Dsc00040I took this picture last night in Spanish Harlem.  Good, eh?  Pam and I were on our way to Rao’s for dinner.  It’s just around the corner at Pleasant Avenue and 114th street. 

Rao’s isn’t taking reservations for 2007.  They’re full up.  We thought that if we went for a drink, and someone canceled.  You know, it could happen. 

But of course it didn’t happen.  We showed up way too early, around 6:30, and the guys in the kitchen were eating their dinner.  The message was clear enough for even an anthropologist to detect: go away.  So we did.  We went to the upper east side for dinner and then came back for drinks around 9:00.

What a place, I am telling you.  Tiny, crowded, noisy, New York and then some.  Italian by origin but inclusive now.  We fell into conversation with the owner Frank.  Well, let’s be honest, we laid siege to Frank.  And the guy is such a celebrity that you hold his attention only by rolling out your A material, and hoping for the best.   

We were there with Joe and Christine, and that helped.  They’ve been officially designated by the United Nations as the most charming couple on earth.  Early in the evening, I watched Joe chat with a garage attendant.  It took him 20 seconds to establish a rapport that would take me an hour and a half.  He’s interested in everything.  Christine sees the world unflinchingly over Pocahontas cheek bones, and this gives her the ability, apparently, to penetrate all secrets.  She’s surprised by nothing. 

The two of them could have handled Frank on their own, but between the four of us, it wasn’t long before he felt himself floating on a veritable Humboldt current of congratulation.  You never know, several more occasions like this and we could be booking tables for the same calendar year. 

The thing that’s interesting about Rao’s is that it is an experiment that tests the possibility of urban experiments.  On any given evening, Frank has got politicians, mob bosses, celebrities, socialites, business types, guys in track suits with Rolex, and schmucks like me.  "My job," Frank told us, "is to make all these people feel like they belong here."  This means that in this tiny space, Frank makes very different differences go away.  And then he plays the power impresario, mediating  connections and brokering deals. 

It’s fun watching the eyes of other watchers: people who observe for a living and make their living by deciding what it is they just saw.  I mean, all the planners and anthropologists do exactly this.  So, as I say, it’s fun to look into the eyes of someone who watches every night, in real time, with big consequences.  You watch Frank watching and you find yourself thinking, here’s a guy who is interested in everything and surprised by nothing. 


To Pam, my wife, who did the investigative anthropology. 

1 thought on “Rao’s

  1. jens

    lovely post. – lots of life, lots of energy. it suits grant the observer to become part of the action. – like it suits frank pellegrino to be both actor and observer.
    the success of places like rao’s lies in the fact that restaurants when they become both stage and xyz (how do you call that place in a theater where the audience sits?) work so perfectly as metaphor for the times that we are living in right now. its all about acting — 24/7 — everybody is observer and actor at the very same time — all of the time.
    the interior design of restaurants has been capitalizing on this for the past 15 years — but only if you have the right impresario (wiki: “Figuratively, it refers to anyone who flamboyantly takes a leading role in organizing or orchestrating something intended to entertain an audience…”) you can see the world unfold before your very eyes.
    the right impresario is both forgiving and provocative. he integrates and excludes in an intuitive, ever changing and highly artistic way. you can never be certain if he will grace you with some extra privileges and attention, and you can never be certain that he will not.
    dynamically balancing — orchestrating — public (or semi-public) places both with attitude and empathy — and preferably with everything at the same time — is a rare gift and it has become one of the most enjoyed features of life in our young century.

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