Used to be the Hayden Planetarium boasted the most dazzling display of stars in Manhattan, but now there's competition across the street. At Cafe Central, the newest discovery on the West Side's suddenly chic Columbus Avenue, a nightly caravan of limos, taxis and cars deposits such luminaries as Debra Winger, Elizabeth McGovern, Matt Dillon, Harrison Ford, Penny Marshall and the Divine Miss M. The cafe now is the place for preening performers, models, business biggies and overpaid athletes to meet and eat. "When you're doing a play," says Cher, "this is the best place in the world." Adds Liza Minnelli's kid sister, Lorna Luft: "It's like going into someone's living room."

That's because Cafe Central has flowered as that rarest of Manhattan nightspots—a saloon that's also a salon. The newly opened, $1 million, elegant boîte—all exposed brick, Italian marble, beveled mirrors and Honduras mahogany—in fact started life five years ago as a humble one-room joint in a much seedier neighborhood four blocks and a world away. It quickly established itself as a wee-hours watering hole for struggling off-Broadway actors who mostly lived nearby and who since have achieved some fame—Peter Weller, 36, Diane Keaton's lover in 1982's Shoot the Moon; John Heard, 37, the zoologist hero of 1982's Cat People; Bruce McGill, 33, the company man in 1983's Silkwood; and Peter Riegert, 36, the acquisitions man in 1983's Local Hero.

"At the time," remembers Weller, "nobody knew us from Jack. Our famous girlfriends made the place popular. People would say, 'There's Ali MacGraw with some shmuck [Weller]. There's Bette Midler with a little Jewish guy [Riegert]. There's Margot Kidder and that wacko [Heard].' "

Those kinds of ripples spread. As did those connections. McGill and Riegert both had been in 1978's Animal House, and that helped. Their co-star Tim (To Be or Not to Be) Matheson came. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and Christopher Reeve started dropping by. They all found a congenial atmosphere fostered by the loose-knit clique of regulars. "It's a group of friends with solid values," explains McGill. "You gotta work, you don't gold-brick, you don't be a lightweight, you don't be a punk. You don't assume that you're entitled to things just because your last movie was a hit." But the fellas are hardly boys next door. "Many are Napoleonic," confides one actor. "You have to be tough to hang out there. They can be honest and brutal."

Adds manager Sheila Jaffe, 37, about the cafe's showbiz tribalism, "It's a support system. It's family, real caring." The place can provide security guards (Hell's Angel Chuck Zito might hobnob with Minnelli, Luft or Farrah Fawcett at the cafe, but he dons a white tux or suit when guarding them in public). It also has informally offered mail and banking services, career help, matchmaking, and Band-Aids for broken hearts. The inner circle even takes off on field trips to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel gigs, fishing junkets, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, and each Monday night treks en masse to Heartbreak, the hot oldies-but-goodies disco in SoHo.

Cher used her Cafe Central contacts during a crisis last year. "I could tell she was scared," remembers McGill of her 12:30 a.m. call. "She was having difficulty breathing and was afraid she had pneumonia." Within a few minutes Bruce had her in a hospital for X rays. (She was okay.) Most of the drama, however, takes place at the cafe itself, one of the most colorful and bizarre hangouts in the city. "If I weren't part of the clique, I wouldn't have gone to the old place," admits J.C. (Silkwood) Quinn. "It was a madhouse." Says Weller, "Last summer some guy who had gotten thrown out because he was drunk came crashing through the plate glass window onto someone's table. You never knew what was going to happen."

All agree that the center of gravity around which the madcaps whirl is owner Peter Herrero, 37, a gruffly charismatic sitdown comic who nightly taunts those closest to him ("Ohhh! You're wearing mooovieeee clothes!") or showers them with epithets ("Animals! Degenerates!"). One friend jokingly dubbed him "Elaine with a mustache," referring to the proprietor of the more famous and more literary nightspot crosstown. "He'll take four superstars sitting at a table and move them to a smaller one, and they love him," marvels partner Steven Gilbert, 36. "I ask them to do the same thing in my nicest Harvard manner, and they hate me." Adds actress Carol (Taxi) Kane, "Peter really is Cafe Central. He's taken us all under his wing in some way and helped us be with each other."

The son of a Spanish-born shipping inspector on the Brooklyn waterfront, Herrero began in the restaurant business at 15 with a summer job as a Catskills busboy. Two years later he dropped out of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. He joined the Marines in 1964 and wound up in Vietnam. Upon his return Peter found, "No one wanted to hire veterans." Within two years he had taken off for Spain, hanging out a lot at his future restaurant's namesake, the Café Bar Central in Torremolinos. He returned in 1972 and worked as bartender, captain and manager for several New York restaurants.

By 1978 he had scraped together $50,000 to open his own place. He got a contractor's license and built the restaurant himself. "Cafe Central was his Broadway show," says Janice, 27, his wife of two years, who was a part-time waitress and music student when they met. Fiercely determined, Herrero worked 16-hour days seven days a week to get Cafe Central started. "It used to be all boosters and hookers," says Peter of the nighttime habitués of the old neighborhood. "But I only really had four fights in five years." While keeping the cafe free of drug dealers and lowlife, Herrero also looked out for his patrons. "Girls come in at 20 or 21 from Oregon, and he protects them," says actor Robert Fields, who had a small role in Star 80. In 1980 Peter went into partnership with actors Peter Weller, Treat Williams and bartender Larry McIntyre to open Chelsea Central downtown, but the real action still transpires at the uptown digs.

There was so much talent under its old tin roof that some called it "Central Casting" or "Cafe Résumé." When director Francis Ford Coppola strolled into the original place one Sunday at 3:15 a.m., several actresses buzzed around him. "When people with power to hire come in," observes McGill, "it throws some people off. It's true, though, that things get discussed and done that lead to jobs."

Or to romance. "Plenty of people have met here and gotten married—for a night," deadpans Weller, as actresses and models with satin skin and silky voices work their magic. Cher, 37, in fact, first laid eyes on her current beau, actor Val Kilmer, 24, at Cafe Central. "He came right in the door," she recalls, "and I thought, 'That guy's attractive, but he's 11 years old!' "

"Everybody's going to Cafe Central for something," says Jim Borrelli, the original Sonny in Broadway's Grease. "Actors are like herd animals. They have to get out and rub against each other. The stars are coming to be seen by their peers." But not necessarily by their public. Theatrical people "like to be admired from afar," pontificates J.C. Quinn. "They don't want someone's elbow in the pasta." It's still too soon to tell whether Cafe Central's larger new home will mean the end of its homeyness. The new place has three rooms with fireplaces and can seat 188 instead of the 70 folks the old spot could accommodate. The regulars aren't going to put on any new airs, claims Weller. "Hell, no!" he wails. "They're still going to be the same wackos they always were." Well, maybe they'll dress up a bit now. "I hope so," growls Herrero. "It'll be good for 'em."