This summer got me thinking seriously about restaurant hospitality.
I spent a grueling four months as the wine director, sommelier and special events guru at the Hamptons outpost of a New York City restaurant that has been around for three decades and I noticed that the time-honoured tradition of hospitality isn’t quite… ‘hospitable’ … but then again, it’s like most everything else these days: a watered-down version of what it really is supposed to be.
Hospitality has become a business and restaurants are now ruled by accountants and their spread sheets rather than the convivial hosts who made you feel like the king or queen of the world.
A quarter of a decade ago, there used to be a small restaurant on the upper east side called Café Trevi. Charming and brick-walled, it sat no more than 40 people. It wasn’t particularly chic or posh or even sexy, tucked away as it was on First Avenue…not Madison, nor even on a tree-lined street between Park and Lexington…no, it was on the Avenue with a nondescript entrance.
I stumbled upon the restaurant completely by accident. It was late September and the skies suddenly opened and a monsoon-like downpour began. With no umbrella, not a cab in sight and several very long blocks from the subway, I took refuge under a yellow awning. Minutes ticked by and I was slowly getting drenched, my Jimmy Choos destroyed. I turned around and realized I was standing by a restaurant and looked curiously at the menu. A drink? I thought…and at the very least, a chance to dry off.
I walked in and was taking off my raincoat when,
“Signora!” a male voice with a lilting Italian accent said behind me.
I turned and saw a very dapper man in his late 50s, dressed in a grey suit with a blush-pink shirt and a purple tie and matching silk pocket square peeking out of his breast pocket, smiling at me as though I were his long-lost daughter.
“Allow me please,” he said helping me with my wet bag, my raincoat, handing it to the bored coat-check girl with too much makeup.
“Now…” he said, rubbing his hands together, “how about a nice plate of pasta and a glass of wine?”
And despite the fact that I was on my way to meet my husband for dinner, his suggestion sounded so perfect that I found myself nodding, thinking that I ought to just call Duncan and have him meet me here instead of the overpriced French bistro where we had reservations.
And that was my introduction to Primo Laurenti, the owner and maître d’ of Café Trevi where I ended up about three times a week until it closed.
I went to the restaurant not for the ambiance or the “scene,” because admittedly, there wasn’t much. I went, because Primo looked after me from the moment I walked in: he honestly made me feel like I was, in that moment, the most important person in the world to him…his words and gestures warm and comforting, never cloying or overbearing. He knew when to speak and when to melt away. And every single time, he seemed to know exactly what I wanted, when it came to food and wine, always suggesting delicious dishes that he would have the cook whip up.
I watched him with his other clients. He glided through the room, danced elegantly around tables, courting them, talking about food, wine or anything else. When the meat arrived, he would be there to debone it, or the fish, to filet it, or the sauce that he spooned.
I took everyone there. At the time, I was working for CBS News and one by one, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Mike Wallace, Bob Simon and Ed Bradley…all went to Café Trevi.
Primo had a gift…a very special one…he was the consummate host. It was a gift that cannot be bought or taught. You either have it or you don’t.
A few years ago, after leaving CBS News, I decided to study wine and became a wine writer and sommelier. Now, in the hospitality game myself, I often think about Primo and how he made me feel and I try to do the same when I talk to people about wine: warm and humble without an ounce of pretension. I don’t want to scare people about wine, I want them to enjoy it as much as I do. My greatest satisfaction comes from the enjoyment people get from trying a wine I have suggested.
Good hospitality creates memories and at the of the day, isn’t that what makes us all richer?