Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, opened this weekend, and I couldn’t help but reflect on an encounter I had with the internationally renowned thespian when I was still waiting tables in New York.
By 1991, less than five years since I arrived in the Big Apple, my freelance work as a Marvel character actor and writer for the company’s fan magazine, Marvel Age, had grown to the point that I was only a few months from becoming an independent contractor full-time and leaving the food-service business altogether. I was sometimes bartender, most times waiter at an Italian restaurant called Valentina’s in Tribeca, an area on the lower west side of Manhattan.
It was an unremarkable eatery. The décor was tired and dated: wood-paneled, ecru wainscoting; maroon and graying (from having never been cleaned) paisley-print flock wallpaper; worn Persian-style, wall-to-wall carpeting; miniature, faux-crystal chandeliers, yellowed from age and neglect; tables topped with carnation pink cloth; and heavy, wooden chairs with seat cushions in desperate need of reupholstering. The place had remained unchanged, since its opening decades prior, and so had its clientele, making the appearance of Johnny Depp one evening all the more astounding.
Depp’s cachet was high from his success in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. He walked in one dead weekday night for dinner with a female friend in tow. The maitre d’—an older disgruntled, failed actor named Doug—didn’t recognize the young star, but he wouldn’t have known anyone younger than Walter Matthau. He seated the party in my section—actually, the whole restaurant was my section that night (dead, remember?). I identified Depp instantly.
“Two Pelligrino’s,” Doug reported to me from my perch at the bus station where he deposited the extra two settings from the four-top at which he had seated the future Jack Sparrow, before heading to the bar to pick up the bottled Italian sparkling waters Depp and co. had ordered.
I watched until Doug had the drinks and glasses precariously balanced on a cocktail tray and was returning unsteadily to the table, before asking, “Don’t you know who that is?”
I knew full well Doug hadn’t a clue from the innocuous way he acted when escorting the Depp party to their table. I also knew Doug—as a wannabe celebrity—would react like a dog when asked if it wanted a cookie when I posed the question. But as he was already committed to delivering the drinks, all he could do was continue on his awkward way, only now with the extra onus of serving big stars! As Bugs Bunny would say, “Ain’t I a stinker?”
When Doug returned—fortunately sans incident—there was noticeable sweat on his prodigious forehead and he was visibly shaken.
“Wh-who…? Who is it?” he stammered, barely keeping his voice below a whisper.
“It’s Johnny Depp,” I replied, as if to say, How could you not recognize one of the legends of our time? How could you have been treating him like just another person? Then I proceeded briskly to the table to give Depp and his date the specials for the evening, leaving Doug to alternately fret about his atrocious behavior while also wonder who the hell Johnny Depp was.
I was never one to get caught up in the celebrity of television and movie stars. I provided excellent service regardless of who I was waiting on. From what I’d observed, Depp showed neither haughtiness nor ego. As I approached he and his date were leaning in close to one another, holding hands across the table, giggling while chatting, signs indicative of a couple newly in love. His female companion looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place her face. She was diminutive, had beautiful dark features, short-cropped hair and alabaster skin. I knew Doug wouldn’t be any help in her identification; she was several generations removed from Mary Pickford, after all.
The pair kindly listened as I delivered that evening’s specials before saying they were ready to order. Depp gentlemanly ordered a split Caesar salad for both and a pasta primavera for the lady before pausing.
“Can I get the veal piccata, only with chicken?” he humbly inquired.
“You want chicken piccata.” I replied, as if being asked a trick question.
“Can you do that?” he furthered. In Depp’s defense, veal piccata was listed on the menu, whereas the chicken alternative was not.
“Of course, it’s the sauce that makes it piccata,” I explained. “The chef can just substitute chicken for veal.”
“Great. I’d like that and an order of tortellini,” he finished.
“Do you want the tortellini before the main course?” I asked.
“No, you can bring everything together.”
“That’s an awful lot of food, you know?” I cautioned.
“Yeah, but I’m really hungry,” he explained.
“I think your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” I warned, using a saying of my mother’s when I ordered more food than I could possibly eat. “Let me bring you the tortellini,” I continued. “I’ll check when you’re halfway through, and if you want, I can put in the chicken piccata order then and have it ready when you’ve finished the tortellini.”
He seemed pleased with my compromise and the two went back to making googly eyes at one another while I headed for the kitchen. On the way, I passed Doug interrogating the Hispanic busboy as to the identity of my diner. Unsuccessfully, I might add. Though, I’m willing to bet the busboy knew exactly who Johnny Depp was, but was merely messing with Doug (Ah, I trained him well).
When I saw that Depp’s tortellini was half eaten, I returned as promised.
“You were right. It’s very filling… and very good,” he admitted. “I won’t need the chicken piccata.”
Depp ended up not quite finishing the tortellini, but waved off a doggy bag when offered. He then asked how long the restaurant had been there, explaining that he and his companion were just walking around when they found it. He seemed surprised that he had never heard of Valentina’s before. My feeling was that the place, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, just needed a little love and attention, so it was nice to hear Johnny Depp give his kudos.
“You are who I think you are?” I then asked. Perhaps, I suffered a moment of uncertainty when he remarked so positively about the place. The food was good, but while being a far cry from the Italian food served from chafing dishes at buffet-style wedding receptions, it was also a ways removed from the cuisine served at any of Chef Mario Batali’s establishments. And had Depp actually took in the place’s ambiance, instead of staring into his gal pal’s eyes the entire time with limited pauses to interact with Doug and me, his opinion surely would have varied. I mean, the restaurant was the sort of place that bowling leagues would rent out for their annual dinners.
“Yup,” was his economic reply.
“Just wanted to make sure,” I explained. “Personally, I couldn’t care less, but whenever I go home to visit, my family always wants to know who I’ve seen.”
I then turned to Depp’s date. “And are you anyone?” I regretted the question before the last syllable passed my lips. The bird in the children’s book, Are You My Mother? didn’t sound as pathetic as I did.
“No… I’m nobody,” she replied, then the pair broke out in laughter. I still didn’t know how badly I’d blundered, but was positive I’d screwed up any chance of getting a good tip.
The check came to a modest sum—just over $40.00. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Depp had matched that total, leaving me $40 dollars. And he left Doug another $20. Maybe he really did enjoy the experience, although in my case he probably just felt sorry.
Soon after they had departed I had a Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” moment: Depp’s cherubic companion was Winona Ryder. The two had met while filming Edward Scissorhands, and their affair was in all the tabloids and magazines, and on all the television gossip shows at the time. And no doubt, you my forgiving Bloglodytes, figured it out almost immediately. I’d like to think I fell victim to the whole stars-never-look-in-person-as-they-do-on-screen theory. Or that my ignorance was a result of never reading those trashy rumor-mongering periodicals or watching their televised equivalent.
Oh, Hell, who am I kidding…
Just call me Doug.