October 1, 2010 9:44 pm

Can Hollywood stars bring Michelin stars?

 
Michael Caine, Richard Shepherd and Peter Langan in 1981

Michael Caine in 1981 with Langan’s co-owners Richard Shepherd and Peter Langan

You’re a global superstar. Everything you touch turns to gold: endorse a shoe and they sell like crazy; bring out a perfume and teens want to bathe in it. The next logical step is to open a restaurant – restaurants are cool and you’d like a place to hang out with your celebrity friends beyond the reach of the paparazzi. Plus they’re easy – get some other stars in for opening night, serve some food and watch the money roll in, just like any endorsement, right?

Wrong. As Michael Caine, having been one of the first stars get involved in restaurants – with Langan’s in London back in 1976 – would attest the restaurant industry is famously fickle and challenging. It is rife with bankruptcy and filthy tempers, too: in Europe and the US the closure rate in first year of trading is roughly one in four, rising to one in three within the first three years.

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Restaurateurs and highly trained chefs struggle to put their finger on what will guarantee survival. So it’s no surprise that when Britney Spears opened Nyla, a Cajun restaurant, in New York in 2002, she’d pulled out off the deal within six months, with the restaurant closing only weeks later. Jennifer Lopez, otherwise renowned for her business acumen, had a Cuban restaurant, Madre’s, for six years, but it closed in 2008. And in 2009, even Robert De Niro, who has been successfully involved in Nobu worldwide since 1994, drew a line under Ago, his New York Italian before it had been open a year.

Caine sold his share in Langan’s after the death of its co-founder Peter Langan in 1988; in 1992, with Marco Pierre White, he helped open The Canteen which closed 2000. Deya, an Indian restaurant, opened in 2004 and closed in 2007. He said this year, “I left that business. Chefs are too temperamental.”

That said, a lot of stars don’t take a personal risk. “Many celebrities are only marginally involved – they get paid to make the restaurant more exciting. Robert De Niro and [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter are very involved in theirs but, unless you’re a celebrity’s accountant, you can’t be privy to whether it’s nominal or not,” says Tim Zagat, publisher of the international Zagat guides. “And if it fails, it’s not even a risk to their reputation since their reputation isn’t based on food.”

There are celebrity-owned (or endorsed) restaurants that survive and do well, and the best seem to be those that reflect the star’s own brand as well as serving good meals cooked by talented chefs (even the starriest find it hard to survive poor service or dreadful food). Hence Justin Timberlake’s barbecue joint in New York, Robert Redford’s high-end Tree Room at Sundance, BB King’s chain of blues bars and restaurants, Jay-Z’s “upscale” New York sports bar and Danny DeVito’s Italian in Miami all do well.

De Niro re-opened Ago as Locanda Verde having carefully hand-picked chef Andrew Carmellini, who says: “The great thing about De Niro is he builds restaurants for longevity. They become institutions, not a flash in the pan. I knew he was a guy I wanted to team up with, no question.”

Richard Harden, editor of UK-based Harden’s Restaurant Guide, says choosing a celebrity-owned establishment to eat in can be a good move: “Unlike celebrity chefs, say, celebrities are less likely to be driven by their ego, as they don’t have anything to prove.”

Restaurants that don’t scream “vanity project” are more enticing to customers – who don’t like to feel fooled by a brand. Cameron Diaz doesn’t shout about her well-reviewed Miami restaurant and nor does Morgan Freeman about his in Mississippi. In the UK, artist Damien Hirst has learnt from the wild over-hyping of Pharmacy in Notting Hill and is lower-key about his newer venture, The Quay in Ilfracombe, Devon. Ultimately, it has to be about the food – no amount of star quality can save a restaurant churning out consistently poor experiences.

Someone should have told Hulk Hogan that – before he opened his Pastamania restaurant in the mid-1990s, serving such delights as Hulk-U-s and Hulk-A-Roos. It closed in less than a year.

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