|Aged to Perfection|
restaurant co-owner/chef Michael emerges from the kitchen, wearing sauce stains
on his apron like medals of honor. He spreads his arms and looks down. "They
know Michael made it," he says, gesturing to his patrons. He tried to
change the antipasti, years ago, to make it a little fancier. He wanted to add
some roasted red peppers and maybe some eggplant, but loyal customers were less
than receptive. "People said, 'What the hell is the matter with
you?'" says Michael, laughing. "If I changed the menu now, they would
In a city where 75% of restaurants close or change hands within five years of opening, according to the New York State Restaurant Association, it takes something exceptional to stay around for 63 years, as Gino has. It, along with very few others, has received a warm and lasting embrace from New York.
Piemontese Italian restaurant Barbetta in midtown has been around for a little over a century now. Opened by Sebastiano Maioglio in 1906, it is now owned by his daughter Laura. It’s the oldest restaurant in New York still owned by its founding family.
Old Homestead is 137 years old, making it the oldest steakhouse in the city. It has survived in an ever-evolving meatpacking district, through the strip-club scene and into the more recent aggressive bar scene.
Combined, the three have been in business for 302 years, and the most striking thing about their continued success is not only how similar each strategy is but also how simple.
Sherry has been working at Old Homestead since 1962. His beginnings were
humble: for over a decade he worked in every part of the restaurant, from the
coat room to the kitchen. In 1973, he was boning out a rib when a delivery
came. He turned away from his work and the knife slipped into his wrist. The
particularly sharp point entered close to a vein, and Sherry still has the
scar. But for all the marks Old Homestead has left on him, he has left many
more on it: Every wall sconce and plateful of meat has his direct approval. He
says he knows, personally, one in every five patrons on any given night.
A high-ceiling dining room in warm beige and gold is crowned by a chandelier once owned by Italian royalty. The idyllic garden is all white furniture and sheltered from the reality of midtown by towering foliage. Maioglio, a degree holder in art history, is there in every romantic curve of every ornate carving. She is watchful of the kitchen's output as well, ensuring that the experience remains loyal to the Piemonte region of Italy, but the Team de Cuisine including Chef Abdul Sebti does not share her singular devotion to the past and is allowed a freedom for subtle improvisation in keeping the food as beautiful as the decor.
has found its menu is best left alone, but other landmark restaurants choose to
continually adapt to changing demand. Barbetta's menu includes next to each
item the year it was introduced. There is balance; dinner is a trip through the
century. The Minestrone Giardiniera is as old as the restaurant itself, but the
home-smoked Atlantic Salmon has only been around for 16 years. The Risotto al
nero di Seppie has been on the menu since the 1970s, while the Mousse of Orange
Bittersweet Chocolate is just one year old.
Truly old restaurants tend to become family traditions. Providing the kind of experience you'd want to pass along to your children is a careful focus of each restaurant, a sort of testament they all cite in explaining how they've survived. But it is an effect, rather than a cause. The cause? That’s no revelation.
It starts with the owners, who take pride in every single detail of their restaurants. Ask Michael or Salvatore who likes to sit at the table against the wall closest to the bar. Don't expect hesitation. Have Greg Sherry explain to you why the pictures on the wall are partly in color and partly in black-and-white. He'll happily explain the beauty in combining old and new. Or Laura Maioglio—challenge her to tie every single thing in her restaurant, from the appetizers to the wines in the wine library to the paintings, back to northern Italy. And this is not a theoretical discussion. You, personally, could go to any of these places tonight and really talk to these people. They'd be happy to meet you. All four of them firmly believe they have perfected the experience of eating a meal, and if perfection is achieved through practice, through years of trial and error and the gradual evolution of every recipe, then they'd be hard to argue with.
Written by Kiernan Maletsky, with additional reporting by Eric Singer
Photos courtesy of Barbetta, Old Homestead
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