What happens behind the curtain?Photo: Zach Schiffman
I’d made peace with my three-hour wait. In a way, it felt like a small victory since, when I’d arrived at Torrisi on a recent Thursday night, the San Gennaro Feast had taken over Mulberry Street and the restaurant’s bouncer told me that they weren’t taking walk-ins at all. I was granted entry anyway, and a hostess explained that she would have something “closer to 10:30.”
Since I started checking in on the city’s (perceived) Impossible Tables earlier this year, the request I get most frequently is Carbone. The biggest surprise of this entire column has been discovering just how easy it remains to walk into even the “busiest” restaurants (I waited for zero minutes at Tatiana!). But look, unless Hailey Bieber wants to join me, Carbone ain’t happening.
What about Torrisi? It’s got heat, and it’s gotten enough national attention that even people who live outside of the city know it’s the place to go for cavatelli with Jamaican “ragù.” Torrisi also has 75 seats and an absolutely massive dining room in the Puck Building. With its high ceilings and manufactured charm, it’s the rare New York restaurant that looks like the Las Vegas version of itself. Surely they would have somewhere to put reservation-hating diners like myself.
As it turns out, they do. At the barely crowded green-marble standing bar, I felt like I had met my people. Aside from Ugly Baby (which takes no reservations at all), I’ve never been surrounded by so many fellow walk-ins. With a hook upon which to hang my tote bag, a cocktail in my hand, and the slightly sweet chopped liver ordered directly to the walk-in table, I felt something I hadn’t expected: comfortable.
At first, everyone else seemed equally content and conversation with strangers came as easily as it might at the Benihana in Westbury. I assumed there was a sense of communal support because we were all in this together. I quickly learned that I was mistaken.
Everyone who is waiting to eat must stand. The bar can only seat eight diners, meaning it’s pretty easy to clock each diner’s out time. Tensions rose whenever a set of customers left, and we all waited to see who would be chosen next. It also meant we could all see when someone showed up and appeared to skip the wait completely, like the guy who gave me the name of his agent at WME and sat down before he even had time to order a cocktail. He might have been a friend of the restaurant, but he was no friend of the standing-room pool.
The mob, I learned, could turn on you quickly. Around 8:45 — 75 minutes after I’d arrived — I was offered my bar seats. This surprised me because a lovely couple I’d met and knew had been waiting since 6:45 p.m. should have been seated first. Something was fishy.
The hostess explained that the other couple had, at one point, left to get a drink somewhere else and, in doing so, had lost their spot in line. This seemed insane to me: They were told the wait would be three hours, and they had returned with plenty of time left to sit when their name should have been called? That did not seem out-of-bounds to me, and so I offered them my seats — It’s no problem, really, I’m not in a rush, and I can take the next seats — and they promptly accepted my offer.
How would the rest of the waiting pool feel about my act of altruism? Would they celebrate me for my sense of decency and democratic pride? Would they wonder how my parents had raised such a noble young man? Was it too much to think that other people might start offering their seats to more deserving diners and referring to this move as “the Zach”?
That’s not what happened at all. They got pissed because I’d let these other people jump the line, effectively increasing everyone else’s wait time. The dark underbelly of Torrisi’s bar scene had shown itself, and it was not excited to spend 45 more minutes waiting to order some Cucumbers New Yorkese.
Ten minutes later, when my name was called again, I scurried over to the relative safety of the bar’s velvet seats. My new frenemies would be fine, I thought as I dug into some Cantonese lobster pasta. Torrisi may quote a three-hour wait to scare off the weak, but it seemed to me that anyone with enough commitment could probably count on waiting closer to 90 minutes, max — just don’t leave to get a drink somewhere else in the meantime.