Remember that “I Love Lucy” episode when the always star-struck Lucy eats at Hollywood’s Brown Derby and finds William Holden sitting in the next booth? Hilarity, of course, ensues, with Lucy making a fool of herself trying to get Holden’s attention—not the first fan to try interacting with a celebrity trying to have a quiet dinner at a restaurant.
It has always been that way, since the days the French aristocracy used to line up at the dining room at Versailles just to watch Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette eat. Things became far more proletarian when grand restaurants like Delmonico’s and Rector’s opened in New York in the 19th century, drawing everyone from Diamond Jim Brady and Mark Twain to Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. People gawked.
So they did at New York’s Barbetta (opened in 1906), which drew every opera singer and musician from around the world, including Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini. And downscale, New York’s delis like The Carnegie and The Stage became hangouts for everyone from Jack Benny and Sid Caesar to Woody Allen and Neil Simon.
Over on the West Coast, 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: The “if you’re not famous-go-wait-in-line” syndrome is, however, still part of the appeal of two new restaurants owned and opened by Graydon Carter, the wild-haired editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.
His Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village is so exclusive that the restaurant doesn’t answer the phone; you either have to have Carter’s personal phone number or go down to the restaurant in the afternoon and beg a table. Once there you may pass by Uma Thurman and Anne Hathaway, in the front room — on your way to Siberia in the back. Carter has also added another feather to his restaurant cap — the old 1930s Monkey Bar in Midtown, which had deteriorated into a series of losing restaurants until Carter revamped it as a hang-out for his 10,000 closest friends, and there are, apparently, “A” tables and “B” tables, and those not famous can only hope for a 6:30 table, at best.
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 that “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, the first being that it is completely tacky to go up to a celebrity table and ask for an autograph. If seated next to a celeb (the big guys at the next table may be his bodyguards), 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 because so many of those industry’s celebs either live or have offices in the area: On any given day you might find Bill Gates lunching with Bono, or Martha Stewart, who also likes to dine at celeb Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Greenwich Village restaurant Perry Street, where she had an apartment in the building, along with Nicole Kidmann and Calvin Klein.
Bill Cosby, who frequents New York’s Le Cirque in Midtown, literally gets up from his table and goes around the room to kibbitz with the restaurant’s guests. In fact, Le Cirque is one of the city’s best-known celeb hang-outs, including everyone from Woody Allen and Barbara Walters to Henry Kissinger and Bill O’Reilly. Once, when a non-celeb newcomer complained to Le Cirque’s owner, Sirio Maccioni, that the tables were too close, he responded, “Sir, would you rather sit this close or this far from Sophia Loren tonight?”—just as Sophia swept into the restaurant.
At Manhattan’s legendary Four Seasons Grill Room the titans of media and Big Apple politics gather and jockey for tables ever day at lunch, so you might hobnob with Mayor Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and Jann Wenner there. Once, filming a TV show, Lauren Hutton and Raquel Welch tussled and tumbled into the babbling pool in the Pool Room here. 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.”
Of course, on the West Coast, the restaurant of the moment in Hollywood will always be 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.
Ortolan is a swank French restaurant owned by Chef Christophe Émé 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). Alas, the Bel-Air Hotel — Marilyn Monroe’s favorite poolside table — will be closed for the next year or so for renovation.
Given that Las Vegas has developed both a high-powered entertainment scene along with first-rate restaurants, you’ll find celebs visiting on a regular basis. At the new Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino, they have a place named Sinatra’s that evokes the mystique of Ol’ Blue Eyes and has drawn stars like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Garth Brooks.
And in Washington, D.C., where pols have to be pretty careful whom they’re seen with and where, 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.
But now that Barack Obama has come to Washington, new places have vied for his visitations and got them, including when he celebrated his wife Michelle’s 45th birthday at the fine dining restaurant Equinox, two blocks from the White House. President Obama also seems a fan of Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Dupont Circle, while Obama’s staff have carved out their own niche in D.C.
The Hawk n’ Dove is where the Congressional junior staff members threw a party for Obama press spokesman Robert Gibbs. Close to the White House, the Oval Room is a big power lunch place, while the newcomer in town that has been attracting the big names is Bourbon Steak in Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev dined on the same night, as have Brad Pitt, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
So unless the stars are staying in their rooms, the chances are better than ever they’ll be out and about, if not at the table next to you, certainly at the best table in the house.