What makes a restaurant “classic”? That’s the central question asked by this film, which follows an up-and-coming New York City restauranteur as he tries to take his establishment up a notch. Will paying blatant homage to a now-shuttered iconic Manhattan joint do the trick? Finding out makes for both excellent drama and fascinating Big Apple history.
As of October 11, the film is now available for rental via iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Vimeo on Demand, and Google Play See the trailer here.
How did you stumble upon this story?
I’ve known Charles Devigne since 2001, when he was still just the manager of Pescatore Restaurant as well as a part-time artist selling paintings on the side. In May of 2013, Charles, who was now the restaurant’s owner, called to tell me that his interior designer quit on him, mid-renovation, over his choice of wallpaper. I thought he was kidding, but when he told me that the wallpaper was the prancing zebra wallpaper from Gino’s, a recently closed New York dining institution known for its iconic wallpaper, his designer’s decision started to make sense.
Although Charles was aware of Gino’s, he had never been there himself and he swore he only discovered the zebras when he was searching for wallpaper ideas online. Regardless, he was hooked. But was he hooked because he’s also an artist and the zebras appealed to him on an aesthetic level, or was it because he wanted some of the magic (and fame and money) the zebras brought to Gino’s for so many years? Whatever it was, I could tell by the determination in his voice during our call that nothing was going to stop him from putting the wallpaper up in Pescatore. That’s when I knew I had a movie on my hands.
Was he happy to have you follow him around?
Charles believed in his decision (he still does) so he was totally game to participate. That said, I don’t think he really knew what he signed up for until we were filming for several days. I told him I was making the movie to try and answer the complex question “What makes a restaurant an institution?” and that actually is what the movie is about, but I think he thought his story would be a smaller part of it.
Did you feel his decision-making flawed?
Definitely! I thought it was flawed from the start, which is why I wanted to make this movie. There’s inherent drama (and comedy) in watching someone bumble through a bad decision. But I’m also a nostalgist at heart, and I see this film being about the death of character, not only in New York, but the world over. Owner-operated places are disappearing in record numbers as Walmart, Starbucks, and a slew of corporate chains with deeper pockets and more clout muscle them out. Charles might be copying Gino’s, but he’s also an owner-operator with strong ties to his community and, regardless if you or I agree with his wallpaper decision, I personally feel the world could use more of that.
Were you a Gino’s regular?
Sadly, I never went there. I knew of the wallpaper from its appearance in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but I didn’t even know where it was from. It was incredible to learn about its rich history making this movie.
Were you surprised how much the restaurant became like family to people?
Not at all. I worked in restaurants for 15 years and this is my second film in a row about them. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of family that exits within restaurants, not just between the owners and the staff, but also between the staff and their regulars and even the regulars themselves. These relationships exist in establishments all over the world, but especially in New York where people eat out with greater frequency, often daily. When a New Yorker’s favorite restaurant closes, it leaves a big hole in their lives. Not only do they lose their extended family, but also their personal real estate gets a little smaller, it’s like losing a room in their home. And in a city where space is at a premium, it takes a toll.
So what do you think makes a classic restaurant?
The one thing I do know is that you can’t create one by copying another restaurant’s most iconic design feature. That certainly doesn’t work!
But you can’t plan it. It happens over time. And in that time, you need to be consistent in your quality, staff, food, pricing, the whole works. And you can’t be consistent unless you have a dedicated hands-on owner, someone who will be there day and night to enforce that consistency.
A lot of these classic eateries also have something quirky or distinctive about their décor. In Gino’s case it was the zebra wallpaper, but for the Four Seasons it’s their pool in the middle of the room and for Club 21 it’s their antiques toys on the ceiling. Oh, and it probably doesn’t hurt if Sinatra used to hold court there on a regular basis as he did at Gino’s.