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(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- For people who never seem to eat, actors sure own a lot of restaurants. Maybe that's how they watch their weight, by watching others chow down. The Hollywood connection goes all the way back to 1926, when Gloria Swanson's ex-husband opened The Brown Derby, drawing regulars like Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields.
These days, the own-your-own-bistro trend continues, with musicians and even fashion designers getting into the act. This despite the fact that a restaurant is a risky place to park your money, says Jeffrey Geibelson, a Beverly Hills money manager to stars like Salma Hayek. Those establishments with real staying power serve great food and wine in a theatrical setting, which is why the following are worth a visit. They go beyond boring Continental cuisine with ethnic and regional menus that reflect their owners' love of the food they grew up on or have acquired on their travels around the world.
Diners who call for directions to China One in West Hollywood may get them from none other than Wesley Snipes, who often answers the phone when he's not on location making movies. His partner and co-owner, former model Donna Wong, is always at the helm of their cozy one-room restaurant with red walls, black banquettes, Chinese paper lanterns, bead curtains and a 28-foot-long steel dragon suspended from the ceiling. "The dragon is a good omen," says Wong. Well, he's certainly worked for Snipes. Wong's family favorites are on the menu, like barbecued ribs, butterflied shrimp, roast duck, orange chicken and crispy won tons -- which may also be your family favorites, since many of us grew up on the Cantonese cuisine offered here.
Diners like Matthew Modine, Tori Spelling and David Keith often start a meal with the revolving Bobo Platter, a lazy Susan piled with appetizers like dim sum, spareribs and shrimp toast and topped with a tiny grill so that you can pass them over the flame with your chopsticks for added heat (unless you, like us, gobble them up so fast they don't have a chance to cool off).
China One, 8290 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, California. Open for lunch and dinner. Telephone: (323) 656-2215.
With tropical green walls, orange light fixtures suspended from the ceiling and fans rotating lazily overhead, La Boca del Conga Room gives a taste of Havana -- and the cuisine known as Nuevo Latino -- to the people of Los Angeles. Owned by actor Jimmy Smits (along with actress Jennifer Lopez, comedian Paul Rodriguez and percussionist Sheila E.), the restaurant is festive and elegant, with waiters in guayabera shirts and a quartet in the corner playing bolero music.
Comfy white-leather armchairs make people-watching easy while nibbling from a basket of fried plantain chips and sipping an El Mojito (a Cuban drink made with lemon-flavored Bacardi, fresh mint, lime juice and soda, and that is as refreshing as it is potent). Although many of the nattily dressed patrons eat dinner and then head upstairs for the dance floor of The Conga Room, a nightclub with live music, those of us with two left feet come here just for the food ("La Boca" means "the mouth" in Spanish), like the fried calamari salad on a well-dressed, spicy-sweet bed of greens. Smits visits whenever he's in town to tuck into an herb-roasted chicken dish with rice and mushrooms called Pollo Abodabo and to catch up with his buddies from "NYPD Blue," Dennis Franz and Sharon Lawrence.
La Boca del Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California. Open for lunch and dinner. Telephone: (323) 938-1696.
A couple of years ago, actor Robert Duvall bought a yellow-clapboard restaurant called The Rail Stop at a small-town crossroads in Virginia, not far from the farm he calls home. While the name remains the same, he has modernized the menu (which used to offer typical diner fare like chicken fried steak) with "eclectic American" dishes like a Crab Cake Sandwich (using his mom's recipe for crab .s and served on a toasted English muffin with lemon-pepper mayonnaise) and Blueberry-Cornmeal Pancakes With Smoked Bacon.
Wooden floors and tables, Windsor chairs and bay windows filled with potted ivy, marigolds and snapdragons make an inviting setting -- so inviting that Duvall comes in every day for lunch when he's not working on a movie. Among his favorite dishes are, naturally, Mrs. Duvall's Crab Cakes (the same ones he grew up on in Annapolis, Md.), the Grilled Shrimp Caesar Salad and the Grilled Sirloin Salad (with Maytag blue cheese, red onion and roasted peppers). The actor also uses his restaurant to entertain. In researching his role as an astronaut for the film, "Deep Impact," he invited several space-shuttle veterans to stay at his farm for in-depth interviews. When meal time approached, he knew exactly where to take them.
The Rail Stop, 6478 Main St., The Plains, Virginia (about 45 minutes from Washington, D.C.). Open for lunch and dinner. Telephone: (540) 253-5644.
When Aerosmith's lead singer, Steven Tyler, and guitarist Joe Perry hunker down in the studio to work on a new album, they order take-out from Mount Blue, the restaurant they own near their homes on the South Shore of Boston. Quaint and colonial on the outside but funky and hip on the inside, Mount Blue has rustic beamed ceilings, bold walls painted in 10 different Crayola colors, cushioned booths and folk-art decor. Not surprisingly, live music is on the menu, too, with blues, Cajun, hillbilly and acoustic bands playing four nights a week (but alas, no Aerosmith, which prefers larger venues).
But you can still see Tyler and Perry in the flesh, because they often come here with their families, which may be why this restaurant also offers a kids' menu with staples like chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs. Tyler himself prefers the more adult Lemon Glazed Orange Roughy (a whitefish served with barley risotto, artichokes, tomatoes and mushrooms) and the Spicy Chicken Pizza.
Perry on the other hand orders off the menu, asking the chef to ad-lib a pizza with whatever ingredients are in season. Hey, when you're the boss, you can do that.
Mount Blue, 707 Main St., Norwell, Massachusetts (about 35 minutes from downtown Boston). Open for lunch and dinner. Telephone (781) 659-0050.
When actor Stephen Baldwin was growing up with his brothers, Alec, Daniel and Billy on Long Island, a Portuguese fishing boat named the Luahn plied the waters nearby; hence the name of his romantic new restaurant in New York City. Decorated in a modern, minimalist style with sexy touches, Luahn offers fresh seafood and beautiful people.
Among those who have been seated on the deep-red mohair banquettes are models Gisele Bundchen and Bridget Hall, Shannon Elizabeth, Luke Perry, Simon Le Bon and the cast of "Sex and the City."
The three-level restaurant has a downstairs lounge for cocktails and late-night fare, a mezzanine that looks out onto Fifth Avenue, and a curved stairway that leads past the bar (and a wine rack made of stainless-steel pegs in a mahogany wall) to the upstairs dining room.
Whenever Baldwin isn't filming a movie, he's here, greeting guests, discussing the catch of the day with his executive chef, Tim Eagan (who grew up as a crew member on the original Luahn), and, of course, chowing down. "Stephen always orders the same thing, like clockwork," says Eagan, "crab cakes to start, and then sea bass." (In menu-speak, that's Jumbo Lump Crab Cake With Celery-Cucumber Salad and Chilean Sea Bass With Mussels, Manila Clams, Baby Artichokes and Tuscan Croutons.) Hmm, we'll have what he's having.
Luahn, 59 Fifth Ave., New York, New York. Open for dinner and late night snacks until 3:30 a.m. Telephone (212) 242-9710.
If stars can be said to have a neighborhood joint, it's Toscana restaurant (owned by Doc Severinsen of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show"), long a mainstay of the tony town of Brentwood. We recommend the fresh-arugula-and-mozzarella pizza, with a crust so thin it's almost low-cal. Almost.
Toscana, 11633 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, California. Telephone: (310) 820-2448.
Madonna's brother, Christopher Ciccone, owns trendy Atlantic in Los Angeles, which serves steaks, seafood and vegetarian fare. An interior designer and restaurateur, Ciccone has decorated all of Madonna's homes, as well as this restaurant, so diners here can partake of his "taste" in furnishings as well.
Atlantic, 8256 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, California. Telephone (323) 951-1949.
With its cypress and olive trees, terra-cotta tiled courtyard and wood-paneled bar, the restaurant called Ago (short for chef Agostino Sciandri) looks like a rustic Italian villa, which is just what owner Robert De Niro wanted. Guests have included Quentin Tarentino, actor Roberto Benigni, and, on the night we were there, comedian Michael Richards, dressed in a vintage shirt just like Kramer (the role he played on "Seinfeld").
Ago, 8478 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, California. Telephone: (323) 655- 6333.Asian/French
With A-list actors Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and John Malkovich behind the restaurant called Man Ray in Paris, it's hard to get a reservation. And even the French have fallen for the food. The decor is Asian but the cuisine is eclectic, spanning everything from sushi (the specialty) to Soft Chocolate Cake (the most popular item on the menu).
Man Ray, 34 Rue Marbeus, Paris, France. Telephone: 011-33-1-56-88-36-36.
Visitors to Key West, Florida, can sample local history at the original headquarters for Pan Am Airways, which has been converted into a funky restaurant called Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill, & Brewery.
That's Kelly as in resident actress Kelly McGillis who, with husband, Fred Tillman, serves up fresh fish, jerk chicken and tropical drinks that hit the spot after a long day in the sun.
Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill & Brewery, 301 Whitehead St., Key West, Florida. Telephone: (305) 293-8484.
Sophisticated country cooking may sound like a contradiction in terms, but that's what's making waves at Watershed in Decatur, Georgia. Owner and musician Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls has put a new spin on such Southern staples as crispy pan-fried chicken and biscuits. Well, not literally (her chef turns them out), but Saliers is not above bussing tables at this groovy restaurant and wine bar set in a renovated garage.
Watershed, 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, Georgia. Telephone: (404) 378-4900.
When we heard that Ralph Lauren had opened a restaurant called RL in his clubby Polo store in Chicago, we figured scones and finger sandwiches would be on the menu. We would be wrong. Try veal Parmesan and other Italian classics, guaranteed to warm you up after a day of shopping in the Windy City.
RL, 115 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, Illinois. Telephone: (312) 475-1100.
When Cameron Diaz was in Miami filming "There's Something About Mary," she noticed a dearth of Asian restaurants. And so after a little research she opened her own, named it Bambu and put her favorite comfort food on the menu: Thai Green Curry Chicken, made with coconut milk and served with jasmine rice.
Bambu, 1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach, Florida. Telephone: (305) 531-4800.
With a co-owner like Robert De Niro and investors like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Bill Murray, Tribeca Grill might as well put celebrity guest sightings on the menu (like Sharon Stone, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael J. Fox). Here you'll find "New American" dishes like crispy baby chicken and arugula-and-marinated-mozzarella salad that are so good, they've been drawing customers for over 10 years.
Tribeca Grill, 375 Greenwich St., New York, New York. Telephone: (212) 941-3900.
Fans of CBS-TV's "Nash Bridges" might find themselves on the set when they eat at Don Johnson and Cheech Marin's new restaurant in San Francisco, where their detective series is filmed. Ana Mandara means "beautiful refuge" in Vietnamese and resembles a French colonial home, with a grand staircase, cane-back chairs and antique opium lamps on the tables. But the black ceiling is hung with studio lights, so that some of the actors' scenes can be shot here while they dine on modern Vietnamese cuisine, like spring rolls wrapped in mint and cilantro.
Ana Mandara, 891 Beach St., San Francisco, California. Telephone: (415) 771-6800.
La Boca del Conga Room
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