NEW YORK, JUNE 22 -- Nelson and Winnie Mandela had done all the "uptown" things -- Gracie Mansion, Yankee Stadium and Harlem. But tonight it was time to go downtown and rub elbows with the terminally hip near SoHo.

The $2,500-a-head reception at actor Robert De Niro's trendy TriBeCa Film Center and Grill was where some of Hollywood's biggest stars saw fit to climb onto the increasingly crowded and eclectic Mandela bandwagon.

The event at the red brick former coffee warehouse was billed as a private dinner to honor the Mandelas and raise money for the African National Congress. And as the stream of stars arrived in limousines, they waved, ducked and rushed into the restaurant.

Most of the evening's hosts -- De Niro, actor Eddie Murphy, guitarist Little Stevie Van Zandt and filmmaker Spike Lee -- arrived early, as did talk show host Phil Donahue and comedian Joe Piscopo.

Also on hand were actors Robin Williams, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bette Midler and Esai Morales, Dance Theatre of Harlem impresario Arthur Mitchell and rock singer Cyndi Lauper, who nearly escaped the photographers' notice in a short black dress and dark, slicked-back hair. Artist Peter Max, talk show host Dick Cavett, singers Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Living Colour band member Corey Glover also put in an appearance.

The guest of honor did not arrive until nearly an hour after he was scheduled to. The Mandelas appeared in a swirl of sirens and flashing lights as a cheer went up from a crowd of several hundred Mandela-watchers who crowded behind police barricades for as long as three hours to get a glimpse of him.

Winnie Mandela had planned to wear a black crepe cocktail suit with beaded trim, purchased during Thursday's hour shopping sprint at the Seventh Avenue showroom of Victoria Royal, manufacturer of moderately priced evening wear and clothier of a number of political wives. She also picked up a purple satin ball gown for next week's White House festivities and ordered a green satin gown for the fall -- all a gift from company owner Alan Sealove, who pronounced Mandela "warm and nice and appreciative, no special airs about her."

Only Eddie Murphy's entourage rivaled Mandela's.

Several of those waiting in the cheerful crowd -- jaded New Yorkers who applauded passing joggers -- sniffed at any suggestion that they were there to see the stars rather than the African National Congress leader.

"Stars? Huh! Give me a break," Bobbie Kraus, who lives nearby and had stopped by hoping to get a glimpse of Nelson Mandela. "If anybody tells you they're here to see the stars, take out your gun and shoot them."

Organizers reported that the event -- from which reporters were barred -- had already raised $500,000 for the ANC before the first Hollywood star strolled through the door.

Folk-rock singer Michelle Shocked, for instance, contributed $50,000. Other luminaries including Madonna and Oprah Winfrey, who was not present last night, also gave more than the required ticket price.

Christine Eisner, a special-events planner who helped pull the fund-raiser together, described it as "a hybrid kind of event," part buffet, part sit-down. The reception was approved for Mandela's schedule only three weeks ago, and Eisner said tickets were sold by word of mouth and over the phone.

"It says a lot for Mr. Mandela that the tickets sold so well," she said. "There were some people who couldn't be here who just wanted to make a statement."

TriBeCa, which opened earlier this year after a number of delays, also lists Bill Murray, Christopher Walken and Mikhail Baryshnikov as co-owners. It is located in an industrial district that has lately attracted a number of trendy restaurants.

The film center on the seven floors of facilities above the TriBeCa is currently home to the production of Tom Wolfe's novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities." With just the right amount of graffiti sprayed to the right of the main entrance and a number of potted plants placed near the entrance, the TriBeCa provided a quintessentially New York artsy backdrop for Mandela's final appearance in the city.

As at other Mandela events during his three-day visit, New York's finest were well represented but seemed to have little to do. Many in the crowd who had waited so long on rooftops and street corners barely saw Mandela, who raised one arm -- it seemed weakly -- in response to the cheers that greeted his arrival.

Donna Bernard, 32, a court worker who lives in Brooklyn, could identify every celebrity she saw, including, she said, Madonna, who was not officially spotted last night. But it was Mandela she had cometo see. She described him in terms usually reserved for rock stars and movie idols:

"He gives me goose pimples. He makes my hair stand up on my arms."

Staff writer Paula Span contributed to this report.