Why do we always covet the things we cannot have?
I am contemplating this age-old human mystery after failing, yet again, to secure a booking at New York’s legendary Italian restaurant, Rao’s.
It is of little consolation that Rao’s recently knocked back Hilary Clinton as well. I’m sure she’ll get over it. Her reservation was probably a last-minute, after-thought made by one of her harried staff. I’ve been trying to get into Rao’s for five long years.
Why such persistence, you ask?
Well, Rao’s (pronounced Ray-ohz) has been a New York institution since it opened in Harlem in 1896. In the early days it was largely a mob hangout. Now it’s more like a private club for Italian community power-brokers and Hollywood heavy-hitters.
Its famous fare isn’t fancy – far from it. The good and the great flock to this unfashionably located diner for its simple Italian home-cooked dishes. The baseball-sized meatballs are legendary, and Uncle Vincent’s lemon-sauced chicken is another house speciality. Woody Allen is a regular. So is Robert De Niro. He even has his own table. Other famous diners have included Nicole Kidman and Sony Bono. It seems Rao’s is more talked about by the diners who haven’t eaten there than the lucky few who have. ”I can’t get in there, and I’m the manager here,” John Kaufman has been reported to have remarked.
A restaurant more famous for being famous is surely bound to disappoint. The New York Times thinks so and opined that the atmosphere was better than the food. Perhaps…
Sadly, it’s the years of rejection that have made me even more fixated on Rao’s, more obsessed, more pathetic with desire.
They’ve been endless phone calls, emails, even flowers. But the doors stay firmly shut to my ardent advances. Rao’s tells dejected suitors that it has a ‘no reservations’ policy because all the regulars keep coming back – regularly.
I even did a Rao’s ‘drive-by’ during a recent trip to New York and peered through its quaint red-framed windows longing to be one of the happy glowing diners tucked inside its warmth slurping up mama’s spaghetti sauce.
Why them and not me?
It’s the familiar cry of many gourmands who dream of experiencing their favourite gastronomic temples scattered across the globe.
If you wish to savour Tetsuya’s confit of Tasmanian ocean trout the waiting list is three months long.
If you believe the marketing hype, 2 million people are waiting for a table at El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s molecular food mecca near Barcelona in Spain.
One lucky Sydney foodie will get to experience the El Bulli-hype. He jumped the queue after winning an audience competition during Adria’s recent Australian tour. Lucky bugger.
To cash in on its mythical reputation, Rao’s has opened up a disneyfied version of itself in, yes, you guessed it, Las Vegas. A pale imitation or my salvation?
Everything at the Caesar’s Palace location, deep inside the bowels of the casino, has been replicated down to the scanned and framed autographed pictures of stars on the walls and Rao’s famous red facade. There are more tables at this Rao’s so getting in was absurdly straightforward. One phone call and a booking on the night I requested.
I tried the meatballs and the lemon chicken. Delicious – yet I was strangely unmoved. Sitting on the new red leather banquettes made to look old, surrounded by soft flickering light even with the real-life Vince Colosimo chowing down in the corner, I couldn’t help but feel I was dining in a theme park re-creation. It just wasn’t the same.
So how do mere mortals get into these exclusive establishments when clearly being persistent isn’t always enough?
Of course it comes down to that frustrating cliché – ‘it’s who you know’. Snaring a seat at the original Rao’s, which only has ten tables, is probably a case of ringing your friend who has a cousin who’s the dentist of the guy who does the tax for the uncle of the bloke who cooks in the kitchen.
I hope you have better luck than I did.
Rao’s (New York)
455 E 114th St between 1st and Pleasant Aves
New York NY 10029
+ 212 722 6709
Rao’s (Las Vegas)
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South,
+ 877 346 4642