Long known for its exclusivity, in a city that defines restaurant exclusivity, Rao’s is not likely to be letting me in any time soon.
It’s not because of my manners (which are good), the way I dress (which is always appropriate), or because the price is beyond my means. No, it’s because Rao’s only has ten tables. And they are all booked up. Forever.
Rao’s was founded in 1896 by Italian immigrant Charles Rao who opened a small restaurant in the Italian community of Harlem. Its never moved, and today the restaurant is owned by the fourth generation of the Rao family. Current owners (Rao nephews) are Frank Pellegrino (who also plays an FBI agent on The Sopranos) and Ron Straci.
What’s so special about Rao’s? Most of us will never know, because its exclusivity is not just an urban legend, but a reality. Although the restaurant is closed on weekends, and has only one seating at 7 pm, its ten tables are owned by customers for life. It’s like a standing reservation — for forever. While occasionally tables are “loaned” out to a friend for an evening, if the owner isn’t there, the table may just stay empty. You can’t buy a table. You can only hope to be a friend of a friend of a friend who knows someone who has a friend who will let you use their table for the evening.
Rao’s small, intimate, and exclusive atmosphere means that most patrons know one another. You’ll find politicians, celebrities, regulars from the neighborhood, and, reportedly, some patrons of a rather dubious background. No matter, EVERYONE is special at Rao’s.
The restaurant reportedly has great food. I say reportedly, because that’s what I’ve read. I don’t actually know anyone who has been there. And I don’t know a friend of a friend of a friend. . . well, you know what I mean. I haven’t given up, though, and maybe one day will be able to give you a first hand report.
Rao’s is located at 455 East 114th Street, East Harlem, New York (#6 subway to 116th), and is open Monday - Friday for a 7 pm seating. The bar is generally crowded, but is available to the general public. Mastercard and Visa accepted.
Since I won’t be getting a table at Rao’s any time soon, I’ve had to be content with reading about it, as I’m doing now. I’ve been enjoying one of its cookbooks, Rao’s - Recipes from the Neighborhood.
There are other options, and although they aren’t as exciting as visiting the original Rao’s in Harlem, it is possible to get a little glimpse into what it must be like. A west coast version of Rao’s opened at Caesars Palace Las Vegas in December 2006. In an effort to duplicate the ambience of NYC, it has two ten-table rooms, although in Las Vegas you CAN get a reservation. Rao’s Las Vegas also has additional seating in a “feast” area, and a pool side patio.
Rao’s Las Vegas is open daily. Breakfast 6 - 11 am. Lunch 11 am - 3 pm. Dinner 5 - 11 pm. Reservations required, (877) 346-4642.
Rao’s has also expanded into a specialty foods business, available through its website and at selected locations.
While Las Vegas is a more sensible option for me, I’m still hoping for the real New York deal. Anyone know anyone who knows someone?
Photo credit: Rao’s
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