What makes a restaurant popular with the rich and famous?
"Not being able to get in," says Jerry Della Femina, the colorful ad man whose eponymous restaurant in East Hampton, N.Y., is a magnet for millionaires.
He is only half joking. And though he insists his staff doesn’t play the "sorry, we’re fully committed" game, he knows other restaurateurs do, for the simple reason that, "even among the rich and famous, life in the high school lunch room never ends. Everyone still wants to sit with the in-group. They don’t want to be with the poor and unknown, they want to be with people just like them."
And so, even when far from the pressures of the city, the Mort Zuckermans, the Carl Icahns, the Martha Stewarts and the Ron Perelmans of the world enjoy being just a breadstick away from one another.
Of course, the food has to be good, too, but people just gravitate toward others in their own league. Even if they have nothing in common with another celebrity, "they feel pride by association."
Shelley Clark, a longtime publicist for such star-magnet restaurants as The Russian Tea Room and Tavern on the Green, says celebrities tend to dine in packs because "there’s something reassuring about seeing other rich and famous people. It means the restaurant has already been vetted for them."
Clark, a vice president with Lou Hammond Associates, says "it always adds a little luster and panache to a restaurant to read about a rich and famous person dining there."
Still, star power only goes so far.
"Truth is, we live in an age now where the food is the real celebrity," she says. "Sometimes the chef is just as much of a celebrity as the people who dine there."
Indeed, celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston who dine at Nobu often get less attention than the signature miso black cod. What's more, the staff at most star-packed restaurants is deft at making sure celebs are left alone, which is an important aspect of running the type of restaurant that caters to boldface names.
Bonnie Munshin, the veteran general manager at Nick & Toni’s, a hopping celebrity haunt in the Hamptons, says, "I've actually had to stand between a famous person and a stranger. Certain famous people are so famous they put regular people in a sort of frenzy."
Paul McCartney, who has been to the restaurant more than once, falls in that category, she says. It wasn’t like the restaurant could gird itself for his visit, she adds, "he was a walk-in."
While she agrees that stars feel more comfortable surrounded by other celebs, she says they also flock to N&T's for the laid-back atmosphere and the rustic, simple food to match.
"It helps that we are in the country," she says. "Very expensive country, but 100 miles from New York City nonetheless."
Munshin’s day starts when she and a co-manager start fielding calls from important people requesting tables. "On any given night," she says, "we have a lot more behinds than we have chairs. You take a look in the book and figure out where you are going to put everybody. Ideally, you’d like to make them all happy, but you also want to create a little scene. ... We have artists and art-dealers, actors and producers. ... There’s a lot of psychology involved.”
Just like Michael’s in Midtown Manhattan, whose guest list includes Tom Brokaw, Barry Diller and Meredith Vieira, a lot of powerbrokers want to be center stage in the front room.
And stargaze apparently.
Just last week, running-back-turned-sportscaster Tiki Barber dined at Della Femina's ingredient-driven American restaurant and had the place buzzing about his visit.
"These are powerful rich and famous in their own right," says Della Femina, "yet here they were impressed by the newest celebrity in town."