In New York City, no matter who you are, there is always a restaurant reservation that you’re never going to get. In the eighties and nineties, the city’s rich and famous batted their lashes at Sirio Maccioni, the ringmaster at Le Cirque. In the early two-thousands, social power meant being spotted in the sleek, terraced dining room at Per Se—ideally, at one of the tables set against the window. 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 tableside 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 rich, 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 marvellous, what I’m really telling you, darling, is that of course I go to the Polo Bar. The food at Le Cirque was famously awful. Cipriani’s kitchen mostly churns out padding for the Bellinis. The best thing at Indochine is the wallpaper. It almost goes without saying that the prices at places like these are eye-watering. Once you’re in, it’s rare to feel that you’re getting anything close to your money’s worth—though perhaps noticing the prices at all is a sign that you’re not as in as you think you are. Have I mentioned that Carbone’s food is actually good? Maybe it’s wonderful.
One of the lesser tragedies of the pandemic was how it disrupted New York’s economy of social exclusion. 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 reimagined in the form of the hot to-go order. The city’s moneyed gastronauts stood at their enamelled-lava kitchen islands and 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 eight-hundred-dollar D.I.Y. sushi box from Masa. When Carbone débuted 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. A picture taken by the photojournalist Gary He on March 23, 2020, remains, to me, one of the most indelible images of those surreal early pandemic weeks: dozens of customers and delivery couriers huddled around the restaurant’s doorway, without regard for social-distancing guidelines, as three police officers look on dispassionately. The red glow of the restaurant’s neon sign gives the tableau a hellish cast.
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 cramped, clever riff on an old-school Italian-American deli, which opened on Mulberry Street, in 2009. By day, it sold flawless sandwiches, and at night it offered a forty-five-dollar 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. Now, with Zalaznick, they are at the head of an empire encompassing a dozen or so restaurant brands across some twenty-five locations in—is it seven cities and three countries? Nine and five? The company is so relentlessly expansionist that it can be hard to keep track. Even the restaurateurs’ original deli-cum-tasting-menu spot, which closed in 2015, is making a comeback: in March, the Times reported that they are reviving the concept not far from the original address.
Last June, when New York City allowed restaurants to open outdoor dining, the city’s celebrities and socialites came back to Carbone, like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. 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—us, 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 Eater article. Status, for those who partake, is an essential good.
I’ve long maintained that every restaurant is, in some sense, a theme restaurant. What is an aesthetic or a vibe, after all, if not a narrative to be momentarily inhabited? But Major Food Group stages (and stage-manages) its properties with unusual precision. Almost all riff on a shared theme of elegant, nonchalant mid-century wealth. Santina, situated in a sun-drenched glass box under the High Line, whisks you away to Capri in the nineteen-sixties. The Grill and the Pool, in the rooms previously home to the Four Seasons, make you feel as if you’re a business tycoon who’s just taken delivery of next year’s Coupe de Ville. At Sadelle’s, you’re transformed into a begloved, pearl-adorned department-store heiress, enjoying a weekday lunch. Carbone’s story is “Big Night” by way of “The Big Short”: a sharply tailored suit, a satin cocktail dress, a little lust, a little blood. And, of course, money.
In January of this year, Major Food Group débuted Carbone’s fourth location, in Miami Beach. (The other outposts are in Hong Kong and Las Vegas.) Zalaznick had moved to Miami in the early days of the pandemic. “As soon as I got here I realized the potential,” he told Eater. For restaurants that attain a certain degree of fame, spinoff locations in tourism-heavy cities are practically built into the business plan. But the replicas rarely achieve the cachet of the originals. Rao’s expanded to Las Vegas, in 2006, dropping a stage-set version of its East Harlem corner into an interior passage inside Caesars Palace. I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting the original century-old, ten-table dining room, but I can’t imagine that it has much in common with the Vegas version, which is loud and spacious and offers ample enough opportunity for a family of six to get a walk-in table. Eating there is like wanting to visit Rome and ending up at, well, Caesars Palace. In the end, coolness can never compete with cash: Nobu, with its forty-seven locations, is essentially the world’s fanciest chain restaurant, each outpost equally glitzy and equally bland.
So far, Carbone seems to have avoided this curse of expansion. The Miami restaurant opened its doors as Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak was nearing its second peak, but the state had few safety regulations in place. For scene-seekers tired of social distancing, Miami became 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. Jay-Z and Beyoncé (per a DeuxMoi tipster) were spotted slipping into the restaurant’s back room. Trying to get a reservation was “like trying to find a needle in a haystack, if that needle was made of ice and the hay was on fire,” the Infatuation noted, in a listicle titled “Where to Go When You Can’t Get Into Carbone.”
Landing an impossible reservation can prompt a weird, almost embarrassing feeling of triumph. I followed the debauchery in Miami from my Brooklyn apartment with an acidic mix of anxiety and envy, scrolling through seemingly endless Instagram and TikTok videos of golden bodies pressed together on dance floors and crowded around tables on sunny patios. A friend of mine who lives in Miami described how the city was overrun with out-of-town crowds, the streets so jammed with traffic that it was hardly worth leaving the house. A few weeks ago, almost as a joke, I tried to make a reservation for dinner at Carbone Miami. Even expecting failure, I was 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. (Carbone’s Web site says that they no longer accept reservations via e-mail, and even if they did the V.I.P. address I was given years ago is almost certainly out-of-date.)
My companion and I had planned to eat outside, but we were vaccinated and it was raining, so we decided to venture 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 horribly 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 were still in limbo, and the mood in the room felt subdued. The sound system still poured out nineteen-sixties 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.
Major Food Group has already begun opening additional restaurants in Miami. The first is an adaptation of the company’s twelve-seat, ultra-expensive seafood counter, ZZ’s Clam Bar—though they’ve rebranded it for the Miami crowd as ZZ’s Club, a members-only sushi bar featuring a cigar terrace and a backgammon balcony. But for the time being Carbone is the alpha and the omega. At the New York restaurant, we sat near a round table of six friends in various stages of well-maintained middle age. Just as our main courses were cleared away, we saw the youngest-looking member of the group—side-swept dark hair, shirt unbuttoned at the collar—wave a server over. He asked whether it was true that it’s impossible to get a table at Carbone Miami. The server laughed, and politely acknowledged that it’s been awfully busy down there. “Yeah,” the man said, leaning forward in his seat, eyes wide. “I heard that it’s New Year’s every single night.”