You Can’t Get In: An Evening at Rao’s

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I call ahead. A recording announces that the reservation book is closed but doesn’t mention walk-ins.

After putting on some makeup, a silk shirt, and heels, I begin my nearly two-hour trek from Red Hook to East Harlem.

My plan is to charm my way into the famously exclusive Italian restaurant.

I’m conversationally competent in Italian, a skill that has, on occasion, turned prickly maître d’s in both Italy and Manhattan into amenable hosts.

Once inside, I address a man in a red, bedazzled vest, in my practiced Italian, “Hello, handsome! May I dine with you this evening?” He shrugs, signalling that he doesn’t speak the language. A man unloading bottles of wine from a box on the bar responds, “Sorry, there are no tables available.” I persist: “May I eat at the bar?” No dice.

The man in the vest hooks arms with me. “Would ya like a tour?” he asks, then leads me through the dining room, pointing to photos of celebrities he’s served. He has bartended here for decades. I silently rejoice. Surely this man can pull some strings!

I count six booths, four large tables, and a two-top in the corner.

The chiming of silverware on porcelain indicates that the kitchen has begun serving early birds.

I ask to see a menu, but there are none. The evening’s fare is announced at each table.

I’m told the table reservations function like time-shares.

Since the nineteen-seventies, a select group of regulars has been guaranteed tables on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Besides the regulars—many of them local families—the clientele also includes the occasional pop star or politician.

The bartender offers me a drink, on the house. My stomach growls. I order a dirty Martini with extra olives, which I eat immediately.

Steaming platters of pasta begin to streak by me.

Every table is occupied by the same guests till close. The table for two remains empty until 10 P.M., when a man and his daughter enter the restaurant and claim my dream destination.

I place a twenty-dollar bill on the bar, my flag of surrender. Outside, passersby are loudly chatting. I overhear one of them proclaim, “But you can’t get in!” I’m famished, and set out to find a bodega.

A few blocks away, I place my order at a deli counter and spot a few empty tables through the aisles of chips and canned food. Within minutes, I am seated and thoroughly enjoying my dinner.


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