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From De Niro to J-Lo, today’s A-listers are itching to open their own restaurant. Yet as many stars find to their cost, it takes
more than glamour, fame and money to ensure culinary success. Ashley Pearson investigates the fickle
world of the celebrity restaurateur
James Hewitt, you might think, knows nothing about running a restaurant. But this ex-army officer, most famous for his dalliance with Princess Diana, isn't letting lack of experience hold him back.
Recently, the entrepreneur opened his multimillion-pound private-dining club, Polo House, in Marbella. It is the result of a two-year project, in which Hewitt (according to his press release) has ‘spared no expense in catering for an international crowd, with game and beef flown in from James’s old farm in Devon for the menu specially prepared by Head Chef Robert Stokes, of Clivedon Hotel [sic], personally recruited by James himself.’ Hewitt and his marketing team flew in journalists from across the UK to get people talking. And it seems to have worked – so far, at least – with 600 people pitching up to the restaurant’s opening bash.
Hewitt is the latest to join the ranks of the ‘celeb-rateurs’ – celebrities, such as Jay-Z, Robert De Niro and Justin Timberlake, who all run restaurants in between their day jobs. Indeed, it seems that for many of today’s stars the status symbol of choice is no longer a Rolex or a Rolls but a restaurant.
In our celebrity-obsessed age, the tie-up between stars and dining out ought to be a natural fit, you might think. After all, a recent Zagat survey reported that 10% of LA diners say they are more likely to go to a restaurant because celebrities eat there.
Yet such partnerships can fail spectacularly. Who can forget the launch of Planet Hollywood in the 1990s? Its global roll-out saw three of the world’s biggest stars, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, posing awkwardly in loud leather jackets at restaurant openings around the globe. The chain was based almost entirely on star power, with film memorabilia displayed with far more prominence and pride than the menu. Planet Hollywood expanded quickly, but before too long outlets began to close. Remember, too, the Fashion Café? An ambitious launch that involved models Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer, it bit the dust in 1999. Unsurprisingly, customers soundly rejected the ill-conceived tie-in between skinny supermodels and a menu of mass-produced fried food.
So why is it that so many famous people are jumping into the fickle business of feeding people? ‘I think a lot of people want to be in the business because they think it’s glam,’ says Lee Maen, partner in the Innovative Dining Group, an LA-based restaurant development company. ‘They want to be able to take their friends out and show off a little.’ Alessandro Marchesan, Zuma and Roka international group sommelier, agrees: ‘Many celebrities open restaurants because they think it’s a good and easy way to make money. Not true. It’s difficult to make a restaurant profitable, and losses are often high at the beginning.’
There can be all sorts of motivations for opening a restaurant, but for the vast majority of celeb-rateurs it is a way of neatly expanding their brand. ‘Some of these celebrities are coming at it from real passion, but other examples are completely contrived,’ says Stephen Cheliotis, CEO of the Centre for Brand Analysis. ‘Clearly, if it doesn’t fit with your persona, you are going to have a problem. With someone like Jennifer Lopez, it makes sense that her restaurant was based around Latin American food – if she were opening a French bistro there might be a disconnect. There has to be a link between the celebrity “brand” and the atmosphere, the location, the decor, etc.’ He adds: ‘It’s similar to celebrity clothing lines. As a consumer you are always asking yourself, “Would this celebrity really wear these clothes?” With restaurants it’s, “Would this person really eat here, or am I just being sold something?”’
It’s a tricky business, Cheliotis believes, because the public is harder than ever to fool. ‘The reality is that consumers today are pretty savvy and it doesn’t take long for them or the media to see through something that is contrived. If it’s authentic, then the passion of the individual is going to shine through,’ he says.
The standout success in all of this is Robert De Niro. In creating his multi-million dollar chain of Nobu restaurants, the actor has done nearly everything right, say the experts. Unafraid to use his fame to attract press for each new opening, De Niro is quick to point to the genius of eponymous chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. In short, he deploys his celebrity status to get people’s attention and then lets the food speak for itself.
In recent years several other A-listers have tried to follow his lead. Most recently, Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, Taxi star Danny DeVito and singer Justin Timberlake have all taken a shot, with varying degrees of success.
All three have used the food they grew up with as a template. Timberlake’s Southern Hospitality is a barbecue joint on New York’s Upper East Side that takes its cue from his home state of Tennessee. The menu includes ribs, pulled-pork sandwiches and fried green tomatoes. The venue feels authentic: there’s an eight-foot beer-pong table, waitresses wear cowboy boots and there’s sawdust on the floor. And most importantly perhaps, when Timberlake is in town he always eats there. And he makes sure he is photographed going in and coming out.
Last year Eva Longoria was inspired by her Texas upbringing when she opened Beso, an upscale Tex-Mex spot that includes her own recipe for tortilla soup on the menu. In doing so, she called on the services of famed chef Todd English. ‘It was a very smart move,’ says Maen. ‘In the culinary world, Todd is a celebrity in his own right. She has teamed up with someone who truly knows what he is doing.’
Danny DeVito followed a similar path when he opened DeVito South Beach in Miami Beach in February. The Italian chophouse’s menu features succulent steaks and Mama DeVito’s secret tomato sauce, while scenes from DeVito’s movies play on screens around the room. For this venture, the actor teamed up with celebrated restaurateur David Manero. Plus, DeVito eats there every night when he’s in town.
Indeed, one of the main tasks for the celebrity restaurant owner is simply to show up. ‘If they’re trying to draw people based on their name, they should be there,’ says Cheliotis. ‘And their famous friends should show up once in a while, too. Even if you don’t see any celebrities at the table next to you, you should at least believe they were there the night before.’
But there have certainly been high-profile failures. Britney Spears’s hugely hyped venture NYLA famously lasted just five months following a disastrous opening and lousy reviews in 2002. Jennifer Lopez was forced to close Madre’s in Pasadena, California, a posh diner inspired by her grandmother’s Puerto Rican recipes. Lopez gave no reason for the six-year-old eatery’s shutdown last year.
Cheliotis is not surprised the Spears venture failed. ‘It’s a clear example of someone asking to use her image without thinking it through. A restaurant won’t be successful if you don’t have a good dining experience, no matter whose name is on the door,’ he says. ‘As for Jennifer Lopez, just because someone is good at one thing it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at something else. I think people believe that celebrity will always translate, but they are two different things. It may lend an advantage, but has nothing to do with construction or design or menu choices.’
Interestingly, there is quite a gap between the calibre of stars fronting restaurants in the US, and the kind of celebrity taking the plunge over here. Instead of De Niro and Timberlake, we have Lee Chapman and Leslie Ash, who recently opened JuJu bar in Chelsea, or Norman Cook (aka DJ Fatboy Slim), who co-owns Brighton sushi restaurant Oki-Nami. Also in Brighton, TV presenter Dermot O’Leary is one of three friends behind the launch of the new, seasonally based, fish restaurant Fishy Fishy.
Perhaps the top tier of British celebrity steers clear because, for the most part, many of these British ventures have been fraught with problems. Ex-Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton’s H bar in Liverpool was targeted by crime gangs and shut down by police after two men were stabbed (it subsequently reopened). Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie is a regular fixture at his posh Punch Bowl pub in Mayfair, despite the fact that it was recently accused of price fixing (charging a different price for regulars than for tourists); although these charges were later dismissed.
One thing is for sure, this is a trend that isn’t about to go away. Even Planet Hollywood is still alive and kicking. Despite its struggles, the restaurant chain recently moved into a new three-floor £5 million building in London’s West End. The opening night VIP guest list included Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis, as well as Mel Gibson, Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith and Charlie Sheen. Meanwhile, rumours persist in Hollywood that Victoria Beckham may team up with Gordon Ramsay to open a fine-dining restaurant on the Malibu coast. A pencil-thin star, rumoured to subsist entirely on edamame beans and strawberries, opening an LA eatery? Sounds like a winner.
6 West 25th Street, New York,
and branches; +1 212 832 4040; www.the4040club.com
Rap mega-mogul Jay-Z scores another hit at this swinging sports bar.
8478 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, California, and branches; +1 323 655 6333; www.agorestaurant.com
With olive trees, a tiled courtyard and a wood-panelled bar, Ago (short for chef Agostino Sciandri) looks like a rustic Tuscan villa, which is just what owner Robert De Niro wanted.
500 East 11th Street, New York, and branches; +1 212 254 4090; www.angelsandkings.com
Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz has his own gothic bar for him and others to party in under mug shots of Frank Sinatra, Sid Vicious and Jim Morrison.
36 East Street, Brighton, BN1 1HL; 01273 723750
Recently opened, this is Dermot O’Leary’s first restaurant venture. The presenter has launched this ‘posh fish and chip shop’ with two long-time friends and admits to suffering from a degree of trepidation. ‘Oh my God, yes, I’m nervous [about opening] in the middle of a recession. I’m insane!’ he says.
57-60 Haymarket, St Alban’s House, SW1Y 4QX; 020 7437 7639
Famous kitschy restaurant co-owned by Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.
1460 2nd Avenue, New York;
+1 212 249 1001; www.southernhospitalitybbq.com
Justin Timberlake brings gravy back at his Memphis-style barbecue joint in New York.
90 Rivington Street, New York; +1 212 475 9190; www.teany.com/cafe
Founded by Moby and his ex-girlfriend, Kelly Tisdale, this quirky teahouse proves that vegetarians can rock too.
Hove Lagoon, Kingsway, Hove, BN3 4SA; 01273 933757
Heather Mills has recently launched this funky vegan cafe on Hove Lagoon, just down the road from Brighton.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle magazine Summer 2009