A Tribute to Gino, 1945-2010?

Editor's note: Friend of Serious Eats Ron Fried joins us with a tribute to a fondly remembered restaurant.

The news that Gino on Lexington Avenue may close soon came as no surprise. If you live in New York for long enough, the city can become something of—forgive the morbid image—a graveyard filled with tombstones marking beloved vanished institutions. You find yourself saying things like: There used to be a great bar here. ...That's where I had my first date with my college girlfriend. ...My parents used to take me there for my birthday.

Personally, I still haven't recovered from the closing of the Madison Avenue Pub about eight years ago. And I still can't bring myself to go into the newly revamped P. J. Clarke's, which is now packed with a very excited group of what to me seem like very young people. Sure, the food's better than the old Clarke's—but at some restaurants the food isn't supposed to be good. In fact, serving good food would be a betrayal of the basic insouciance of certain New York institutions.

Gino, founded in 1945, is one such place. As I dined at Gino recently—for the first time in about two decades—my friend happily reported that certain of the appetizers involved the chef doing nothing more than opening a can (or, in the case of Anchovies & Pimentos, two jars). There was something delightful about that in this age of overly elaborate menus and waiters who tell you all about the chef's "philosophy," though that word never seems like an entirely correct way to describe anyone's thoughts about, say, spaghetti.

When my parents took me to Gino in the '70s, gentlemen were not seated without a sport coat. If you didn't have one on—and were lucky enough to still get a table—a blue blazer was provided. Those were the days when Gino was packed with shoppers from Bloomingdale's, and what then passed for hipsters, headed for a night at Maxwell's Plum, or perhaps the first-run movies playing at the Third Avenue theaters. To my young eyes, the place seemed very sophisticated, in a Rat Pack sort of a way. I felt as if I was surrounded by husbands who had just left their first wives—or were planning to do so soon. I also liked that some of the young women at the bar seemed to be there not on dates, but in a professional capacity.

When I returned to Gino last year, the place was half-empty, and I was surprised and disappointed to see men dressed in polo shirts and jeans seated in the long narrow room with its depressing acoustic-tiled ceiling. But there was something delightfully nostalgic about the famous zebra wallpaper at Gino, as well as the touching sight of aging waiters in their shirts and ties, black pants, and red jackets.

And the food? It was fine. It was good—but not distractingly good—and that was okay with me.

Gino

780 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10065 (map) 212-758-4466