes of ordering.

Forty-five minutes? Well, when you own the company, you don't have to rush right back to the office.

If these movers and shakers are too busy making deals to enjoy the food, that's unfortunate, because the cuisine at the Regent (old-timers still call it the Beverly Wilshire) is exceptional, fitting into the "eclectic California" niche.

Dinner in the dining room there, featuring entrees like grilled Norwegian salmon with Chinese mustard or Pacific Rim seafood paella, runs about $45 per person. Even at breakfast there's something to please everyone, such as fresh carrot or honeydew melon juice, lox and bagels with capers, perfectly cooked huevos rancheros with delectable corn tortillas, and the real power breakfast, the $25 Japanese Special featuring seaweed.

Other power dining spots include the Grill on the Alley, between Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, a warm, clubby spot where Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau lunched together the week before I arrived (it always works that way, doesn't it?).

The day I was there, my local friend pointed out brokers, agents and other high-powered professionals whose faces would not be familiar to visitors. The grill specializes in food for Real Men and Real Women, like corned beef hash, crab cakes, fried onions, steamed vegetables, pecan pie and $9 hamburgers.

Il Fornaio, a Beverly Drive cafe-bakery, excels in the power brunch with an Italian spin. Passers-by can watch breakfasters savoring poached eggs with polenta and tosto Francese at the counters facing the windows. Il Fornaio, which bakes more than 40 specialty breads and countless pastries, can be very crowded.

The morning I dropped in for a cafe latte, there was a line outside and three men in Hawaiian shirts pacing the sidewalk, barking orders into portable telephones. The telephoners were not waiting for a table, as I first thought, but setting up a movie shoot. That night Eddie Murphy filmed a scene just around the corner.

Power brokers gather for Sunday brunch at Carol O'Connor's Place, which has a small area for al fresco dining. La Scala Boutique on North Canon is popular with agents at lunch and dinner. After being greeted by orange trees growing in huge tubs near the door, they confer in lustrous red leather booths.

At the tres chic Mezzaluna, with branches in Aspen and New York, the creative Italian food is outstanding. Hip young professionals gather here at lunch and dinner for pizza topped with pesto or porcini, and pasta with gorgonzola and walnuts. Because clientele and waitstaff are all gorgeous, it shouldn't be necessary to keep the place so dark.

The newly restyled Trader Vic's in Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton provides a gathering spot for more mature diners. Peeking over the gardenia floating in my drink, I spied Roger Moore, ex-James Bond, at a choice table in front of the blazing Chinese ovens. He was with a beautiful woman, of course. On the roof of the hotel is Le Escofier, one of the city's premier restaurants. Rodney Dangerfield lives somewhere in between.

That Beverly Hills diners are wearing black this year is obvious everywhere. But at Tatou, one of California's hottest clubs, black clothes -- even if they are only lingerie -- must be a requirement for admission.

This scene, where Mick Jagger, Heather Locklear, Billy Idol, Liza Minnelli and David Copperfield sometimes show up, evokes the past glamour of the Coconut Grove with massive velvet palm trees and a tented ceiling. Upstairs in the disco a woman tells fortunes with tarot cards for $30.

Along Rodeo and Beverly drives, boutique windows are filled with somber black clothes, an interesting counterpoint to the sunny, flower-filled city in a climate described as "Mediterranean."

Climate and money are two things that happily mix to make the six-square-mile kingdom of Beverly Hills a pretty place, from the esplanade of pink impatiens running down the middle of Rodeo Drive to the fragrant gardenias surrounding City Hall.

The Baroque City Hall, erected in 1932 with a colorful tile dome, is linked to the police station and library by landscaped courtyards.

Probably the landmark that "says" Beverly Hills is the hotel of the same name, and power brokers are short one venue now that it is closed for a makeover. The "Pink Palace," owned by the Sultan of Brunei, will not reopen until 1995 with rumored luxuries like fireplaces in the bathrooms.

In the meantime, Bruce Willis and Michael Douglas have to settle for filming and hanging out at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where it's not uncommon to spot Cindy Crawford, Sharon Stone or Cybill Shepherd slinking through the lobby. The Regent also takes up the opulence gap with its Presidential Suite, renting for $4,000 a night.

This sumptuous six-room suite, setting for the movie "Pretty Woman," has been in place since the hotel opened in 1928. Filled with marble, gleaming hardwood floors, Oriental carpets, crystal chandeliers and a mix of European and Oriental antiques, the 4,000-square-foot suite was home for several years to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton while she was married to Cary Grant. Other residents have included Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr, the Prince of Wales and the Dalai Lama.

Much smaller, but with a history almost as intriguing, is the Veranda Suite, occupied by Warren Beatty for 11 years. He moved out when he got married, but Beatty's glamorous courtships sparked something special at the Regent -- and maybe someday they'll name the suite after him.

Travel information

The Regent offers a Pretty Woman weekend package for two that includes a one-night stay in pool-view accommodations, champagne and strawberries, use of the health spa, pool, sauna, steam rooms and hot tubs, for $325 per night. Call the Regent Beverly Wilshire at (800) 545-4000.

To receive a copy of the "Guide to Beverly Hills," call the Visitors Bureau at (800) 345-2210, or write to 239 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90210.

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