It was only August, late August at that, when we sat in a restaurant called Justin's - named after the son of its owner, the ubiquitous Sean Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy. Justin's could also be known as Diddyworld. It was as much about the food as it was about celebrating the ego of its owner. P. Diddy songs played over the high-end sound system, and movies that he produced or had a hand in occupied the flat screens positioned around the posh room.
We ended up tipsy - well, at least one of us did - and completely stuffed as we sat among the well-dressed crowd and the glowing sake bottles in the Flatiron eatery. But a month later, news broke that Jus tin's would be closing. According to Combs, the restaurant is looking for more space.
Truth be told, the real reason we spent a weekend trolling celebrity-owned restaurants in Manhattan was not to sample the Diddytini at Justin's, but to track down another Justin - singer, actor, and all-around snack cake Justin Timberlake, who recently opened a ribs restaurant on the Upper East Side. But with everyone from Ashford and Simpson to Chris Noth opening eateries, we decided to see how Timberlake's venture stacked up against other star-owned establishments. And, let's be honest, we were also looking to stalk the celebrity owners and any of their superstar friends who might stumble in on our watch.
We arrive in New York on a sultry Saturday afternoon with an ambitious plan to dine at seven celebrity-owned restaurants around the city. Our starting point is Sugar Bar, an Upper West Side club owned by Ashford and Simpson, the husband-and-wife team who wrote big hits for Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross before turning into stars themselves with a massive chart single called "Solid." The inside of the club resembles a Caribbean shack decorated by an African interior designer, with a thatched roof and tribal masks hanging on the wall. Because we arrive promptly at 5, we pretty much have the run of the bar, and, more importantly, the handsome bartender, to ourselves.
STAKING OUT CELEBRITIES
There is no sign of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The bartender says the couple is usually here on Thursday nights for the weekly open mike. We demolish a plate of guacamole and down the peach fizz cocktail, all the while hoping to see Diana Ross. Ashford and Simpson wrote "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for her, and she has been known to enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage. The lady could come by and show some love. But, after an hour, there is no sign of Ross, so we depart for some of Timberlake's Southern Hospitality.
Our visions of Timberlake behind the bar at Southern Hospitality juggling liquor bottles as if he's Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" are quickly dashed. Much to our dismay, the crowd looks remarkably similar to one at a
Southern Hospitality's paneled walls are decorated with photos of Timberlake's heroes, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley (young Elvis, of course), and a PGA video game (we know he likes golf) occupies a monitor, but there is no other evidence that he owns the place.
Given our desperation to see Timberlake, we go into investigative reporter mode and ask the waitress whether he ever comes here.
"Oh yeah," she casually replies. "He's been in every night this week. He's usually here around 10."
It's only 7 p.m., so, barely chewing, we choke down the rest of our meal and rush out, with a plan to return at 10.
Fortunately for us, Timberlake co-owns another restaurant nearby in Midtown, an Italian eatery called Destino. We reason that if he's planning to arrive at Southern Hospitality at 10, then maybe he's having an early linguine dinner nearby. Destino is the antithesis of Southern Hospitality. It's an elegant, white-tablecloth restaurant filled with moneyed middle-aged couples. We're horribly underdressed and shvitzing like Doris Roberts in a spinning class. Timberlake isn't here, but it's for the best that he doesn't see us in this condition. We're still stuffed from dinner, so we stick to sorbet, and, of course, more cocktails.
Shortly before 10 we dash back to Southern Hospitality and stake out a pair of stools at the bar. If Timberlake walks through the door, there is no chance we'll miss him. The families that were here three hours ago are gone, and in their place are a lot of twentysomethings. Primarily, a lot of women who seem to have our same plan. The music is now top 40, and we both squeal with happiness when Timberlake's "Senorita" plays.
We wait. We wait some more. At 10:15, we spot a friend who lives in the neighborhood. She confirms that Timberlake has been in every night this week.
"It's a big deal for us," she says of the arrival of Southern Hospitality to the Upper East Side. "We actually don't get a lot of celebrities around here."
It's getting late, and there's still no sign of the man who puts the frosting on our cupcakes. We scan the back room and the bathrooms. He's nowhere to be seen.
Defeated, we make our way to the now-closed Justin's, and drown our sorrows in a Biggie martini. Truly, the best way to pay tribute to a late friend is to name a cocktail after him.
From Justin's, we proceed to Noth's club, The Cutting Room. Noth is the "Sex and the City" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" actor who has co-owned the space since 1999. There is a line out the door, but we quickly realize that line is for the club next door called Eugene's. The Cutting Room website says that "guests have included David Bowie, Ralph Fiennes, Ethan Hawke, Chris Rock, Kelsey Grammer, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Russell Crowe and Tobey Maguire." Obviously, our preference would be to see Maguire or Bowie, but by this point, we'd happily take a Buscemi sighting.
The Cutting Room actually looks like the kind of place Noth's Mr. Big character might frequent. It's masculine with lots of dark, heavy red drapes and the kind of hulking bar made for leaning against with a tall glass of whiskey. The jukebox plays Sinatra, and over a whiskey sour we scan the room for celebrities. There are none to be found.
At 12:30 a.m., we end up at The Half King, a bar co-owned by author Sebastian Junger. It is half empty and better equipped for a calm group of regulars than a collection of rowdy, Saturday night revelers. Tuckered out and drunk out from an unsuccessful evening of stalking/dining, we collapse at the bar hoping for one success before sleep, a glimpse of the man responsible for "The Perfect Storm."
After a few sips of soda, one of us heads to the lady's powder, but can't get out. Because of the sweltering city heat, the lock on the door is stuck. One frantic cellphone call later, and we're both struggling with the restroom door. Perhaps this could be a plot device in Junger's next novel? Eventually, all are freed, but it's a clear sign that we should head back to our hotel room. Even if Junger were here, we probably wouldn't recognize him. Everyone at The Half King looks like a pasty, depressed, anemic writer.
The next morning, exhausted and just a touch hungover, we stumble into Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill for brunch. This is our last attempt at seeing a star, and we're feeling a tad desperate. We chat up the waitress to find out if De Niro ever dines here. He does, although more often than not, he has his food sent upstairs to his office. Chances are good we'll see someone. Both Kiefer Sutherland and Mariah Carey live in the neighborhood.
Just as we're hitting stalker rock bottom, our French toast arrives, and it's the best French toast we've ever had. And trust us, we've consumed a lot of French toast. The waitress (are all restaurant servers in New York friendlier than Boston's?) tells us that the secret is crushed, frosted corn flakes. The resulting sugar high helps ease the pain. We have struck out on spotting the stars, but, on the bright side, we have developed an appreciation for Ashford and Simpson's guacamole.