John DeLucie on the Price of Fame
"...If you don't leave here feeling a little bit special, then we've failed you."
Chef John DeLucie didn't expect the tremendous success opening the Waverly Inn would bring him, nor with it the hundreds of celebrities that flocked there for decadent comfort foods and glitterati-gazing. His three current Manhattan restaurants—The Crown, The Lion, and Bill's Food & Drink—offer similarly elevated Italian-based fare at price points that might scare some away. But DeLucie works to assure that their environments and menus are unique experiences, intended to make every single person who steps in his doors feel warm and welcome. We took in the stunning décor at The Lion and talked about how what he learned from the Waverly, and those experiences he tries to deliver now.
Waverly wasn't the first menu you developed on your own, but it was your first as an owner/partner. And you based the menu around an old one you found when remodeling? Yeah, it was jammed into the radiator, blocking a hole. On it was pork chops and potpie and biscuits and meatloaf. I guess at that time there was no place where you'd go and eat comfort food in a fine-dining setting, so we elected to do this comfort menu, but elevated—truffles on mac and cheese, Colorado lamb. It would have been weird to open the Waverly Inn and serve anything other than what we were serving.
What was the challenge in the beginning of that restaurant? I have very fond memories of the Waverly Inn, so it's hard to say. The kitchen was tight—very tight—and no one expected it to be as busy as it was, so it was tough, tiny. There were two people on the hot line, and two people doing desserts and cold, and me. So it was quite intense and we were cooking upwards of 300 dinners, every night of the week. So the challenge was in production—keeping things consistent.
Waverly Inn is often noted for the massive amount of celebrity clientele, which didn't seem quite expected... Yeah, it blew my mind. But it had a tremendously positive impact. When you go to a restaurant and see Robert De Niro across the room, or Michael Cain, or whoever of the hundreds of them who came there over the years, that was amazing for business. Who doesn't want that when you're eating dinner? It's fun! It adds to the overall experience, and that's what I'm interested in ultimately—the overall experience guests have when they come in here. They're treated nicely, they go to their table, and maybe they see someone they recognize, whether it's a neighbor or a celebrity.
What did you learn from Waverly that's applicable with your restaurants now? Having fiscal responsibility is something that everyone should aspire to at some point, because there's just no way around anything. If your food cost is high, you're not making any money. If you're labor cost is too high, you feel it immediately. When you're working in a hotel as I did for many years, it's not as impactful; there are things that happen out of your control but you're still making your salary every week. Entrepreneurship is a completely different ball game. And I learned that it's really the only way for me to operate. Everyone should have that experience, to be accountable. You don't make your numbers; you don't make your money.
I was talking with a bartender about what it would take for him to come in and shell out the kind of money you need to spend to eat here. His response was that it would have to be a unique experience where he felt well taken care of. What is that experience you hope to offer at your restaurants now? #1, the décor here at The Lion—this is not a décor you're going to see everyday. It's a very special place; it's been a restaurant for 80 years, so you're walking into a place with ghosts and history, and a certain vibe. And if you don't leave here feeling a little bit special, then we've failed you.
What I tell my staff every single day is that our guests walked past a dozen places to come in here, so we should be grateful. And we should be respectful, and we should just be old-fashioned and bend over backwards to make sure people get what they want. This is a communal place. This is a place where people come and have a great time, and they can get a great meal, a great drink from the bar, an inexpensive wine, a burger or steak for two—I like to think there's something here for everyone. In the West Village ten years ago you could get away with people pushing and shoving and with selling mediocre product. That doesn't exist anymore—you really have to be on your game. We're all about respect—treating everyone like they're our best customer. You know you're going to have a nice experience, and if you don't, we try to fix it. We're in our fourth year and we're still cranking, and I like to think that's why. It sounds trite and comes across as really corny, but that's what it's all about.