Right at home among Celine and Balenciaga, the power restaurant that is Avra Madison — sister to the original Avra Estiatorio located just one mile down — swells with billionaires and celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio and Katie Holmes among them), and it claims a reservation list stacked with guests who can rub shoulders with them.
People-watching aside, the fresh seafood bar inside this palatial Rockwell Group-designed space is just as ogle-worthy. Hundreds of branzino, lithrini, and fagri are flown in straight from Greece to J.F.K., where the Avra van picks up the piscine shipment.
Dying to play it cool over a flame-grilled whole branzino? We’ve got you. Welcome to The One Who Keeps the Book, our regular series spilling tips and tricks on how to get a table (check Resy first, of course) and what to eat once you’ve made it there.
For this edition, we went straight to the source, Avra Madison general manager Carl Delponte. He led the team through a buzzy 2016 opening, the ever-changing city restrictions during the pandemic, and he’s got plenty planned for the winter holiday season that’s just around the corner. Here, he shares tips for snagging the best seats in the house — and the amusing attempts to do so — and picking the best fish for your party.
Resy: How many seats are there at Avra Madison?
Carl Delponte: We have an outside cafe or dining area that we built during COVID, in December 2020 that increased our capacity. So, we now have 85 seats outside and 375 inside. New York City had put a bunch of restrictions on indoor dining at the time, so we built a really nice structure with heating and a lot of barriers so that the wind wouldn’t come in. The Rockwell Group, the same design firm that designed the restaurant, also designed the outside for us so it looks like the inside of Avra. And basically, that’s how we survived during the winter months. We were maxing out outside 100%.
When do reservations drop on Resy?
30 days before.
And how quickly do these tend to get booked out?
We started just with Resy on October 1, and as of [October 27], we’re seeing that the early weeks of November are filling up rather quickly.
For us, Tuesday through Saturday gets booked up the week of. Prime time hours for Avra are between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. inside. And then the outside reservations are for 9 p.m. or later, or 6 p.m. or earlier. Monday has gotten busier; I don’t know why. I think it’s because there are more people in the city now coming back and they’re getting cabin fever and maybe those are the reservations that they can get right away on Mondays. But Mondays have become a very busy day for us, almost nearing our covers for Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Sunday evening is definitely our slowest time of the week.
How long is your Notify list on average?
I’m sure we’re going to utilize it, but we haven’t yet. We just started with Resy.
Are any of the seats in the restaurant held for walk-ins?
We reserve every seat through Resy. But if anything is available, and there are cancellations, we fit walk-ins as they come in.
What is the typical wait time for a walk-in?
It varies. On a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at prime time, which are our busy nights, we’ll get about an hour wait for a table. If there’s no chance of getting a seat, we’re not going to let people wait.
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What’s the move for a walk-in to wait until they get seated?
We have a great full-service bar where they can order appetizers and cocktails while they wait. When the weather’s nice, people take a walk around Central Park or shop on Madison Avenue while they wait.
Do you have a good story that’s gone down at the door?
I have one that just happened! A guest came in, and so I took their name and checked their vaccination card. I said, “Do you have a reservation?” And she said, “Yes, my name is Mrs. Smith, and I have a reservation for four.” I said, “I don’t seem to have you. Could you possibly have made it on a different day?” And she said, “Actually, I put it in through Carl Delponte.” And I said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah, we’re very, very close friends.” I said, “How long have you known Carl?” She said, “Very long!” And I started laughing. I said, “I’m Carl Delponte,” and then she was totally embarrassed. But I did seat them. I even approached the table a couple of times, making fun of her, you know, but in a good way, laughing about it. Like “Hey, we’re long-lost friends. We go all the way back to high school.” When she left here, she had a great time.
For anybody who goes through that much trouble to come and dine at our restaurant, well, I’m going to make sure I take care of you.
Did she say how she got your name?
She asked at the outside dining area, “Who runs this place?” And they told her “Carl Delponte.” That’s been done before. People will come in on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and ask, “Who’s the maitre d’ on Saturday?” thinking that that person won’t be here that day. And then they’ll say, you know, “Rebecca told me to come in and use her name.”
Well, this story is going to publish your first and last name, so you might get more walk-ins using you as a reference. Aside from that, is there any other way to snag a table?
Walk in at 6 p.m. or earlier or at 9:30 p.m. or later. You have a better chance of walking in and getting seated in a relatively short time. Get a reservation for any weekday between 5 and 6 p.m., and Sunday evening.
In your opinion, what’s the best seat in the house?
That would be on the west side of the dining room. We have five booths. I would say that the three middle ones would be the best seats in the house. So that’d be tables 71, 72, and 73. The booths are big, very comfortable, and you can see the whole restaurant. It’s great for people-watching. They’re the most sought after. These seat up to six people. [For large group hang-outs], we have what we call our cabanas in the back of the dining room on the main floor. They’re three rooms with large tables that can seat up to 10 people. We call them cabanas because they have curtains in the front that you can pull.
Let’s say it’s your busy night, Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Can you set the scene?
Okay, so when you walk in, our bar will be three-deep. The bar crowd starts trickling in around 4:30 p.m., and reaches peak around 6 or 6:30 p.m. The dining room will be filling up. It’s very, very energy-filled. And then if you go down to our fountain room — we have two floors — it’s much more mellow, very beautiful. It’s also the original space of the Copacabana. So, if people are looking for a nice dinner with not much noise, the fountain room is the place to go.
What is the ideal time to visit?
It could be two different times. If you’re looking for a quiet time, it would be before 6 p.m. If you’re looking for energy and a busy restaurant and bar scene, it would be to come in during the week Tuesday through Thursday between 7 and 10 p.m. You’ll get that whole vibe.
What should guests absolutely order from the menu?
We have a fish bar in the restaurant with all fresh seafood on it. It’s very fresh. We fly our fish in three times a week from the Mediterranean. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — either early in the morning or late at night — the seafood comes directly from Greece, Spain, or Cyprus into Kennedy airport. We send a van to pick it up, and then the van comes to us, and we unload it. The fish isn’t sitting around for a couple of days at the market. So, the fish that you’re looking at was probably swimming in the Mediterranean just two days prior.
I always tell guests to order the large branzino for the table. What we do is we bring the guests to the fish bar, they pick out their fish, we take the fish, they clean it downstairs, we throw it on the grill, and then it’s filleted and topped with fresh lemon, oregano, and olive oil. It’s great with some of our Greek specialty sides like fasolakia, which are string beans and a marinara sauce, or spanakorizo, which is spinach and rice with dill, or our lemon roasted potatoes, which are out of this world, and then a piece of olive oil cake because that is spectacular.
What are your tips for selecting the best fish for the table?
So, we ask how many people are going to be having the fish, what flavor profile they want, if they want to try something new or go with something familiar like salmon, swordfish, tuna, branzino. But there’s many other fish like fagri — that’s a deep-water snapper, lean, white fish with a delicate flavor. Or lithrini, which is very similar to a white snapper, that’s firm and mild-tasting. There’s also sinagrida, a flaky white, sweet fish.
If they’re just going to have fish, we recommend one pound per person so a two-pound fish for a party of two. If they’re going to have another entree with it — say they want to have lamb chops — then we’ll do a one-pound fish, you know, a half to three-quarters per pound per person.
What’s your personal favorite dish?
My personal favorite dish would be the branzino (pictured above). I’m a lover of fresh seafood, and you can taste the freshness in the branzino.
What are you excited about?
We made it through COVID. Now that the restrictions are lifted — other than people having to be vaccinated to come in — we are busier than ever. The number of guests we have now is about 20% more than pre-COVID 2019. We have our staff back. What I’m excited about going forward is the November and December months with people coming into the city again, to Rockefeller Center, and seeing how busy we’re going to be.
Caroline Shin is a food journalist, and founder of the Cooking with Granny video and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Watch her award-winning show on YouTube, and follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.