While I was sitting in New York City’s renowned Gotham Bar and Grill the other day, waiting to speak to executive chef and partner Alfred Portale, something peculiar happened.
Under the formal setting of high ceilings, cultivated art, and dramatic chandeliers, a middle-aged woman in her pajamas walked in.
“I’m your neighbour,” she told the hostess. “I locked myself out of my apartment and the only way I can get back in is if I climb over your fence.”
Bret Csencsitz, the general manager, glided to the front of the restaurant. “Are you locked out again?” he asked, and then escorted the woman to the back where, presumably, he helped her jump Gotham’s backyard fence.
The whole situation struck me as straight out of a sitcom: The manager took it completely in stride, and didn’t blink an eye at the rather strange predicament.
And that’s why, after 30 years of serving high-end cuisine in New York’s Greenwich Village, Gotham Bar and Grill is still such a classic.
When I finally sat down with Portale, who has helmed the kitchen at Gotham for 29 of its 30 years, he stressed that one of the most important elements of the New York Times 3-star restaurant‘s success is its service, perhaps even more than the food.
“People will forgive an overcooked meal, or maybe a wait for food or something underseasoned, but they will never forget bad service, rude service, inattentive service,” he said. “We have a very democratic door policy. We remember our regulars. We have a whole database on people’s birthdays, their likes and their dislikes. Rather than just offer a customer champagne when they come in, we have notes that say he doesn’t like champagne and only drinks vodka.”
But that doesn’t mean food comes second for Portale, who was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2006. He thinks constant innovation and improvement on the restaurant’s menu hashelped Gotham thrive.
“We are continually asking ourselves on a daily, weekly basis thinking about how can we improve the restaurant, how can we improve things for the employees, the guests, the physical space, the service,” he said.
Picky customers help keep the restaurants on its toes.
“The New York guests are a lot better informed than they ever were,” Portale said. “They’re better educated, they’re more demanding, more enthusiastic. They want to know where the food is from and how it’s prepared and that wasn’t necessarily the case 30 years ago, and that’s a big change for us.”
Portale recalled one of the biggest food trends over the years — “tall food” or “architecture food” — which he unwittingly helped create in the 1990s when he started playing with dimension on the plate, stacking fish and making salads stand vertically. But once critics coined the buzzword, he stepped back from it.
“It was all wonderful and beautiful until I became the inventor of it, and it swept all across the country. Once it became a trend, I moved away from it,” said Portale. “I mean I was very proud, and always proud of the food until people started putting so much importance on the presentation, that’s what made me nervous.”
But since Portale has been at Gotham, he has never feared that it would succumb to the New York City restaurant “curse” — some 80% of restaurants that open in the Big Apple close within five years. One thing that distinguishes Gotham from other upscale, French restaurants is that it actively blogs and tweets, Portale said.
“Our crowd is getting younger, which is a good thing for a restaurant of our age,” he said. “A lot of older French restaurants basically die because all their customers grow old and wither away. But we have such an active social media presence we work on our social media every single day.”
While the restaurant has never expanded beyond its Greenwich Village home, Portale said he hopes to see Gotham expand in the future. “We’re trying to maybe expand the brand a little bit,” he said. We looked at some opportunities in Washington and some other cities.”
“Certainly we are going to continue to do what we’ve done,” he adds. “I don’t mean the same thing, I mean continue to find new challenges and new direction for the restaurant.”
Good news for its neighbour.
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