The pandemic disrupted New York’s economy of social exclusion. So the city’s hottest restaurant moved the party to Miami.
In New York City, no matter who you are, there is always a restaurant reservation that you’re never going to get. Rao’s, the venerable celebrity safe house in East Harlem, has remained so steadfastly impenetrable that it has spawned an entire genre of “I got in; maybe you can, too” stunt journalism.
Then there are the restaurants with unlisted phone numbers. The friends-and-family line for Pastis and Balthazar is an open secret. You’ll need to text the right person to get in at Emilio’s Ballato. The referral-only number for Bohemian, the secretive Japanese steakhouse, is a matter of extraordinary discretion, much like the restaurant itself. I worry that even writing its name will get me blacklisted forever; then again, I’ve never actually made it in, so what’s to lose?
Carbone, an upscale homage to Italian-American red-sauce joints, opened in Greenwich Village, in 2013, and became an impossible reservation almost instantly. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t figure out the way in, until a well-connected friend who understood my hunger for thirtysomething-dollar pastas and Caesar salad prepared table-side slipped me an e-mail address and made me promise not to share it. I sent a request and, with remarkable quickness, received a cheerful reply confirming a two-top in a prime-time weekend time slot.
A few weeks later, snugly seated in the restaurant’s art-filled back room, I downed Gibsons and ate rigatoni alla vodka while oldies poured out of the sound system. The other tables were packed with people who looked well-heeled, or interestingly and self-consciously artistic, or who had the half-familiar faces of the professionally beautiful. Had they e-mailed the same secret address to get their reservations? Was eating here a special event for them, or just another night on the good side of the velvet rope? Every single table seemed to have ordered the rigatoni, which was hardly the pink glop of your average red-sauce place—these noodles were dense, curvaceous, bathed in cream laced with tomato and just a whisper of heat.
“Status is a sensitive thing,” the sociologist Ashley Mears writes, in “Very Important People,” a fascinating book-length examination of the beautiful-people party circuit. “It exists only when an audience recognizes it, and it cannot be bought outright without, of course, a loss of status.”
At impossible-reservation restaurants, the food is always ancillary to the potent validation of simply being allowed past the door. If I mention that the burger at the Polo Bar is marvelous, what I’m really telling you, darling, is that of course I go to the Polo Bar. Have I mentioned that Carbone’s food is actually good? Maybe it’s wonderful.
Last March, restaurants and clubby little bars that had built their reputations on saying no were suddenly closed, not just to most, but to everyone. A few weeks later, as some of them pivoted to takeout, the hot reservation was re-imagined in the form of the hot to-go order. The city’s moneyed gastronauts tore into delivery bags of chicken soup with truffles and foie gras from Brooklyn Fare, caviar service from L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, or an $800 D.I.Y. sushi box from Masa.
When Carbone debuted its takeout option, the demand was so overwhelming that the nightly scene outside the restaurant descended into chaos. No longer walled behind an inscrutable heuristic of social rank, a Carbone dinner—the food, at least—was a mere click away, for anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and money to spare.
Carbone is the jewel in the crown of Major Food Group, which is run by the chef duo Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, and their business partner, Jeff Zalaznick. Torrisi and Carbone’s first restaurant was Torrisi Italian Specialties, a clever riff on an old-school Italian-American deli, which opened in a cramped space on Mulberry Street, in 2009. By day, it sold flawless sandwiches, and at night it offered a $45 tasting menu—walk-ins only—that set the hearts of the city’s gastronomes aflame. The duo eventually spun off the sandwich half of the operation into Parm, which is now a New York City mini-chain. With Zalaznick, they also run an empire encompassing a dozen or so restaurant brands across some 25 locations. The company is so relentlessly expansionist that it can be hard to keep track. Even Torrisi Italian Specialties, which closed in 2015, is reportedly making a comeback.
Last June, when New York City allowed restaurants to open outdoor dining, the city’s celebrities and socialites came back to Carbone. Had Jennifer Lopez been among the hordes placing online orders for couriered veal Parmesan? Who can say, but there she was in the restaurant’s three-sided outdoor pavilion, her meal chronicled perforce on the Instagram gossip account DeuxMoi. From a distance, the celebrity-to-civilian ratio among Carbone’s clientele appeared staggering, which only increased the restaurant’s desirability to the non-famous. Call it the distributive property of hotness: if Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid go to Carbone, and Rihanna and A$AP Rocky go to Carbone, and then you and I manage to go to Carbone— we’re just like stars! In a summer of social austerity, fear, confusion and crippling unemployment, Carbone was not just staying afloat but performing an entire Esther Williams routine. The pandemic “made us smarter and better,” Zalaznick said, in a recent article. Status, for those who partake, is an essential good.
In January of this year, Major Food Group debuted Carbone’s fourth location, in Miami Beach. Zalaznick had moved to Miami in the early days of the pandemic; “As soon as I got here I realized the potential,” he said.
So far, Carbone seems to have avoided the industry’s curse of expansion. The Miami restaurant opened its doors as Florida’s COVID19 outbreak was nearing its second peak, but the state had few safety regulations in place. For scene-seekers tired of social distancing, Miami seemed to have emerged as a place outside of the dreary reality of the pandemic, and the new Carbone the city’s hottest ticket, the prom queen of South Beach. LeBron James posted excitedly about the opening on his Instagram; Peter Thiel was invited to the friends-and-family pre-opening dinner. Per a DeuxMoi tipster, Jay-Z and Beyoncé were spotted slipping into the restaurant’s back room.
A few weeks ago, almost as a joke, I tried to make an online reservation for dinner at Carbone Miami. I expected to fail, but nonetheless felt impressed by the breadth of the rejection: months and months of grayed-out calendar dates. When I tried Carbone New York, though, I had a stroke of luck: one open slot for a two-person table, at a somewhat normal dinner time, albeit on a weeknight.
My companion and I had planned to eat outside, but we were vaccinated and it was raining, so we ventured indoors. We sat in the back room, the same section of the restaurant where I’d been on my first visit, seven or eight years ago. The food was expensive and absolutely perfect: the gloriously briny Caesar salad (with two types of anchovies), velvet circles of fried calamari, garlic-bathed shrimp scampi the size of small bananas. We ordered the rigatoni alla vodka, of course; as always, a plate of it seemed to be on every table, though, in accordance with social-distancing guidelines, there were fewer tables than there used to be. The city was on the cusp of a full reopening, but for the moment we remained in limbo, and the mood in the room felt subdued. The sound system still poured out 1960s love songs. The staff still looked sharp in their maroon-jacketed uniforms. But there was little of the riotous opulence for which the restaurant is known. Maybe it was because of the reduced capacity, or maybe it was because Carbone New York had siphoned off some of its own hype to fuel new hype elsewhere.
Helen Rosner Special to Polo Lifestyles 2021