8:05 am Mar. 9, 2011
Last year, in sensational fashion, Del Posto earned a fourth star from The New York Times, making it one of just seven restaurants in New York to win such a distinction. The people who run the place have been reckoning with the consequences ever since.
"What the fourth star has done for us is the ability to control the flow of customers more so than before," said Jeff Katz, Del Posto's general manager, in an interview in the bar area of the restaurant. "In order to maintain that viability of the business structure with such a big place with so many employees with all the expensive wares that we offer, we have to have a certain amount of people walking through the door. The demand is higher and we're able to offer guests a better spread of time for us to control the flow of service as opposed to the outside public controlling the flow of service for us."
But that clientele, though more steady, is also more demanding.
"Any moment there's something the guest doesn't particularly like, the first sentence is, 'This is not a four-star experience.' Immediately. It doesn't matter what it is, it's the first thing that comes out of anybody's mouth. Right or wrong, it's now the first comparison."
Del Posto's executive chef Mark Ladner hasn't had it any easier, from an expectations perspective. Asked whether the fourth star has made his job less fun because of the additional pressure, he responded without hesitation: "Yeah, I would say so."
When Ladner was first brought onto the project in 2005, he says, he wasn't even aware that four-star aspiration was part of the deal. He says he believed the plans for the space would resemble Carmine's, the enjoyable but distinctly unfancy family-style Italian restaurant.
But things soon changed, and Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich began telling anyone who would listen that the new place was going to get four stars from the Times.
"It was clear we wanted it from the minute we opened," Katz said. "That doesn't necessarily mean we deserved it."
According to Frank Bruni's three-star review in the Times in March of 2006, they did not.
If it was a feat, four years later, for Del Posto to get that fourth star, it will be just as much of an achievement, now and in the coming years, to keep it.
NEW YORK TIMES STARS ARE FLEETING things: Tastes change, and critics come and go. The values of Mimi "The whole Brooklyn thing must be greatly exaggerated" Sheraton are not those of Sam "Brooklyn deserves a travel section spotlight" Sifton.
And of course, restaurants change, too. La Grenouille was awarded four stars by Sheraton in 1980, was demoted to two stars by Bryan Miller in 1985, then just one star in 1987, then went back up to three in 1991, where it held steady through additional reviews in 1993 and 1997 by Ruth Reichl, and in 2009 by ... Sam Sifton.
Of the top-rated restaurants from 1976, none are still in operation. Of the four-starred restaurants that existed in 1984—Hatsuhana, Lutece, Quilted Giraffe, La Grenouille and Le Cirque—the latter two remain open, and they're down to three stars each.
The last Italian restaurant to have received four stars was a place you've never heard of called Parioli Romanissimo, in 1974. It was demoted to two in 1979, upped to three in 1984, knocked back down to two in 1985, and so on, until it closed in 1999. The conventional explanation for the lack of Italian restaurants in the four-star club—long the exclusive province of Sheratonian, Francophilic establishments—is that the inherent conviviality of an Italian joint, even a really fancy one, is incompatible with the seriousness of purpose which a four-star candidate is expected to display.
The change that culminated in Del Posto's fourth star has been slow in coming. The embrace of casual began with Reichl, about whom Bryan Miller famously complained (in a leaked letter to Reichl's editor at the time, which then landed on Page Six) that, "SHE HAS DESTROYED THE SYSTEM that Craig [Claiborne], Mimi [Sheraton] and I upheld. How do you think she comes off giving SoHo noodle shops 2 and 3 stars?"
Today, places like Momofuku Ssam Bar, paper napkins and all, are welcomed into the upper echelon without protest. Of course, as the Del Posto people will remind you, they and the other newcomers earned their places among the elite.
"I don't think these things just happen," said Katz, a carefully groomed, tailored-suit-wearing 28-year-old, as a pianist played in the very near background. "Whereas a place like Per Se opened up to that kind of accolade, that didn't happen here. In our case, we had to grow into the space; we had to mature as a restaurant."
"It took us a lot longer to figure out the logistics of a space this large and the complications involved in operating it for profit," added Ladner, a giant, soft-spoken 40-year-old with a full head of dark hair and vintage-looking square-ish frames that take up half his face. "We're still trying to be a viable business. It's not just a vanity project."