Chow, Darling, and Cue the Carrots! A Critic Turns the Tables on Celeb Restaurateurs from Sonny to Charo

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The restaurant business is risky and heartless, just like show business. Maybe that's why it attracts so many celebrities. Restaurants are increasingly popular investments for entertainers, who are putting their money in and their names on dining establishments in a gamble that the public will love their food as much as it loves their faces.

Some such restaurants, like Billy Dee Williams' Nucleus Nuance in L.A., have a run longer than a hit Broadway show. Some fade as fast as child stars. There's a used car emporium where the parking lot of Alan Hale's Lobster Barrel in L.A. used to be; fans of Gilligan's Island liked the Skipper's crew more than they liked his crustaceans.

We reviewed 15 restaurants where celebrities were either owners or highly publicized investors, checking to see whether the establishments were headliners or not-ready-for-prime-time places. Many were located on the West Coast, in and around L.A. Some were on the westest coast, in Hawaii. In our travels, we learned that Clint Eastwood doesn't show you to your table at his Hog's Breath Inn and Dolly Parton doesn't sing with the band at her Dockside Plantation. To their credit, most of the places were pretty honest when we called anonymously and asked if we would see the famous proprietors. (See "Celebrity Promise" in each review.) We rated the restaurants with no stars (poor), one star (fair), two stars (good), three stars (very good) and four stars (excellent).

Charo's (Charo)
Kauai, Hawaii, 808-826-6422

Rating: [3 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "She comes in every night."

Tired and hungry but determined to push on, I made my way along the narrow road to Charo's, crossing over one-lane bridges and creeping into twisting turns. To my left were cloud-cloaked mountains, to my right desolate beaches and crashing surf, overhead the sun-shrouding darkness of tropical vegetation. Finally, I arrived, parked and stumbled into...

Hello! Buenos Noches! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Welcome to Chewaii!

I was just in time for Charo's Tropical Fiesta revue, introduced nightly by the owner herself. The crowd whistled, and Charo preened. "When I hear whistles, I get bumps all over my goose," she coochie-coochied. She introduced her master of ceremonies, Cerrito, who wore a white jumpsuit open to the waist and white boots with two-inch heels. He sang "La Bamba" and assured the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, this place is an absolute paradise, really, truly a paradise. I really, truly would do this show for free." He brought out Felipe de la Rosa's dance troupe, which performed the flamenco, the salsa, the hula and the Mexican hat dance. When Felipe danced a hard-stomping flamenco reprise, the audience got to its feet and cheered.

What did I eat with all this going on? I hardly noticed.

I drank a fresh, sweet, thick papaya colada. I drank a fresh, sweet, thick banana daiquiri. Both were yummy. I ordered surf 'n' turf, which isn't called that on the menu, but the waiter knew what I meant. It combined Charo's "secret family recipe" for shrimp with a thick chunk of pretty good sirloin. It was just right.

The lights dimmed and Cerrito called for all honeymooners to come up and dance cheek-to-cheek to "The Hawaiian Wedding Song." First came Diane and David, then Jo and Dan, but the prize couple was Dana and Robert, married three hours. From the altar direct to Charo's! Dana was all over Robert, and I thought maybe they shouldn't have come straight here. From the audience, Charo yelled encouragement: "Make a baby tonight!"

After the show, I paused respectfully to study the 45 photos of Charo with the greats of the entertainment world, including two of my personal favorites, David Letterman and Wayne Newton. I purchased a matching set of Charo coffee mugs from Charo's Gift and Activity Center. I never did figure out what the activities were.

Did I have a good time at Charo's? Let me put it this way: Could Duke Kahanamoku surf?

Dockside Plantation (Dolly Parton)
Oahu, Hawaii, 808-395-2930

Rating: [2 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "When she's in town she'll drop in, but she's not in town right now."

Volcanos rising from the earth formed old Hawaii. Bulldozers are the force behind new Hawaii. In a once-underdeveloped section of Oahu, a quick drive around Diamond Head from Honolulu, a new business and residential community called Hawaii Kai is emerging from the jungle. The gods of investment banking must surely be pleased.

In the center of Hawaii Kai is an artificial lagoon, and alongside is a shopping center. There you will find Dock-side Plantation, right on the water. This is a pleasing amenity, but a pet store in the shopping center is also on the water, which indicates that artificial lagoon views might not be that precious a commodity. "Maybe she cannot afford the natural water," says Charo, whose restaurant is on a real Pacific beach, one island away.

Dockside Plantation is cute and soft, done up in aqua and peach, wicker and cushions. It is also very pleasant, staffed by young people so relentlessly nice they made me a little uncomfortable. That's probably because I'm from New York. My waiter, who introduced himself as Mike, was the nicest of all. With his tawny hair and peach bow tie, he looked like he had just come from a shift at Chippendale's. At a nearby table, another waiter almost as handsome as Mike was perched on the arm of a chair, posing for photos with a group of giggling women.

Seating is indoor or out, and I requested a table on the plank-floored veranda overlooking the water. The view wasn't as interesting as it might have been because a row of bright, flickering gas torches juts out from the veranda, and every time I looked that way it felt like a flash bulb had gone off. For dinner I ordered a special of the day, "D.P.'s Seafood Favorite," which the menu promised would "please even the most ardent seafood gourmet." That's me: ardent seafood gourmet. It had four kinds of vegetables, perfectly cooked, and four kinds of fish so overcooked I couldn't tell the opakapaka from the scallops. The fish was drenched in butter, and I seriously doubted that today's Parton, Dolly Lite, really preferred her fish that way.

I liked lunch a few days later much better. The torches weren't lit, the cooking was improved, Mike wasn't wearing his peach bow tie, and I had some wonderful macadamia nut ice cream. Everyone was still very nice. When I left the hostess remembered my name and thanked me for coming, and even my mother doesn't do that.

The Black Orchid (Tom Selleck)
Oahu, Hawaii, 808-521-3111

Rating: [1 star]

Celebrity Promise: "Yes, he comes in."

If there were a high temple of that uniquely American dining concept known as continental cuisine, The Black Orchid would be it.

All the stylistic statements are in place. The Black Orchid is located in a mall—a dark, monolithic structure on the outskirts of downtown Honolulu. It has a menu promising dishes "broiled to perfection." It employs a bouncer-size fellow, in a white dinner jacket, who stands by the door and scrutinizes customers. ("How ya' doin'?" he rumbled to me.) It has a flower girl, a camera girl and cocktail waitresses wearing bunnylike, shirtless tuxedos. It serves lots and lots of strange dishes, only one of which I really liked—sautéed prawns in a complex, spicy red sauce. If there is an operative definition for continental cuisine, it is food prepared by a chef who is inspired by all cuisines and expert in none of them.

The decor is a handsome interpretation of Art Deco: Overhead fans, etched glass, thick pillars, dark colors and plenty of mahogany and brass. The bar is dominated by oversize paintings of women's faces, so stylized they look like cartoons. Beyond the bar are smaller rooms for dining and private parties. The farther you get from the bar, the better your chances of having a quiet meal. On the first of my two dinners, I was seated in the passageway between the bar and the dining rooms, where piped-in elevator music clashed with what was playing inside.

Most of the food I ate struck me as ordinary, although part of the problem was that every main course came with the same uninspired garnish: potatoes covered with an odd, tasteless glaze and a heap of chunky, sautéed vegetables. One very appealing appetizer was a cold, spicy, charred tuna—request it without the clashing sauce—and one extraordinarily unappetizing pasta was the Pappardelle Santa Maria. It was a wide, flat noodle in a brown sauce made with duck, walnuts and pomegranate, an assemblage of odd ingredients I found inedible.

I was cheered up by an embarrassed busboy who appeared between appetizer and main course to announce that he was about to perform a unique Black Orchid ritual. Between courses, old water glasses are exchanged for new water glasses. I hereby propose this ceremony for entry into the Continental Cuisine Hall of Fame.

72 Market St. (Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli)
Venice, Calif., 213-392-8720

Rating: [4 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "Dudley comes in occasionally."

Venice, a community on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, is the Dunkirk of the hippie movement. All but driven into the sea by the irresistible tides of conformity, the American hippie is making his last stand here. You can spot this vanishing breed gamely roller-skating on the boardwalk while all around him Venice gentrifies into a placid, high-rent community.

The restaurant 72 Market St. is clearly part of the civilizing movement, but it pays its respects to the vanishing wackos in the person of a zany doorman. This elderly gentleman wears a modified formal ensemble of tuxedo jacket, string tie, cowboy hat and Bermuda shorts, and he instructs arriving guests, "Laugh after you're inside."

Beyond the doorman, the restaurant gets serious, particularly about its food. It is devoted to two distinctly different styles of eating, American countertop and nouvelle Californian, and it does both well. Such unpedigreed fare as mashed potatoes and meat loaf get just as much attention as the warm sea scallop salad with Maui onions and balsamic vinegar.

The front room is a bar with a soaring ceiling, blond wood, exposed brick and a startling bit of sculpture—a large bronze cylinder plopped in the center of the room and attached to the walls with steel rods. It looks like a time capsule awaiting burial, but it is actually a concrete-filled earthquake support. The restaurant's main dining room, separated from the bar by glass bricks, has almost nothing to detract from the food. The carpet is nondescript, the artwork unintrusive and the piano stood quiet the night we ate. The scenic highlight was Michael Pollard, dining near us and looking a lot grayer than when he chauffeured for Bonnie and Clyde.

The food is as wonderful as a perfect wave, from a salad of smoked salmon, Belgian endive and arugula with fresh lemon dressing to an entrée of grilled sea scallops on a bed of fresh creamed corn, garnished with bacon and red peppers. Just as good was a tender pork chop served with mashed potatoes and fresh spinach studded with garlic. Service is professional, the wine list exemplary and the prices reasonable. My only quibble was with a too tame hot fudge sundae and the absence of Dudley Moore from the piano. I thought he should be in every night, serenading his cook.

Marla's Memory Lane (Marla Gibbs)
Los Angeles, Calif., 213-294-8430

Rating: [2 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "She pops in and out."

The way I heard it, back in the '40s the streets of America's black neighborhoods were lined with supper clubs where the down-home food filled you up and the jazz wrung you out. Memory Lane, a 50-year-old jazz club and restaurant in the Crenshaw section of L.A., is alive today because of the stubbornness of TV actress Marla Gibbs, who won't accept the inevitability of its demise. Outside, an old-fashioned neon sign promises "fine dining," "cocktails" and "entertainment," but that isn't the best of what's inside. Memory Lane has so much warmth, so much charm and such kitschy ceilings that you'll not believe such a place exists today.

The front room has a long bar, tiny round cocktail tables and live entertainment. The back room, where food is served, has comfortable old green booths, celebrity photos and solid, heavy food. Next to the homemade hot rolls, the best dish was the barbecued chicken, lightly smoked with Kentucky hickory.

We were just finishing our meal, three white folks waiting around for a check, when into the dining room bounced Marla herself. She informed us that the show was starting and herded us into the front room. We were just in time to see an artist from Eastern Europe create shadow puppets with his toes. I looked around puzzled, wondering if we hadn't accidently wandered into Ed Sullivan's Memory Lane. Apparently we had come on a combination neighborhood/amateur night, when the entertainment tends toward the eclectic, to say the least. Later on, the quality picked up dramatically when Marla coaxed several professional singers spending their nights off at her place to come out of the audience and perform.

It's hard to know whether Memory Lane is a viable economic undertaking or just Marla's personal obsession, but as long as it exists, it should be seen. The food is pretty good, and the place is pretty great.

Tommy Lasorda's Ribs and Pasta (Tommy Lasorda)
Marina del Rey, Calif., 213-827-5330

Rating: [1 star]

Celebrity Promise: "Tommy will be in tonight."

I watched transfixed as Tommy Lasorda, gregarious manager of the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball's premier cleanup eater, shed his powder-blue sports jacket and sat down to a mammoth order of linguine marinara. The plate looked like a serving platter at an Italian wedding.

I don't usually gamble, but I would have been willing to bet that Tommy couldn't eat the whole thing. For the hour before he had started in on the pasta, Tommy had hung around a buffet table of appetizers set up for a family birthday party, carefully working his way through the whole lineup. As he started twirling linguine—magnificently, I might add—I paused for a moment to reflect on the meal my friends and I had just concluded. The portions were large and the prices were fair, but the kitchen took an awfully long time to warm up. For a while I thought the chef was going to throw a no-eater: We had tasted and pushed aside the institutional veal parmigiana, the premade heat-and-serve Cajun shrimp and the soupy linguine with white clam sauce. Then came the dramatic change-up: We were served excellent baby back ribs and equally good barbecued chicken, both meaty, tender and juicy.

Like baseball, Tommy Lasorda's Ribs and Pasta makes for great spectator sport. I couldn't take my eyes off Tommy, who ate every strand of that linguine. What an inspiration to the kitchen he must be. I reveled in the sight of Kirk Gibson, Dodger outfielder and the National League's Most Valuable Player, dining in the ugliest Bermuda shorts I have ever seen on an employed person. I walked around the restaurant, studying the unparalleled collection of more than 140 photos of Tommy and his friends. Even Ronald Reagan was there, standing by Tommy's side. I wonder if Tommy ever looks up from his linguine, sees the photo and realizes that he is only a heartburn away from the Presidency.

Nucleus Nuance (Billy Dee Williams)
Hollywood, Calif., 213-939-8666

Rating: [3 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "He doesn't show up that often."

Okay, you hate the name. So do I, but when Nucleus Nuance opened in 1967, America was entering its era of cosmic consciousness and the name probably sounded far-out. Okay, you've looked at the place from the street, and you don't want to go in. I can understand that too. The exterior is white cinder-block, the front door solid black, the overhead awning worn out. Okay, you're inside and the place gives you the creeps. I know what you mean. The long, winding walk from the door to the maître d's stand is a nightmare, a series of twists and turns along a gloomy cinderblock passageway. The first time I went to Nucleus Nuance, I thought of leaving a trail of crumbs, ensuring that I could find my way out.

When you're finally seated, you'll find Nucleus Nuance such a pleasant, gracious and modestly priced restaurant you'll wonder why you ever hesitated. It's the perfect alternative to the neon-and-arugula side of L.A., a hipster's hideaway that feels like it should be in New York. Dinner is served in four areas: the club room, which has a $5 cover charge for consistently good live entertainment; the bar, which I prefer; and two small dining alcoves off the bar. The cooking is solid and imaginative. I especially liked the tortellini stuffed with ground duck in an orange-cream sauce, the garlic chicken breasts with mustard greens and an appetizer called Catfish McNucleus—that's not jazz I hear, it's the sound of a lawyer from McDonald's dictating a copyright infringement warning. My only complaint was a less than virtuoso performance from our waitress, who rushed us through our meal in 45 minutes. Un-cool, man.

Bono (Sonny Bono)
Palm Springs, Calif., 619-322-6200

Rating: No Stars

Celebrity promise: "He comes in, but I have no idea when."

Entering Bono's, my dinner companion and I were greeted by a casually dressed, middle-aged fellow sitting languidly behind a low table. I felt as though we were registering for a single's dance, not announcing ourselves to the maître d' of Palm Springs' most famous restaurant.

Our host led us through the spacious, low-ceilinged, converted tennis club to a table that I had no trouble identifying as the worst in the house. Only one other table was occupied. I perked up when I looked at the menu, because I realized it was possible to order an all-Bono meal for two: Bono Private Reserve Chardonnay, Bono salad ("an original country-style Italian salad," read the menu), Sugo di Spuntature ("Sonny's dad's favorite meat sauce with ribs and Italian sausage on rigatoni"), Salmone Sonny Bono ("Salmon baked with white wine, olive oil and bread crumbs") and Bistecca Bono Griglia ("Grilled choice New York steak breaded Sicilian style").

I removed the napkin from my monogrammed Bono napkin ring and dug in. The salad was soggy, as though it had been premade in large batches. The rigatoni was overcooked and came with thin sauce, tasteless sausage and good rib meat. The steak was bizarre—a good piece of sirloin thinly breaded for no apparent reason and covered with what tasted like a nutmeg sauce.

Nutmeg on steak?

I thought perhaps the Bono Private Reserve Chardonnay was going to my head, so I asked the waiter if the sauce was, indeed, nutmeg.

"You want me to go to the kitchen to ask that?" he sneered.

Veteran though I am, I'm still surprised when I'm sneered at by someone expecting a tip.

He checked with the kitchen while I mentally reduced his gratuity by 5 percent. Yes, it was nutmeg sauce.

Salmone Sonny Bono was the dish I had been most fearing—"Don't order fish in the desert," warned my culinary subconscious—but it turned out to be the hit of the meal. The breading was light, golden and crunchy, and the salmon was expertly cooked.

When I asked about dessert, I got in trouble again. The waiter said he would bring the pastry tray. I said I didn't want the pastry tray; I wanted something from the menu.

"I don't think there is anything," he said, "and if there is, we haven't got it."

I had seen zabaglione on the menu, but I guess they didn't have it. I wasn't looking forward to dessert anyway, because by now our table was a mess. None of the busboys bustling about in their Sonny Bono T-shirts paused long enough to wipe the glass top of the table or scoop up crumbs, and dessert amid the detritus of Bistecca Bono Griglia did not appeal to me. I ordered a cappuccino, which came with a red plastic straw stuck in it.

As we departed, the relaxed maître d' waved us a cordial farewell. It would have been more appropriate had he winked and said, "I got you, babe."

Malibu Adobe (Dustin Hoffman, Tony Danza, Bob Newhart, Stacy Keach, Alan Ladd Jr., Randy Quaid)
Malibu, Calif., 213-456-2021

Rating: [1 star]

Celebrity Promise: "Quite a few of them come in."

After a Sunday brunch so bad I wondered if Hoffman was trying to re-create his dining experiences in Papillon, I gave Malibu Adobe a second chance and enjoyed much better food, the kind that doesn't start prison riots. Our waitress at brunch was a Southern California classic. Not only did she have the most beautifully tanned stomach I have ever seen, she had a brain that should be donated to science to study the effects of ultraviolet light on short-term memory loss. Whatever we requested—a glass of water, a cup of coffee, a crisp English muffin, a fork—she cheerfully agreed to provide and then immediately forgot all about.

The chef wasn't exactly overqualified either. Our Eggs Benedict came semicooked on soggy English muffins after we ordered the eggs medium and the muffins crisp. The chicken flautas, on the other hand, were badly over-cooked, which we did not request. Lunch a few days later was a far better experience, even if the food still didn't live up to its elaborate menu descriptions—nothing tasted as interesting as it sounded.

Since opening earlier this year, most of the attention paid to Malibu Adobe has not been for the food but for the interior design by Ali MacGraw. Her minimalist Southwestern look comes from bleached wood, terra-cotta tiles, white plaster walls and a sculptural-looking cactus that dominates the room. The customers seem minimalist too—they all look rich and idle. When we asked our brunch waitress if any famous people were around, she said a guy in earlier might have been Nick Nolte, but she wasn't sure.

The Blue Light Cafe (Boz Scaggs)
San Francisco, Calif., 415-922-5510

Rating: [3 stars]

Celebrity promise: "He comes in pretty frequently."

Walking into the Southwestern chicness of the Blue Light Cafe, I felt only half-dressed. So I snapped on my shades—they seemed obligatory—groped my way to the bar and ordered the Cajun cocktail, a house specialty. It was a six-ounce vodka martini placed in a canning jar with a jala-peño pepper the size of a pickle and allowed to marinate, maybe for a century. I unscrewed the lid, shrugged insouciantly and poured a big slug of the drink down my throat. There are worse things, I suppose. Maybe gargling with napalm.

When I ceased whimpering a very understanding waitress led me to the back of the restaurant, where I collapsed into a dark vinyl booth and leaned my head against the cool, galvanized tin wall. Too weak to choose, I asked her what was good. She said everything. She was very nearly right.

The menu was mostly Mexican, but here and there some north-of-the-border dishes appeared: gravlax (cured salmon), onion soup, linguine with pancetta (unsmoked bacon), even a hot fudge sundae. I particularly enjoyed the chicken fajitas—chicken marinated and mesquite-grilled, then served with flour tortillas and all the fixings. The chicken came on one of those sizzle platters that were popular in steak houses a quarter-century ago and then mysteriously disappeared from the culinary scene.

In perhaps the most courageous dining act of my life, I ordered chilies stuffed with cheese, scallions and more of those jalapeño peppers. The dish was delicious and the peppers alluringly mild. Thus emboldened, I called over my waitress and announced, "Another Cajun cocktail please." That's all I remember of the evening.

Hog's Breath Inn (Clint Eastwood)
Carmel, Calif., 408-625-1044

Rating: [1 star]

Celebrity Promise: "He comes in quite a bit, usually late at night."

At lunch I ordered the Dirty Harry Burger and a side order of french fries.

"We don't have any," the waitress said.

"No french fries?" I wondered.

"That's right. People ask for them all the time."

"So why not have them?"

"Then we'd go through twice as much ketchup."

I later found out the Hog's Breath Inn doesn't do any frying, which I ascribed to a commendable concern with good health. What I found contradictory was that the place apparently doesn't do much cleaning, either. This is the only restaurant where I've sent back a plate to be washed. Believe me, in this dark, gloomy, subterranean restaurant, minor grime does not show. While I was eating my badly overcooked burger, a woman walking past my tiny table slipped and nearly fell.

"It must be some water," she said. I looked down. It wasn't. The culprit was a chunk of cheesecake. (A few weeks after my visit, health inspectors from Monterey County closed the restaurant, citing violations "too numerous to list." It has since reopened.

The food at the Hog's Breath Inn is as subtle as a slug from a .44 magnum. The bread is an unheated chunk of sourdough. The High Plains Rancher prime rib, the best dish I tried, was a thick hunk of good beef. It came with big chunks of zucchini and bigger chunks of carrots. I ordered a bottle of Chateau de Hog, a sparkling wine with a barnyard bouquet.

Coffee was so weak and terrible it made me want to go into the men's room and punch a hole in the wall. When I got to the men's room, I saw that someone had beaten me to it.

All things considered, I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting Carmel, one of the primmest vacation destinations in America. In Carmel, the vulgar charm of the Hog's Breath Inn is a breath of fresh air.

Mulholland Drive Cafe (Patrick Swayze)
New York, N.Y., 212-319-7740

Rating: [2 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "He hasn't shown up yet."

The name says L.A., but the clientele screams Catskills. On the night I stopped in, 15 of 16 seats at the bar were filled by young women, almost all of them looking as though they spend their summers at the resort where Swayze dirty-danced. Jennifer Grey look-alikes poured through the door.

I'll say this for these women: Their parents taught them value. Although Mulholland Drive Cafe is located in one of Manhattan's priciest dining districts, between midtown and the Upper East Side, it has pleasant surprises, such as baby chicken for less than $10. For that we can forgive the errors, which included overcooked pasta, undercooked vegetables and main courses that weren't cooked as ordered. A sirloin steak was expertly prepared, and any dad bringing his daughter here for dinner should enjoy it with gobs of garlic mashed potatoes on the side.

The restaurant has an air of innocence, helped along by a pastel color scheme, a naïf mural of Mulholland Drive spread across the back wall, hard-backed nursery school-style chairs and just-budding flowers on the tables. An ice-cream sundae came with crushed nonpareils, a favorite candy of every child I know. Even the women drifting through the bar, apparently looking for intimate new relationships, looked too sweet to actually go home with anybody.

Columbus (Mikhail Baryshnikov, Regis Philbin)
New York, N.Y., 212-799-8090

Rating: No Stars

Celebrity promise: "I haven't seen Baryshnikov for a couple weeks, but Regis usually comes in for lunch every day."

After hearing that a glimpse of Regis was practically a sure thing, I rushed over to Columbus for lunch. No Regis.

"He's on vacation," I was told.

I don't blame him. From food like this anyone would need a vacation.

We were seated at a plain, varnished table decorated with flowers so wilted that they might well have been thrown onstage the last time Baryshnikov danced. One of our luncheon entrees, chef's salad, consisted of lots of iceberg lettuce topped with lots of shredded carrots and garnished with stringy roast beef and a few chunks of cheese that the cook was too listless to slice all the way through. The other entree was a thick, dry, steamy omelet that tasted premade and microwaved, like airline breakfast food. Desserts were a spoiled strawberry tart with bitter yellow cream and peach melba made with canned peaches.

Columbus, a restaurant where hardly anybody goes to eat, is actually the premier late-night celebrity hangout on Manhattan's Upper West Side. While we were having lunch, Danny Aiello walked in, looked around and walked out. He's not only a fine actor, he's also a promising restaurant critic.

Sam's (Mariel Hemingway)
New York, N.Y., 212-582-8700

Rating: [2 stars]

Celebrity Promise: "If she's in town, she's in; if she's not, she's not."

Few among us have come to grips with our feelings about bovines, but Mariel Hemingway (whose husband calls her "Sam") obviously has. She likes them a lot. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she has a small place called Sam's Cafe, where collectable cow art covers the walls, and more recently she has opened a much grander midtown establishment, one big enough to feed a herd.

Sam's restaurant, which features a bronze bison mounted over the bar, is a striking combination of postmodern and old-West decor. Tall cacti stand guard at the corners of the red-hued, prairie-size room, and graceful brass chandeliers hang from a gently arched ceiling. The food can be a bit pretentious (curried soft-shell crabs, tuna with niçoise butter), but if you stick to campfire cuisine—burgers, chicken and spuds—you should enjoy a fine meal. Desserts are huge and extremely sweet, and I recommend them only to runners carbohydrate-loading before the New York Marathon.

Although the restaurant has a drawing of a cow on the menu, it does not specialize in beef, offering only two items. I suppose it makes sense for Sam not to serve the things of which she is most fond.

Mickey Lolich Donut Shop (Mickey Lolich)
Lake Orion, Mich., 313-693-0029

Rating: [2 stars]

Celebrity promise: "He's usually here every day."

Mickey Lolich was a donut guy even when he played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, more than a decade ago. When the portly pitcher climbed onto the mound, fans never knew whether he'd throw a shutout or roll off. So the first question I asked the teenager behind the counter, after ordering an apple crisp donut, was how the boss was looking these days. She pointed to an old photo of Mickey in uniform.

"He doesn't look like that anymore," she giggled.

Even in the photo, old 29 doesn't look like he missed too many post-game spreads. I pressed for details.

"He's got sort of a big..." She held her hands way out in front of her stomach. It could have been Mickey she was portraying, or it could have been Tiger Stadium.

Mickey wasn't in the morning I arrived; he had left early to play golf. I guess those three-hour work days a man learns in the major leagues are hard to give up. I decided to wait around, see if he'd return, and to kill a little time I asked the girl for one of Mickey's favorite donuts. From the 38 varieties she selected a maple bar, which looked a lot bigger than a regular donut.

I sat at the counter for about an hour, twirling on my chair, enjoying four free coffee refills, eating a few maple bars. They were deeply satisfying. Mickey is still one of the great ones when he brings it to the plate.

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