Comedian Fred Allen once defined a celebrity as “a person who works hard all his life to become well-known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized." Which is why, when you enter a restaurant, the only people likely to be wearing sunglasses are either recovering from eye laser surgery or go by only one name, like Madonna, Angelina or Uma.
Even if sunglasses don’t completely disguise a celebrity from view, they have a certain “do-not-disturb” effect in a restaurant, lest a fan wants to bound over for an autograph while the celeb is seasoning her Caesar salad.
But let's be honest—spotting a celebrity, whether from the world of entertainment, sports, media or politics, gives a real buzz to an evening dining out. For some people, such sightings are more important than the food. Simply being in a place where Alex Rodriguez, Demi Moore, Brian Williams or Ted Kennedy dine makes the celeb-watcher feel part of the aura thrown off by the star.
Once upon a time, in Hollywood’s Golden Years, celeb sightings were relentlessly covered by the tabloids as part of the studios’ own publicity machines. Thus, a new starlet would be hooked up with an established star and sent to the Copacabana or El Morocco expressly for the purpose of having their pictures taken by the photogs.
This endures to a certain extent today at celeb-flocked restaurants like Spago and Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, which count among its guests everyone from George Clooney to Elizabeth Hurley, whereas it is discouraged (though not unknown) in New York. (When Madonna and Guy Ritchie recently went to ‘Cesca on the Upper West Side, they were greeted by a phalanx of paparazzi outside the Italian eatery’s entrance.)
Many restaurants confer with celebs’ “people” as to the best tactics to avoid the paparazzi at the front door. The manager of the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, where villas rent for up to $7,000 a night (and whose boast is: “Movie stars get big trailers. The really big stars get us.”) told me that if a big star like Madonna is dining at their intimate restaurant, The Room, she may be ushered through the service hallways to a back door while a double in sunglasses whooshes into a waiting limo at the front door.
But for the average diner who wouldn’t mind sitting across from a celebrity, there are, in fact, rules of behavior. First and foremost, it's tacky to ask for an autograph. If seated next to a celeb, a simple nod of recognition should be all you allow yourself of intimacy. Celebs may well want attention, but on his or her terms.
In a place like New York’s Balthazar in Soho, the chances of spotting someone from the entertainment or fashion business is very high; many of those industry’s celebs either live or have offices in the area, like Martha Stewart, and on any given day you might find Bill Gates lunching with Bono.
Of course, New York is the East Coast epicenter for celebrity dining. Some even own restaurants themselves, including Robert De Niro, who is a partner at Nobu with Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Lou Diamond Philips and Christopher Walken. De Niro often brings his friends in to dine, so if that looks like Leonardo Di Caprio, it probably is.
The Waverly Inn, owned by Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, is so exclusive that the restaurant doesn’t answer the phone; either you have Carter’s personal phone number, or you beg for a table in-person that afternoon. Once there, you may pass Uma Thurman and Anne Hathaway in the front room—on your way to Siberia in the back.
At Manhattan’s legendary Four Seasons Grill Room, the titans of media and Big Apple politics gather and jockey for tables everyday at lunch, so you might hobnob with Mayor Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and Jann Wenner there. Once, while filming a TV show, Lauren Hutton and Raquel Welch tussled and tumbled into the babbling pool in the Pool Room. Ralph Lauren says that “the quality, the design, the food, and the people all come together to make a certain magic—there is no place like it.”
On the West Coast, Hollywood's restaurant-of-the-moment is the one drawing the most celebs. Restaurant publicists tell the media who dined where and when, and if an L.A. restaurant doesn’t have what they call a “sizzle factor,” it’s not likely to stay open long. The new Beso (which means “kiss”) is a Todd English restaurant—himself a celebrity chef—with partner Eva Longoria, who draws pals like Sheryl Crow, Jessica Simpson and Paul Abdul to sip mango mojitos and chow down on Mexican tapas like tortilla soup and skirt steak fajitas. The tortilla soup and guacamole are said to be Longoria family recipes. Angelino magazine advises that “the booths along the east wall offer the best views.”
Ortolan is a swanky French restaurant owned by Chef Christophe Eme and his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, who attracts her star friends and not a few Trekkies who come to see the woman who once played the Borg named Seven of Nine. Other good bets for celeb-watching are the more secluded and reclusive hotel dining rooms like the Bar Marmont at Château Marmont Hotel and Bungalows (Charlize Theron, Keanu Reeves, Courtney Love, Johnny Depp, Amy Winehouse, Sting); the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel (especially breakfast for studio bigwigs courting stars); and the poolside tables at the Bel-Air Hotel—Marilyn Monroe’s favorite, now where Russell Crow, Liz Taylor, Al Pacino and Tom Cruise drop by for the exquisite California cuisine.
Given that Las Vegas has developed a high-powered entertainment scene along with first-rate restaurants, you’ll find celebs visiting on a regular basis. Those who wish for a bit more seclusion from the crowds—like Sen. John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Steven Spielberg, and Scottie Pippin—like to go to the Country Club Grill, a small restaurant tucked away inside Wynn Las Vegas.
In Washington, D.C., pols have to be pretty careful who they’re seen with and where. The best bets for sightings are at Teatro Goldoni, which also attracts the network media figures like Ted Koppel, Suzanne Malveaux, and Wolf Blitzer, and The Monocle, just shy of the Capitol, where senators go for lunch, alerted by a dining room bell that summons them back for an important vote.