On Saturday May 29, as the clock ran down on the life of Manhattan dining institution Gino, longtime bartender Bruno Blazina, a hulk of white hair and white jacket, had a million of them. Is the kitchen closed yet?, he was asked. "The kitchen closed 12 years ago." Could he take a complicated drink order? "I'll make that for you on Monday, OK?" (Long ago, when a question-filled caller asked if Gino was on the internet, he responded, "No, we're on the East Side.")
Actually, on its final night after 65 years at the same address on Lexington Avenue, the kitchen at Gino was pretty hot. That's because chef and co-owner Michael Miele was on duty for the first time in a while. Regulars told me that the food during the final week had been tip-top. "When Michael's in the kitchen," a slickly dressed European man seated on the bar stool next to mine said, and then pressed two fingers and a thumb to his lips and kissed them. "When he's not, the food's so-so." Minutes after he told me this, the room, packed to the gills, burst into applause. Miele had emerged from the kitchen. Waves of affection surged in his direction. He smiled, he beamed. Miele's partner, Salvatore Doria, meanwhile, furrowed his brow and frowned.
"Michael doesn't want to close," said the slick man. "It's the other guy. He figures he's old, he wants to relax. Why bother?" Why bother with the stress of the rent hike and the wait staff's union demands, he means. "But Michael's got energy," said a small old lady, who was waiting at the bar with her small old lady friend and a glass of house red. They had been going to Gino for 23 years. The two women had already turned down an offer of a table. "We don't mind waiting," she said. They were enjoying the hours they had left.
I told the old lady that I'd heard Miele wanted to open a new place. She brightened up as only someone with inside dope could. "Oh, he will. It's gonna happen. He's looking around. And it has a name!" What is it? "Michael of Gino's."
Michael's niece—tall, pretty, brunette and clearly of a different era than most of the folks in the room—took pictures of the scene, using a camera hung around her neck. She had been drafted to record the evening. "I'm in denial," she said. "I grew up here." Not everyone she saw was a familiar face. "I don't know any of these people," said the old lady. "They're not regulars." Still, some of them were. Gay Talese, the writer—who has penned more odes to Gino than Shakespeare wrote sonnets to the Dark Lady—was sitting at a large table at the back with four guests, nattily dressed in a light grey three-piece suit and a bold, striped, silk tie. He face glowed red for a second as someone at the table took his picture.
Another regular of 30 years standing at the bar ordered a few Dewar's Black Labels on the rocks running. But he didn't drink. "I'm waiting for a water for my wife," he explained. "I shouldn't drink mine before she has hers." He had to wait. The bar had run out of clean glassware, save Martini glasses, with no reinforcements in sight. That was good news for me, as I was ordering Martinis. I ordered a Beefeater, four to one, with a twist. The crusty barman nodded assent, and proceeded to pour the Tanqueray. Gino's will be Gino's, even until the end.
"Things we're pretty hot last night," said the slick man. You mean busy? "Yeah, it was five deep at the bar. But tempers were hot." He then pointed out a particular waiter whom he identified as the union's point man in the restaurant, and indicated he was none too popular right now. There had been a loud fight between him and the kitchen staff Friday night. And a patron had purposefully tripped a waiter, nearly provoking a full-out brawl.
It's understandable. Nerves get raw when a beloved restaurant shuts down. Looking out at the bustling, bubbling room, it was clear there was something worth saving here, and something worth mourning. The energy of the place was different than that you'd find at The Ace Hotel or The Lion or any of the current hotspots. It wasn't predatory, cruel, self-important or self-involved. It was generous and warm and teeming with character, the vibrations of a large group of people not only happy to be in a familiar space, but to be with one another. They knew that life seemed not just larger, but fuller and better while they were inside this zebra-line sanctum. It felt like what New York restaurants must of felt like in the 1950s—small welcoming villages within a big cold city. Gino embraced its citizens one last time on Saturday, and the population hugged back.
—Brooks of Sheffield
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