This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Patroon is on a short list of East Side lunch venues that cater to people who in one way or another control a much larger portion of the world than does the average citizen. Its dining room at lunch, always packed, is a sea of bold-faced names and their guests. Tables tend to be controlled versus reserved, per se, in that reservations, which can be had, will get you though the door—but only Ken Aretsky, a man who counts his time in the restaurant business in decades, can keep you out of Siberia.
Ken Aretsky, (“Mr. A”), Proprietor: In the dining room: 125 seats; second floor private event rooms: 150; seasonal rooftop bar: 75 What are your favorites? My favorite table in this restaurant is the “Chef’s Table.” The table is in the same spot as it was when the restaurant was Christ Cella’s, a four-star steakhouse. When we bought the building, we kept “the kitchen table” as it was called then." Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? "During weekday lunch, we’re packed to the gills. Obviously, we try to accommodate everyone, but we do have a number of customers who book the same table three to four times a week. So, essentially, the best way to reduce your wait is to become a regular." How about gifts or cash to speed things along? "No cash or gifts, but it helps if you’re a Yankees fan, cigar smoker, and can name the photographer whose photos of old New York line the walls of the restaurant."
Tell us about your favorite customers? Are there any from your ‘21’ Club days? Any celebs been by recently?
"I’ve known many of my customers for decades, dating back to when I co-founded the sports bar “Oren & Aretsky” and later when I owned Arcadia and Butterfield 81 and ran the ‘21’ Club. Naturally, over the years, many of these people have become friends, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their careers blossom. For instance, for decades I’ve known Condé Nast President and C.E.O. Chuck Townsend, writer Dominick Dunne, designer Arnold Scassi, Martha Stewart, writer Gay Talese, lawyer Ed Hayes and former Ranger Ron Greschner. In terms of the celebrity question, at Patroon, the celebrities are really the business and diplomatic leaders (the U.N. is nearby) who patronize the restaurant, people such as former Governor George Pataki, President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, Rodale President Steve Murphy, and Triarc Chairman Nelson Peltz."
How has the front of house business changed from when you were at ‘21’? "The biggest change I’ve noticed in the industry from my perch at the front of the house is that, thankfully, there is now a much broader demographic of diners at upscale restaurants. In those days (I left ‘21’ in 1995) the clientele was older and far more insular. I bet the average customer at ‘21’ was 60 years old. Today, at upscale restaurants, you’re likely to see a lot more young people and a broader cross-section of the population in general."
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? "If there are no tables available, we will tell the V.I.P. exactly how long the wait will be." ..how about your own friends? "As both “The Gatekeeper” and owner of the restaurant, I’m usually on hand to greet friends. If for some reason a table isn’t immediately available, say, if they’ve popped in without a reservation, usually we’ll go over to the downstairs bar to catch up or, if it’s nice out, head to the rooftop bar." What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve had to accommodate? "Recently, we had a customer book a private lunch party on a Wednesday for the following day. Once he booked the party, he then had the following items flown in from overseas on his own private plane: flowers, linens, chairs, lighting. China, silverware, and AV equipment. He basically remade the entire private room over to his satisfaction – in 24 hours. What’s more, he also flew in an electric violinist, a comedian/magician, and a burlesque dancer. In 30 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like that." ...that you couldn’t accommodate? "We had a very old first-growth Bordeaux on the wine list for $10,000. To be honest, I purchased it more as a conversation piece rather than a bottle to sell. However, one day at lunch a couple came in and ordered it. Frankly, I wasn’t willing to part with it at the time so I went over to the couple and said, “I really thank you for ordering this bottle, but I think it would be best enjoyed with a big meal at dinner. So when you want to come back and enjoy it, please call me and dinner will be on us.” While they appreciated my suggestion and held off getting the bottle, they never took me up on my offer; eventually, a large party did come in one night and order the bottle, at which point I was willing to part with it."
What’s the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? "We literally host hundreds of private events a year in our six private rooms, and many of the gatherings are serious big business pow wows where hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line. Many of these business clients come here not just because Bill [Executive Chef Bill Peet] is a great cook and the rooms are intimate and beautiful, but because they value my discretion as well as my staff’s; they trust that what’s discussed in the room stays in the room. So in answer to your question, I’d say, an ability to maintain privacy is a key tool for the job. I would also add that you’ve got to love being a host and enjoy ensuring that your patrons are having a great time. That might sound self-evident, but a lot of Gatekeepers don’t actually like doing the nuts and bolts of the job."
When you’re not at Patroon, we’d likely find you..? "At the Waverly Inn, Elio’s, J.G. Melon, and if I want to have a grand night out, La Grenouille."