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An Italian restaurant called Gino, which opened in 1945 on Lexington Avenue near Sixty-first Street, has been known primarily for its moderate prices, its tomato-red wallpaper printed with three hundred and fourteen leaping zebras, and its determinedly uncreative chefs, whose regular customers are so amiably resigned to the kitchen’s limited and unchanging cuisine that it has never been necessary for these customers to consult the menu.
All the items on the menu appear on a single plastic-covered page and were handwritten in ink sixty-five years ago by the restaurant’s founder, Gino Circiello, a dapper and debonair trendsetter in 1945 who thereafter ignored all trends. Even a year after his death at eighty-nine, in 2001, when the restaurant was described in the Zagat Survey as “frozen in the 40’s,” the regulars liked to boast that, at Gino’s, nothing was new: within the zebra-covered walls of this place everything remained the same, including the fact that a stripe was missing from the rumps of half the zebras—a mistake made by the original designer which Mr. Gino, a superstitious Italian of Neapolitan origin, chose not to correct, because to do so, he feared, might bring him bad luck.
So the restaurant’s décor as arranged at mid-twentieth century extended into the twenty-first: the same twenty-seven wooden tables and seventy-four chairs, the same small kitchen (ventilation provided by a half-opened skylight). And, week after week, the same daily specials: on Mondays it was osso buco, on Tuesdays it was nothing special, on Wednesdays it was lamb shank, on Thursdays it was veal Genovese, on Fridays it was fish soup, on Saturdays it was the same as Wednesdays (lamb shank), and on Sundays it was lasagna.
Gino’s most faithful customers, creatures of habit, feasted on consistency and the devoted attention of a single waiter, who (as one of nine waiters sharing the afternoon and evening shifts) oversaw each of his assigned tables for the duration of the meal. In the interest of controlling the overhead, Mr. Gino regarded busboys as an unnecessary expense, and he felt similarly about floral decorations. While the cost of the fresh flowers at La Grenouille is three thousand dollars a week, the plastic flowers at Gino’s—tucked into a half-dozen pearlescent plaster cornucopias that hang from the walls between the zebras—cost six hundred dollars a year.
The responsibility for purchasing these artificial flowers fell to one of the restaurant’s two current owners, a Neapolitan of sixty-nine named Michele Miele, who is also the chef. He buys the flowers at a Wal-Mart near his home in Sullivan County, and he washes them in the restaurant’s kitchen three times a year. Right now, the cornucopias are filled with spring flowers—plastic daisies, daffodils, tulips, lilies—and during the holidays he replaces them with chrysanthemums.
But there will be no chrysanthemums at Gino’s this Christmas and no more lamb-shank specials on Saturdays. Mr. Miele and his seventy-year-old partner, a fellow-Neapolitan named Salvatore Doria—who came to Gino’s as a waiter in 1974, after a decade at Barbetta, on West Forty-sixth Street—revealed last week that, owing to an eight-thousand-dollar-per-month increase that would drive the rent to more than thirty thousand dollars, plus the health-care costs sought by its employees’ union, the restaurant will close after Saturday night’s dinner on May 29th.
The tenant who said he will replace Gino’s at 780 Lexington is a Beverly Hills bakery entrepreneur named Charles Nelson, who, with his wife, Candace, owns and operates Sprinkles Cupcakes shops not only in California but also in Texas and Arizona. Gino’s will vacate the premises in mid-June; Doria says that he plans to retire, and Miele says that he would like to open another restaurant nearby if he can find a backer—a big if in this economy, he concedes, given that he has already failed to attract new partners to confront the rising costs of operating Gino’s.
Meanwhile, Miele has abandoned his chores in the kitchen to his subordinates and has taken to sitting in the dining room exchanging greetings and condolences with regular customers, who, having got the word, are now coming in almost every day in anticipation of the time when there will not be a menu for them to ignore. In the crowd recently were the architect I. M. Pei and his wife, Eileen, who have been eating at Gino’s for sixty years. “Oh, I’m so sorry this is ending,” Miele said. “But we tried to listen to Mr. Gino, who told us, ‘Take care of the customer, don’t change anything, and Gino will never die.’ ” Doria added, “Yes, we used to say, ‘The world changes, but nothing changes at Gino.’ ” ♦