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At celebrity-named restaurants, fame is what's cooking

By Sara Bonisteel, Special to CNN
Fans can say they ate dinner at Toby Keith's place.
Fans can say they ate dinner at Toby Keith's place.
  • Celebrities and restaurants are a good business mix
  • Stars like Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake invest in restaurants
  • Others put their names on restaurant, like Michael Jordan's Steak House
  • Author: Tourists love to go home and say they ate at celebrity's restaurant

(CNN) -- Toby Keith opened his seventh Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill in suburban Detroit earlier this month as the latest in a long line of celebrities who've tried to sell a meal with their A-, B- or C-list name.

Many celebrities invest in restaurants -- Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, to name a few -- they just don't always put their name above the door.

The celebrity moniker can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to starting a restaurant. For every Kenny Rogers Roasters -- which at one point boasted 350 franchises -- there is a Mickey Rooney's Delicious, Mickey Rooney's Weenie World or Mickey Rooney's Star-B-Q. Remember them? Neither does anyone else.

"There's definitely value in a popular celebrity's name," Laurie Jacobson, author of "Dishing Hollywood," tells CNN. "So if someone is well-liked by the fans, seeing the celebrity's name above the door of a restaurant just might make you go in."

Restaurants with famous names
-- Kenny Rogers Roasters
-- Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill (chain)
-- Loretta Lynn's Kitchen, Waverly, Tennessee
-- Carlos Mencia's Maggie Rita's Tex Mex Grill and Bar, New Orleans
-- Mickey Mantle's Steakhouse, Oklahoma City
-- Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse and Bar, Chicago
-- Michael Jordan's Steak House (several locations)
-- Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (chain)
-- (Don) Shula's American Steakhouse, Shula's 2 Steak and Sports, Shula's on the Beach, Shula's 347 Grill (chain)

The eponymous celebrity restaurant has its roots at the beginning of the Hollywood movie industry. In the 1920s and '30s, stars such as Frances X. Bushman, Clara Bow and Selma Todd lent their names to eateries. "It" girl Bow was so famous, she called her restaurant simply "It Café." "Most people didn't have to be told who the 'It' girl was," Jacobson says.

And just like today, scandal could destroy a celebrity's restaurant. Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Restaurant crashed and burned along with his acting career following allegations of rape and murder by the portly comedian. He "was eventually acquitted, but not in time to save his career," Jacobson says.

In those early days, the star who had his or her name on the menu was often in the joint, available to sit and have a drink with other famous pals.

By the 1950s and '60s, though, celebrity restaurants became more business ventures than vanity vehicles. Dean Martin licensed his name for Dino's Lodge on the Sunset Strip.

"Celebrities' names were slapped up on signs but they were rarely seen in those establishments and it was simply the name value that they hoped would draw in that celebrity's fans or tourists who hoped to see other celebrities there," Jacobson says.

Then there are those celebrities who've extended their time in the limelight with an eatery. The skipper from "Gilligan's Island" greeted guests at Alan Hale's Lobster Barrel and Steak House, and vaudevillian Dave Chasen's chili recipe launched his career as a restaurateur in Beverly Hills, Jacobson says.

The allure continues to reel in diners, hungry for a star sighting, be it fans of Toby Keith or Carlos Mencia.

"Sometimes it's just the thrill of grabbing that ashtray, that book of matches," Jacobson says. "And isn't it more fun to go back to Iowa and say I ate at [so-and-so's] restaurant instead of saying I ate at an Italian restaurant? It just gives it a little more oomph."