Monday, January 4, 2010


Despite frightening rumors of closure, restaurant Gino did not shutter on New Year's Eve. In fact, this week the place was hopping, spirits were high, and no one was talking about any impending demise.

I visited for a potentially last meal and discovered that the buzz around Gino's today is: Don't believe everything you read--we're working it out.

On Lexington at 61st since 1945, Gino's has survived other close calls in recent years. In 2006, they almost closed due to a strike, but managed to work it out. When the economy tanked, they talked of closing early in 2009, but they survived.

The restaurant was founded by Gino Circiello in a New York that has almost vanished completely.

As the Times wrote for his obituary in 2001, his restaurant "epitomized the New York of the time when men still wore hats and a plate of spaghetti went for 95 cents. It was where Ed Sullivan ordered the same chicken dish every day and then spread out his papers on a table to work through the afternoon. Each Mother's Day, Frank Sinatra brought a dozen people to the big table in the back."

In the 1970s, according to a fantastic 1977 article in New York Magazine, the place held on to its glamor, its tables filled with "willowy women," "movie execs," aides to Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis, and writers like Gay Talese, who still frequents the place today.

Talese drinks Sambuca and counts the zebras on the walls. In his book A Writer's Life he wrote that Gino's is "dwelling in a time capsule created in the postwar 1940s." And to that 1977 New York he said, "The first sophisticated young woman I met in New York took me [to Gino's]."

The zebras have been leaping across the walls from the beginning, though they've been replaced with replicas over the years. Why zebras? Because, Gino told New York magazine, "We didn't want the usual view of Mount Vesuvius."

He also explained the reason why they don't cover the exposed water pipes: "We could hide the pipes, but no! The public is a slave to habit. You change a pipe and something is wrong with the food. This is a landmark. It never changes."

True enough. Today, the pipes remain exposed, the zebras still dance across the walls, the wooden payphone stands by the bar, and in the coat closet, behind the hatcheck girl, there are actual hats on the shelf.

Men and women (but mostly men, gray-haired and Italian) sit around the bar talking about Italy and about food. They're not willowy and they're not movie executives. They're older and they have other concerns, like health insurance. Here's a snippet of a recently overheard conversation:

Husband: If you can't get insurance to pay for a malignant lesion, what can you get it to pay for?

Wife: An undertaker.

Let's hope an undertaker is not in the cards for Gino's, as they survive at least another month and, if the reassuring buzz on site is true, into the years beyond.


EV Grieve said...

Nice account, Jeremiah.

Did you happen to notice if the phonebooth by the bar was still working? Last time I was there there, it was out of order.

Dr Ed said...

Dr Ed Writes
Nice article on a place with days gone by. I worked around the corner for years and, unless you know Gino personally, owned a lock of silver hair (under 'Just For Men' brown), or have a fetish for nostalgia laden eateries, there are better meals and values just around the corner (any direction). Nostalgia is good but John Q. first wants memories of fabulous eats, and, today, at reasonable values. Bottom line: Gino's needs some gustatory upgrades. Le Cirque did it, they can.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Encouraging that they're still optimistic. Maybe they'll pull thru after all.

EV: The phone booth is in working order. At least it was when I was there last.

Mark said...

The food at Gino's is just fine, and there are several dishes we look always look forward to having when we visit. It's always crowded when we go (usually around 9:00-10:00 PM on a Saturday night), and no one is complaining about the food. Or the room. They're just happy to be there. As will I, now that I can return.

I DO have many locks of silver hair! Perhaps that is why I understand the need for places like Gino to exist! Gino is not Le Cirque! Never was. It's fine as it is.

Ed said...

I was pleasantly surprised about how good the food actually was. And I also know the area well, and I was non-plussed by the "fabulous eats, and, today, at reasonable values" comment. Gino's is at Lexington Avenue and 60th, on the border between the Upper East Side and Midtown East. Lots of rich people and tourists. This is pretty much ground zero for overpriced, mediocre restaurants (OK, the Times Square area, but my experience is that the restaurants around there are outright bad, not just overpriced). There are good expensive places and some OK not terribly expensive places, but Gino's is a rarity in terms of price and food quality.

Anonymous said...

Looks like it will be closing at the end of May. What a loss for New York!