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Where I First Became a Regular
8 restaurateurs and operators remember the first restaurant that became their spot
Throughout October, we’ll be posting reported features, essays, and lists around our monthly theme: The Regular.
The first time you’re acknowledged as a regular at a restaurant—maybe the bartender remembers your drink order, or the manager welcomes you back in—is a damn good feeling. And who knows how to engender it best? Chefs and restaurateurs. The chef-owners and the operators of the eating and drinking establishments we know and love understand the value of regulars better than anyone else. It’s regulars, after all, that keep a restaurant humming, both financially and energetically.
But as important as regulars are to both a restaurant’s vibe and bottom line, the magic truly exists on the other side of the equation. In other words, it’s the singular feeling of becoming a regular, of being anointed with this special role wherein you become part of the restaurant itself, that transcends perhaps all other consumer experiences. Just ask the pros: for many restaurateurs, the desire to become a regular is what inspired their career path in the first place. So, we called up a cast of seasoned veterans to get the stories behind their first and best memories of becoming a regular. Here’s what they said…
Greg Ryan, owner (alongside his wife, chef Daisy Ryan) of Bell’s
It was the first date that Daisy and I went on, April of 2010 for her birthday. She had never been to Gramercy Tavern. We ate in the dining room but then headed to the bar I think to keep our afternoon day drinking going. We loved it but we both agreed that the next time we were going to go it was going to be for lunch at the corner of the bar in the Tavern. Literally anytime it was a Tuesday or Wednesday and we had off and enough money (or not) we would find an excuse to go to the Tavern. If it was raining? Gramercy Day. Sunny? Gramercy Day. We just went for a run and cleaned the apartment? Gramercy Day.
Like any good restaurant person, most of the time you spot your own. When you visit frequently at 2 p.m. midweek, you tend to see the same folks working. You strike up a conversation and you quickly integrate into their lives as much as they do yours. We were working at Per Se at the time and there were friends of friends at Gramercy, and so by July of 2010 we were bonafide mid-week lunch regulars, there twice a month.
Within a year we had gotten to know pretty much the entire staff and management team at Gramercy. Daisy had already left Per Se and was feeling a bit discouraged at her next job. She was talking to Scott, Gramercy’s assistant general manager at the time, and he said, "just come here.” Which she did. Daisy always mentions that her one claim to fame is that she might have been the first "regular" to actually start working at Gramercy Tavern.
Before we left New York, we got married and celebrated with our family in Gramercy Tavern’s private dining room. It has become one of the most important places in our lives.
Camari Mick, chef-owner at Raf’s
The first restaurant I became a regular at was Tue Thai in the West Village. Back in 2015, when I first moved to the city, they had $5 mojitos and a $9.99 lunch special. I was living on a tight budget as a pastry cook that had just moved to the city so this was imperative to staying financially on track. Now with inflation the mojitos are $6 and the lunch special $11.99, still a worthy trip to the West Village in my opinion.
When [Jeremiah Stone and I] found the space for Contra we kind of based ourselves in the LES. Our friend Thomas was opening Dudley’s down the road and it was back in the days where you couldn't find "natural" wine in every single corner of the city. We started going to The Ten Bells on the weekends where we met Jorge Riera (who would then become our wine director). While he was working there they had the most amazing, craziest assembled staff that has ever been seen: Jose who is now at Louis/Dressner Selections, Arturo and Emilie who now have the Chestnut Street Inn in Asheville, and Jorge, who is now the wine director for the Frenchette multiverse.
We became really good friends with all of them and the weekends became twice a week, twice a week became daily, and they were all the most gracious hosts and teachers, opening new and weird bottles they didn't even have on the list. The Ten Bells became this place where all of a sudden we'd be taking over half of the bar and opening a thousand bottles of wine a day. I think those days, spending time with Jorge specifically in that setting really created a bond between the three of us that years later translated into what was a very successful first of its kind all-natural wine program at Contra and then Wildair.
This year, they sent us an extra dessert and a prosciutto snack appetizer. This humble and generous act of “regular reciprocity” made me feel more like an Angeleno than sitting courtside at a Laker’s game. — Jessica Koslow, chef-owner of Sqirl
Joey Scalabrino, chef-owner of Leo
I was a regular at Ops, and then that’s how Leo was born. When they opened, I would sit at the bar and eat so much pizza. I just really loved the pizza and the wine list, and the overall sensibility. There was nothing quite like it at the time. Mike Fadem and I would just talk about food and wine and eventually we decided we would open a new restaurant together.
Jessica Koslow, chef-owner of Sqirl
Every year we celebrate my husband’s birthday at Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood, the home of the planet’s best martini. One of our own regulars works the bar; another runs the floor. This year, they sent us an extra dessert and a prosciutto snack appetizer. This humble and generous act of “regular reciprocity” made me feel more like an Angeleno than sitting courtside at a Laker’s game.
Nick Anderer, chef-owner of Anton’s
For my parents, raising three hungry boys in New York City made deciding where we’d go out to eat pretty simple. It was generally pizza or Chinese—not fancy steakhouses or fine dining—that the family unit relied upon to satiate everyone’s hunger. But as I entered my teenage years, I would listen to Mom and Dad rave about their annual, post-holiday shopping date at a historic Midtown steakhouse, and I started to think, “Damn, I want to drink whiskey and eat mutton chops, too.”
It took me many years to get to a place where I could even afford to eat at Keens, let alone become a regular there. I had lofty expectations on my first visit, imagining it to be this mythical fairyland where everyone smoked pipes and curled their mustaches. Nevertheless, Keens delivered on all my hopes and dreams: strong Martinis poured tableside by a red-vested server, complimentary crudités with blue cheese dip on icy steel trays, sizzling mutton chops wafting through the pipe-lined mahogany dining rooms, and all the classic steakhouse sides cooked with unreasonable amounts of butter. And if you score a booth as I did on my first visit, you want to sink into that nook and never leave. It was pure heaven for a New York food glutton. Of course, this doesn’t sound at all like a place to become a regular. My parents probably had the right idea in choosing Keens as a once a year holiday treat. But I’m not nearly as sensible with my dining choices, so I decided to return once a month, sometimes more, to ingratiate myself with the host team, managers, and servers. It quickly got to the point where those dining rooms started to feel like a second home to me… and over a decade later, they still do.
The places I’d be a regular at are the places that I know what I’m walking into, I know what I’m going to order, maybe a couple of servers there know me, I know a couple of managers there. You feel like extended family. — Nick Curtola, chef at The Four Horsemen
Elyssa Heller, owner of Edith’s
I moved to New York fresh out of college when I was 22 years old. I didn't know anyone and had no real understanding about what living in New York was like. I quickly learned about the hustle, but it took a really long time for me to adjust to how fast everything moved. I lived in a tiny apartment on 12th Street between 1st and A. If you know the area, you know that Marco Canora has Hearth, an amazing restaurant that sits on the busy corner of 12th Street and 1st Ave.
He used to also have wine bars called Terroir scattered around the city, and one of them happened to be next to my apartment, directly next to Hearth. I lived paycheck to paycheck and could never afford to drink or eat there myself. One day, I was fumbling for my keys when one of the bartenders, who was outside on his break, offered to hold my bag so I could find them. We got to talking and he invited me over to Terroir for a drink. I was a little embarrassed, and admitted that I didn't know anything about wine and really didn't have a lot of money to spend. He said not to worry and got to pouring.
It turned into a frequent occurrence where I would get home from work and go to the bar to try wine. They charged me $12 and I would spend countless nights sitting there and learning about wine. Marco would be outside after a night at the restaurants, smoking a cigarette, being the epitome of cool. We would shoot the shit outside and I would go back in where the bartender would give me little pours of wine. I didn't know who he was and he didn't tell me, he just offered me a drag and a home away from my tiny little apartment next door.
Nick Curtola, chef at The Four Horsemen
The place I go to the most is Pastis because it’s super consistent. I know what I’m going to get there. I know that the service is going to be good. I like the vibe and the atmosphere. That and Balthazar are the places that spawned all these bistros popping up in New York over the last 10-15 years. My wife used to work there. She was the opening assistant general manager, front of house. I like that I can go any time of day, and generally can walk in without a reservation just because of the size of the place. I like that flexibility, and it scratches kind of every inch. I didn’t go to the [original location] as often as I go to the [current] one. I’ve been to the new Pastis more than any other restaurant I’ve eaten at in New York.
I usually get the escargots and a cheeseburger and a glass of rosé. I’ll get that every time. It’s better than it has to be. I don’t know how they do it with that many covers, but it’s so consistent. I love that more than getting burned by a new flash in the pan restaurant. There’s something to be said for those experiences, but they’re not the kind of places I’d be a regular at. The places I’d be a regular at are the places that I know what I’m walking into, I know what I’m going to order, maybe a couple of servers there know me, I know a couple of managers there. You feel like extended family, especially in the restaurant world. They’re really good at taking care of you. You might spot a celebrity. It’s a cool place to hang around people watch. And the food is good.