Michael Cecchi-Azzolina has been in the restaurant business a long time. When asked exactly how long, he’ll reply, simply, “I can see you haven’t read my book.”
Cecchi-Azzolina is the author of last year’s insidery tell-all “Your Table Is Ready,” which chronicles his 35-year-plus career working in New York restaurants like The River Café, Raoul’s, and Le Coucou. Today, he’s also the proprietor of the eponymous Cecchi’s, which took over former literary haunt Café Loup’s space on 13th Street.
The match of the iconic space and Cecchi’s pedigree meant that word spread around quickly shortly after Cecchi’s opened in June, making it one of the toughest tables in town. The dimly lit, mural-lined dining room and the menu of crowd-pleasing haute comfort food don’t hurt, either.
We sat down with Cecchi to find out just how to snag one of Cecchi’s’ prime corner tables, and what to expect while you’re there.
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Resy: When do reservations drop on Resy?
Cecchi-Azzolina: Thirty days in advance at midnight.
How quickly do reservations tend to get booked out?
Prime-time tables get booked instantly.
How many seats does Cecchi’s have?
Up to 132, including the bar, where we serve the full menu.
How many seats do you keep open for walk-ins?
None. We try and book up everything, but we do take walk-ins if there are cancelations, or if there are no shows. We’re happy to take walk-ins if we have the space.
Why no walk-ins?
The demand is so great on reservations and those are guaranteed; walk-ins are not. Industry wide, there’s been a shift towards this idea that “We love walk-ins, and we reserve a third of the dining room for walk ins,” but that’s not how we’re doing it here. It might change in the future, but the demand is so great that right now we’d rather stick with reservations.
What You Need to Know
Plan Ahead: Reservations drop 30 days out at midnight.
Walk On In: Get there early, before 6 p.m., to grab a seat at the bar where you can also dine on the full menu.
The Layout: There are 132 seats total, divided over three rooms and the bar.
Prime Time: 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Must-Order Dishes: Not a Wedge Salad, Cecchi’s burger, onion rings, and a You’re So Cuke cocktail.
Pro Tip: Add yourself to the Resy Notify list if you’re looking for that prime-time table. Walk-in early on a Monday or Tuesday to secure a coveted bar seat. If you’re a night owl, there are normally tables available post 9:30 p.m. to reserve most days of the week. Or pop into the restaurant in advance and talk to the maître d’ or manager.
How many covers do you have on any given night?
We’ve just opened so we aren’t booking at capacity, but I’d say that three months from now, it would be anywhere from 180 to 220.
And how long is the Resy Notify list, on average?
Very long. The other night we had 347 people on it. For a brand-new restaurant to have that many people on the Notify list, that’s a very good sign.
If someone were to set a Notify for Cecchi’s, is there a certain day of the week they’d be most likely to get a reservation?
Monday or Tuesday. We’ll be open on Sundays in the near future, and that would be a good bet as well.
Are there any tips or tricks you would recommend for getting a table?
Our reservation system is straightforward. We open the books on Resy one month in advance. We’re a month old and it’s the middle of the summer, so if guests plan ahead, they should have no problem. Once we get into the fall, I expect things will get a bit tough.
While we don’t want to turn anyone away, seating is limited. If a guest tries to book and repeatedly finds there is no availability, we do take walk-ins. Obviously, the earlier one can arrive, the better. If someone shows up on a Saturday night at 8 p.m. expecting to walk in and get a table, it will be very difficult.
If they really want to dine with us and can’t get a reservation, they should come to the restaurant and speak to the maître d’ or manager, and I guarantee they will have a very, very good chance of getting one.
Restaurants are our town halls — where people go to meet, to see, to be seen.— Michael Cecchi-Azzolina
What’s the best seat in the house?
We have a lot of great seats. There isn’t a single best seat in the house.
This table that we’re sitting at [front corner with the street view] is fantastic. Deep into the dining room, the seats under the mural, those are great too. There are such a variety of seats here; it’s really what people like, what they gravitate toward. Some people like the crowd at the bar, some want to go towards the back, or toward the front. We have worked hard to cultivate many different feels within one space.
Where would you pick?
Maybe this front table or one of the corners. We have a lot of corner tables. You get to see everything that’s going on. We have five great ones, where a deuce can sit side by side and watch the room.
How did you preserve the integrity of the space, but make it new?
The restaurant [that was here before], Café Loup, was around for 30-something years, and the energy was there. It was an iconic space. I wanted to keep the intangible energy that lived here and that, as I saw it, was the bar. We kept it and restored it. We added lighting which made it more intimate and made it really sexy. Otherwise, everything else is gone. We had to do a gut renovation.
What makes something iconic?
History. The energy.
The layout of the dining room is important. I wanted the energy to keep flowing through the space. In a more obvious answer, an iconic space is a place that has been in existence for a number of years that people love. Café Loup, my God, was it loved. People stopped in during construction and said, “Oh, we loved Loup. We loved it, loved it, loved it.”
They felt the energy. It wasn’t an attractive restaurant, and they certainly weren’t coming for the food. It was the people that came here who made it iconic: Norman Mailer sitting at the bar, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke at their front table, Meryl Streep at hers. There’s a legacy here that I hope to become a part of.
How did you decide on the menu?
I wanted to do a strictly classic American restaurant, an American bistro, but I hate the term “American” and I hate the term “bistro.” An “American bistro” doesn’t make sense to me; the sentiments are in conflict with each other.
A bistro is from someone from Alsace with his or her mother’s recipes in his back pocket, who takes the train to Paris, finds an affordable space and opens a restaurant. That’s a bistro.
The equivalent that I know, in New York specifically, is with the bars and grills I grew up with. They were the places with signs out front that read “steaks, chops, and seafood.” Those were where I had some of my favorite meals. I had my first skirt steak in one of those places and my first pot roast. They were delicious, but they were simple, to the point. That’s what I wanted to do with Cecchi’s. I wanted to do our version of a bistro, and that to me is the bar and grill.
You’re not using your family recipes, are you?
No, no, no. If we do a pasta, I might.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in dealing with the back-of-house?
Absolute communication between both. The first sentence of my handbook at Cecchi’s is, “Be kind to each other and to our guests.” I want it to be an environment that people want to come to work and have fun while they are doing their job.
What are your service pet peeves?
Not taking the glasses off the table. Empty glasses on the table drive me crazy. There’s no reason for them to be there. Or when a busser busses a table and leaves a knife on the table, or a fork on the table.
How do you prevent the diner from knowing all hell is breaking loose behind the scenes?
Remain calm constantly. When things are falling apart, most of the time customers have no idea.
If they do, talk to the guest and be honest. “I’m so sorry, but this is what’s happening right now, and the food’s not coming out for 40 more minutes. Can we get you a drink?” It’s all about communication. You can’t hide it. You just can’t.
What is the mark of your particular style of service?
It’s about the experience. It’s coming in and being transported to something different than your life outside. I want people to come into the room and go, “Wow, I’m in a completely different environment, a welcoming environment.” My hosts, my maître d’, my bartenders, they will greet you, and smile at you, and get you seated, and will serve you some food, and serve you some drinks.
But it’s a full experience; it’s not just about food. I don’t sell food. I sell the experience and that has to do with my lighting, my artwork, and my staff. Restaurants are our town halls — where people go to meet, to see, to be seen. You do it by creating an environment where people want to be.
What’s your go-to order at Cecchi’s?
I would have the Not a Wedge salad, the prime strip, and a side of succotash and onion rings.
How do you cultivate such a following for the restaurants you’ve worked in?
I’ve only worked in very successful restaurants, places that people want to be. As a maître d’, you curate the room. The most important people in the dining room are the neighbors. They will come two to three times a week, or two to three times a month; they will keep you in business. You want celebrities, because everyone likes to see a celebrity. You want business people, because you want the business dinners; they spend money. You want to get all these different factions in. I want the writers here, because I’m a writer. You want some of the kids to come, too.
You have to open up reservations, but we always hold tables for regulars, or for Meryl Streep — never say no to Meryl Streep! Everyone will remember that time they went out for dinner in the West Village and she was there. Neighbors are first, and then you want to sprinkle it in with business people, celebrities, etc., so you’ve got a nice cross section of New York City.
Cecchi’s is open Monday to Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.