13 February 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Gino?"

After all these years, I finally had dinner at Gino.

I've had drinks at the small bar (big sloppy drinks made by thick Russian hands), but never a meal. Truth to tell, the prices usually stopped me, and the insistence on cash only. I'd go again, but primarily for the atmosphere, which is priceless. And I wish I could paper my bedroom with the zebra-print wallpaper.

Here is my Eater "Who Goes There?" account of the place. Take a look at Krieger's fantastic photos, particularly the one of the two swells at the bar counting their dough. That picture by itself explains Gino's special place in the world.

This issue with Gino, the 64-year-old red-sauce survivor on Lexington Avenue near Bloomingdale’s, is not whether people go there. Obviously, tons of people go there. On a recent Wednesday night, the recession-proof restaurant was packed by 7:30, and even then the coat-room girl (yes, there is a coat room girl, every night) told me “This is not busy.” Even the tiny bar was deep with loose-livered businessmen. But who are they, these people who happily pass through a bright yellow door and then through a bright red door to plunk down $50 to eat mediocre Italian? Gino has an army of devoted regulars, but I’ve never met one of them.

All kinds frequent the narrow place. Old, young, Italian speaking, reserved Upper East Side types, back-slapping types, couples, large parties and women in fur coats. Actually, many women in fur coats. The one thing they have in common is they all know each other, and everyone knows Francesco, the maitre d’ of 27 years standing. Each entrance and exit at Gino is greeted by smiles, handshakes, kisses, waves, and “Hello”s from across the room. Nobody seems to arrive or leave unhappy. “It’s a big family,” said my red-jacketed waiter, who admitted he had only been in service five years. (Other waiters have been employed for 40 years.)

The attraction, in my estimation, is not the food, which is expensive and only acceptable. (My clams were rubbery, my lasagna mushy.) It’s the unchanging face of the room. The wooden phone booth; the coat room; the veteran, burly bartender, with his thatch of white hair, forever wiping down his bar; the drinks menu that prices Rob Roys and Old Fashioneds both with well liquor and top-shelf stuff; the insistence on cash only—nothing changes. Things are done at Gino the way they were at most restaurants 40 years ago. Even the mahogany bar and the tables are the ones chosen by founder Gino A. Circiello many years ago.

Accordingly, the customers behave the way customers did back them. Though Gino was first put on the map decades ago by the likes of Fred Allen, Ed Sullivan and Greta Garbo, there are no poseurs here now. No one is interested in being seen, or looking cool. They want to relax, and order something they’re used to from a waiter who knows what they like. Gino can give you that, but, sadly, only if you’re a member of the club. If you’re not, you can still have a pretty good time staring at the utterly unbelievable, one-of-a-kind, blood-red zebra-print wallpaper, and imagine how perfect a backdrop it would make for “Mad Men”’s Don Draper. It is my private belief that Gino would not have endured this long if, long ago, Gino himself had opted for another, less provocative print.
—Brooks of Sheffield

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