Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

Legendary Manhattan restaurateur Michael Cecchi mourns the school of hard knocks

Myffy Rigby

Raoul_s Drag with Paolo Calamari

You know who can’t stand the phrase ‘near enough is good enough’? Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. The restaurateur would like to submit a slightly different ideology: ‘it’s okay to lose’. 

“I think the greatest lessons in life are the ones when you fuck up,” he says, sitting back in his West Village restaurant, Cecchi’s. “It’s an important thing to do. You hit that roadblock, and that’s how you grow. You have to be able to try as hard as you possibly can. And allow yourself to potentially succeed, or potentially fuck up.”  

Michael Cecchi’s recently published book,Your Table is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D, is a salacious front-of-house tell-all, reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s breakout hit, Kitchen Confidential. Similar scene, similar era, different restaurant geography. One thing’s for sure, nothing in 2023 could compete with whatever was happening within the walls of a fine dining New York restaurant in the 1990s. As Anais Nin once wrote to Henry Miller, it’s “one literary fuck fest”.

Between descriptions of everywhere-but-the-bed with-anyone-other-than-your-significant-other-sex; drugs that don’t even exist anymore (and plenty that still do); shots to get you moving; shots to put you down; whatever else you needed to get you through eight hours of serving models, media moguls, investment bankers and rollers so high they’re beyond job titles, Michael Cecchi gives a truthful account of coming up on the New York restaurant scene.

The interesting part of that Studio 54 fever dream is just how incredibly disciplined the front-of-house staff were back then, despite the unhinged nature of everything happening around them, to them and through them. Those sparkling-to-an-inch-of-their-life wine glasses came at a hefty price. A smudge on the tableware was a suspension, a misplaced food order could result in physical violence. 

Questionable workplace culture aside, Cecchi mourns the tautness. A service style you could set your watch to. The symphony of a floor team working with discipline and harmony. A service style that, ultimately, is hard to teach with a gentle hand. “Attention to detail is paramount in a restaurant,” he says. “You’ve got to get it right. And if you can’t get the details right, you’re going to fail. But you can’t crucify someone missing the detail now.”

“I think my greatest learning experiences were by owners or managers or directors or producers who ripped me a new asshole,” he says. “Just let me have it. It was the greatest learning experience of my life. The school of hard knocks is a good school for a reason. Because you really learn.” 

The hospitality veteran ought to know. He’s clocked up a staggering amount of flying hours in the 35-plus years he’s been working the floor in institutions such as The Water Club, The River Cafe, Raoul’s and Le Coucou. His own place opened earlier this year. An ode to the bar and grills he grew up with in Brooklyn, located in the heart of Manhattan’s West Village – the original melting pot of high fashion and punk rock. “It’s kind of nice, because I have a career of knowing what not to do.” 

Cecchi describes the old school Brooklyn chop house as New York’s version of the classic Parisian bistro. It’s his comfort food. “It was basic, you know, you had grilled steaks and a burger and simply prepared fish. I see those signs now I start to salivate.”      

“What I’m trying to create is the quintessential New York City West Village restaurant  that references some of the great restaurants that I’ve known in the city and some I didn’t know that are older than me, like the Stork Club,” he says. “There was a place called Mortimers, which was the height of cafe society in New York in the 1980s. All the designers and writers went there, and you know what their specialty was? Meatloaf.”  

To be successful anywhere is hard enough, but to be a successful restaurateur in New York is another thing altogether. With a population of close to nine million people living across the five boroughs, there are countless ways to disappear before the doors have even opened. Even with Cecchi’s pedigree, he waited nearly a month for the gas to be turned on in his restaurant. 

“Look, I’m very fortunate. I’m in the West Village. I’ve been doing this for 35, almost 40 years. I have a clientele. Brooke Shields lives down the block. Matthew Broderick is two blocks away,” says Cecchi. “And I’m here walking around talking to people. I’m table hopping. I’m creating something. I’m not going to change the world here. But I’ll provide a place where you can maybe look up from your phone.”

He’s quite humble about it, and doesn’t dwell on either his successes or his failures. “I’ve never done anything in my life based on money, and followed my heart. And it led me some weird places, you know, fucked me up a little bit. But things are good.”  And at heart, he’s a New Yorker. He knows what other New Yorkers want from their restaurants. 

“New Yorkers love beautiful things. They get it, they understand it, they’re educated. They just want to be treated with respect. Greeted with a smile. It’s not hard,” he says. “We humans, we need social interactions. We want people to smile and be happy. ‘We might have a martini, those fries are great’ or, ‘the fries aren’t great’. No problem. I’ll get you a fresh batch. They’re going to be hot. We’ll take care of it.”

Cecchi’s 105 W 13th St, New York, NY 10011, United States

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Words

Myffy Rigby

Pictures

Nico Schinco

Archive photography

Michael Cecci

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