I got takeout from Rao's, one of New York City's most exclusive and iconic restaurants, during a pandemic. Here's what it was like.
Rao's is one of New York's most iconic restaurants. In non-pandemic times, it's nearly impossible to eat there, as all 10 of its tables are held by regulars with standing reservations. With restaurants forced to shut down everything but pick-up and delivery due to the coronavirus, Rao's is offering takeout for the first time in its 124 years of existence. I ordered takeout during the pandemic to see what it was like and I was not disappointed.
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Rao's is so exclusive, even the famed billionaire investor Warren Buffett has reportedly been turned down for a reservation. "You would have better luck getting invited to dinner at the White House," New York magazine wrote, reporting that Martin Scorsese and Bill Clinton have held tables. When New York forced restaurants to shut down dine-in service on March 17 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Rao's decided to offer takeout for the first time. Though it took more than a week for me to secure a takeout meal from Rao's, it was a memorable and worthwhile experience that brought some joy during an otherwise grim and scary time. Rao's is one of New York's most exclusive restaurants.
The restaurant is located on 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood.
Stepping into Rao's is like stepping back in time. Here's a shot of the interior from 1998. It looks almost identical today.
The Christmas decorations hang all year long. Diners are squeezed into the restaurant's small one-room dining room. How do you get a table at Rao's? "You don't," executive chef Dino Gatto told me recently.
That's because the 124-year-old restaurant doesn't answer its phone. Its 10 tables are booked every night by regulars who hold a standing reservation, which recur anywhere from weekly to every four months. On an average night before coronavirus, Rao's would seat about 15 tables worth of patrons, with a first seating around 7 p.m. and a second round at 9 or 9:30 p.m. I was fortunate enough to eat at Rao's last October. A friend's family invited me to join them at their table.
On March 16, the day before restaurants were forced to shut down in New York, the Rao's team had a meeting to decide what to do.
By 9 a.m. the following day, it was decided the restaurant would offer takeout. Initially, takeout was only available to regulars and then opened up to everyone else, Gatto told me. Rao's waiter Marc Mel first spread the word on Instagram that the restaurant was open for takeout. Instagram Embed: //instagram.com/p/B92tV79JzLy/embed Width: 540px I first messaged Marc on April 21 to inquire about getting an order placed. I heard back on April 29 and was informed that I had been added to a waitlist.
The offer wasn't cheap, but it seemed within reason for takeout from one of New York's most iconic restaurants. A "Taste of Rao's" for two would set me back $80. The menu, which featured many dishes I tried back at the restaurant in October, included salad, penne with sauce, two meatballs, and lemon chicken. The following day, my time had come! I got a text saying I had secured a spot for that evening. I texted back that we'd pick up our dinner at 6:30 p.m.
At around 6 p.m., my husband and I got in the car and began our short drive from where we live in Queens to East Harlem.
The drive uptown was incredibly eerie. This was our first trip into Manhattan since we left our offices for the last time on March 11.
The streets were virtually empty. We pulled up to Rao's on time at 6:30 p.m. and saw about 10 guests standing outside, all standing more than six feet apart.
We also noticed a number of high-end cars, including a Maserati, two Mercedes-Benz, and a Porsche, idling outside. Those must be the "regulars," I thought. When I spoke to him a few days later, Gatto confirmed that many regulars are still stopping by for takeout and that they can order from a limited version of the restaurant's usual menu — not just the "Taste of Rao's" menu that was offered on Instagram. According to Gatto, the restaurant is now serving 80 to 90 takeout meals per night.
Due to the shutdown of table service, the restaurant was forced to cut back its staff from about 15 people to seven. Those seven include Marc Mel, a waiter, who is handling the influx of DMs from hopeful customers looking to try Rao's for the first time via takeout. Only staff were permitted inside, so we waited on the sidewalk.
In the window, we noticed a sign that read, "this establishment has been disinfected." I also saw the staff who were interacting with customers frequently sanitize their hands. When we arrived we told a staffer our name and then waited about 20 minutes for our food to be ready.
When we were called, we took our food and handed over cash in return (Rao's is a cash-only establishment). With our masks on, the whole interaction felt far more nefarious than it really was! And with our prize in hand, we were headed back to Queens.
Driving back down 2nd Avenue, we were pleasantly greeted by the sounds of New Yorkers cheering for first responders at 7 p.m. We rolled down the windows and joined in. Back at home, we set up for what was certain to be a very special meal.
After cooking pretty much nonstop for seven weeks, I was ready for some restaurant food. Here's what the spread looked like, right out of the bag.
The top container held a half lemon chicken. Below that were two giant meatballs (each about the size of a baseball) and penne marinara. We also got a salad, dressing, and Parmesan cheese. I started with the salad first, which didn't look like much, but actually contained incredibly fresh, top-notch ingredients, including radicchio and fennel.
The dressing was a simple mix of red wine vinegar and olive oil. Next up, I tried the penne and meatball.
In the restaurant, each guest is served an individual serving of penne on a small plate, and the meatballs come family-style for the table. I tried to emulate that experience as best I could at home. The penne was pretty standard but provided a good vehicle for the sauce, which was fresh, tasty, and plentiful. The meatball was incredibly soft and almost melted in my mouth. It was just as good as I remembered it being in the restaurant. It's no wonder the meatballs are one of Rao's most popular items. I was pleasantly surprised by the lemon chicken.
Served in a container of delicious schmaltz-y lemony sauce, the charred chicken was a lot more flavorful and juicy than the one I tried back in October. We ended up finishing mostly everything, except for a few pieces of chicken that made for great leftovers the following day.
Though it wasn't the same as eating at the iconic restaurant, the Rao's takeout experience was undoubtedly special and will definitely be one of the things I remember most from this incredibly strange and challenging period we're living through. In addition to serving its regulars and local foodies like me, Rao's is also donating meals to hospitals and other first responders in the city. Instagram Embed: //instagram.com/p/Bf5AWGJ9Qi/embed Width: 540px Gatto said they deliver 150 meals every Monday. A typical donated single-serving meal includes a serving of penne with sauce and a meatball. The restaurant told me it's gone from making 300 meatballs per week in normal times to around 1,500 per week these days. Instagram Embed: //instagram.com/p/BQYCxNJ06M/embed Width: 540px Gatto told me he didn't know when Rao's would reopen. He said the restaurant is so small that lowering density would be "impossible for us to do."
Until they can open at full capacity, Gatto says they'll continue to do takeout only. For a fan like me who will likely never secure another seat at the restaurant, I won't complain about that.