Most celebrities have an intimate understanding of restaurants — especially since a plethora of them worked as waiters waiting for their big break. “You feel like you know everything once you've been a waitress,” Sandra Bullock, a former server, once said. But who knew so many stars, like Bullock, would be inspired to return to their roots? Indeed, a number of celebrities have added “restaurateur” to their resumes. And many of them have the same appetite for the craft as they do for their more glamorous jobs.
When it comes to cooking food or making films, Francis Ford Coppola leads with his heart. All of his cafes (as he prefers to call them) represent his personal vision. The Oscar-winning director began cooking in junior high school and has continued ever since. During college (as a very poor student) he couldn't afford to take women on dates, so he would invite them to his tiny apartment and make his mother's recipes. And later, he cooked for his cast and crew during film shoots. So opening cafes was a natural continuation of his passion for cooking and of good, genuine Italian food. In fact, his eateries are among only a handful in the U.S. whose pizza is certified Verace Pizza Napoletana (Genuine Neapolitan Pizza).
For the set design — er, décor — Coppola worked with Oscar-winning production designer Dean Tavoularis. “You make what you like. Whether you are a director or a cook, you're in the decision business,” Coppola told Forbes Traveler. “All day long you're saying yes, yes, more of that, no, no, less of this.” For the highly lauded director and screenwriter, this recipe has served him well. The Cafe Zoetrope in San Francisco and the Cafe Rosso & Bianco in Palo Alto are doing quite well.
Coppola oversees nearly every detail of his cafes, even working beside new chefs to show how the dish should look. And while other celebrities may not be as involved in their restaurant’s operations, several are breaking into the business with gusto.
“Owning a restaurant is a dream for many — part of the ‘American Dream’ — the allure being the hospitality and culinary aspects, and there’s the sense of accomplishment brought by entrepreneurship,” says Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association. It would seem this holds true for famous folks as well.
But, as Stensson warns, you shouldn’t open a restaurant to get rich. “Profit margins are generally fairly slim, and running an eatery involves a lot of hard work and dedication ... However, everyone needs to eat.” And, as Coppola explained, there are spiritual riches to consider: “Having dinner with someone can really cement a personal relationship that can last a lifetime.”
Every restaurant has a story, particularly if its proprietor happens to be world-famous. Jennifer Lopez opened Madre’s in 2002 to celebrate her Latin heritage. “She wanted a reminder of her maternal grandmother, Julia Rodriguez,” says Wassim Boustani, Madre’s general manager, “whom she visited when she was growing up in the Bronx on the weekends and made her favorite dishes.” The warm décor recalls an inviting Caribbean home, with lace tablecloths, dark wood floors, hand-picked vintage china and chandeliers.
In November 2007, Sandra Bullock opened Bess in the old bank vault of a building built in 1918 on Austin’s Old Pecan Street. The structure’s historic brick columns and arches, iron railings and old timbers were painstakingly preserved as solid pecan woodwork, custom tile, extraordinary etched glass, antique mirrors and artwork was added.
Danny DeVito’s new Italian chop house, DeVito South Beach, pays homage to the actor’s family and his childhood. The actor remembers how his mother laid out sheets of pasta on the bed and spent hours and hours stirring the meatball sauce to perfection. Executive chef Francis Casciato (who, like DeVito, also hails from Philadelphia), puts that same care into his own food. He buys San Marzano tomatoes from an exclusive volcanic region of Italy; they’re considered to be the best in the world. The pasta sauces and meats at the restaurant are highly seasoned, just like Danny’s mother flavored her food. And a number of dishes, including popover bread and giant meatballs, are DeVito’s childhood favorites.
Sometimes, opening a restaurant is a celebrity's way of supporting a particular community. Seventeen years ago, Robert De Niro asked the celebrated restaurateur Drew Nieporent if he would join forces to create a restaurant serving the film community of Tribeca, his neighborhood in downtown Manhattan. The Weinstein brothers have been holding court at Tribeca Grill with the likes of Paul McCartney and Tom Cruise ever since.
De Niro continues to foster development in Tribeca. This month, he partnered with celebrated chef Agostino Sciandri to open a New York version of their famed Ago restaurant in De Niro’s 88-room Greenwich Hotel. The actor played a major part in the restaurant’s creation and look, and he’s often found dining there. He chooses much of the design and fabrics featured in the restaurant and hotel and the artwork lining the walls is by his late father, Robert De Niro, Sr.
Other ultra A-list actors are in the game, too. Paul Newman collaborated with noted chef Michel Nischan to open Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant on the grounds of the newly renovated Westport County Playhouse. Profits support the theater. According to Nischan, Newman “envisioned the playhouse and restaurant working together to become a community gathering place where folks could enjoy the types of interactions which once made local American communities like Westport so rich in neighborly relations and local culture.” Local purveyors even sell their produce in the parking lot, which hosts a regular Farmer’s Market.
For a restaurant, the cachet of having a celebrity association certainly adds to its buzz factor. In March, 2008, Hollywood’s Beso was opened by Eva Longoria and celebrity chef Todd English with restaurateurs JT Torregiani and Jonas Lowrance. Not only can diners experience English’s masterful cooking, they may even break bread with serious Hollywood heavyweights, including Jennifer Aniston, Orlando Bloom, Ashley Simpson, Sheryl Crow, Felicity Huffman and William Macy, who have been spotted there. As a bonus, the menu features Longoria’s signature dishes: guacamole and tortilla soup.
“I'm not simply attaching my name to Beso,” the “Desperate Housewives” star told USA Today. “I genuinely love to cook and plan to feature several family recipes on this exciting menu.”