Hockey stars Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton used to share a locker, but not at TD Garden.
At Morton’s The Steakhouse.
That’s because the former Boston Bruins are among a small but growing cohort of elite Massachusetts diners who’ve acquired private wine lockers in upscale restaurants.
Mark Walhlberg has one at Strega Prime, a swank Woburn steakhouse, where his neighbors include actor John Travolta, musician Lionel Richie, and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. The Capital Grille designated a locker for legendary Sox outfielder Dwight Evans.
At Morton’s in the Seaport District, one locker eerily bears the name of a late Mafia boss: “Gennaro Angiulo.” (Citing privacy concerns, Morton’s spokespeople declined to comment on specific patrons.)
Wine lockers — which can cost hundreds of dollars per year to rent, unless you’re invited to have one, as some VIPs are — are more than just fancy cabinets where special guests keep a private stash of vino.
They’re “prestigious,” according to Chris Meutsch, a spokesman for Wine Cellar Innovations, an Ohio-based company that designs and manufactures wine racks and cellars. “It’s a see-and-be-seen type of thing.”
Each cubbyhole represents a miniature piece of restaurant real estate, and membership to an exclusive club.They’re popular at steakhouses and country clubs, but not easy to get. Waiting lists are common. Because of their limited supply, Meutsch said, wine locker units can sell out before they are even installed.
At Morton’s The Steakhouse in the Seaport District, wine lockers are the first thing you see when you enter the restaurant. The vestibule walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets with glass windows, each bearing the nameplate of its owner. On the left-hand side, nestled between the plaques for “The Greco Family” and somebody named “Speak Easy,” is the one reserved for Lucic, the former left winger for the Bruins. His name and number — “#17 Lucic” — are spelled out in black lettering on a chrome silver nameplate, and his hockey card is posted on the front of the locker for all to see.
The lockers are free, but the privilege is reserved for a select group of regular customers and wine lovers. Morton’s boasts about 50 lockers in all, and all are taken.
It costs $350 a year to lease one at The Capital Grille, and users also agree to purchase a case (12 bottles) of wine. In return, they get benefits such as consulting with a sommelier, preferential pricing, and opportunities to buy rare vintages. One thing they don’t get, however, is a key — only the staff can access the lockers.
The Capital Grille has 200 walnut-stained mahogany wine lockers at its three Massachusetts locations. There are no vacancies, and waiting lists at all of them.
The Capital Grille in Boston boasts some nameplates with interesting aliases that spark curiosity. Who exactly is “Dewey”? How can I meet “Cheeko”? Why does “China” have a locker in Boston and Burlington? (Alas, their identities remain a mystery. The Capital Grille declined to comment on locker users.)
The tenants at The Capital Grille in Burlington are less cryptic: There are wine lockers for Lynnway Auto Auction, BMI Mechanical Inc., and other businesses. One contains a couple of brand-new, unopened toothbrushes — which is fitting because it belongs to Dental Bright, a local dentistry office.
Leo Cara Donna, president and director of purchasing for Cara Donna Provision Co., a wholesale food distributor, got his wine locker at The Capital Grille over 20 years ago, when it was located on Newbury Street. “I was a frequent customer there,” he said. “As soon as I saw them, I wanted one. . . . I didn’t care how much it cost.”
Nick Varano, owner of The Varano Group that includes Strega Prime, first fell in love with wine lockers as a young man, and got his first one at Morton’s when he was in his 20s. Even though he wasn’t a wine-drinker, Varano said he used the locker to store wine for friends and often gave bottles away as gifts. “It was a good feeling to have one,” he said.
Years later, when Varano opened a steakhouse of his own in Woburn, he wanted to make wine lockers part of the dining experience.
Today, every one of the 56 wine lockers at Strega Prime is occupied (and yes, there’s a waiting list). There is no charge for the locker, but users are expected to buy bottles of wine to keep inside them. They’re a perk granted to regular customers who have a “serious passion for wine,” according to Varano.
Varano also sets aside wine lockers for some of his “favorite people,” including celebrities he’s met and befriended, such as Richie, Wahlberg, and Travolta.
Ortiz scored one because he’s a regular customer. “David has been a client of mine for a long time,” said Varano.
Visitors to Strega Prime “are very curious about the lockers. . . . We do get a lot of inquiries,” said Sean Conroy, beverage director for The Varano Group.
“It is kind of a status symbol,” said Conroy. “There’s the ‘wow’ factor, when people are entertaining guests or having a business meeting.”
Wahlberg was given a locker because he frequents one of Varano’s other restaurants, Strega Waterfront in Boston.
Conroy said the actor “is a huge wine fan, and he’s not shy about it.”
Among the newest wine lockers to hit the market are those at Great Road Kitchen in Littleton. Since Marcus Palmer opened the restaurant about a month ago, most of the 24 units have been leased, but there are a few still left.
Jamie Rhino, a local resident who runs a construction company in Acton, was among the first customers to lease one. The nameplate on his locker says “RHINO” in capital letters. He compared it to a “penthouse suite.”
“It’s a pretty cool idea, to be able to keep wine in the locker and share it with friends,” said Rhino. “There’s nowhere else around here that does it.”
A locker below his bears a familiar name: “Larry Bird.”
Surely that’s a joke, right?
When asked, Palmer declined to disclose the true identity of the key-holder.
“People can put any name they want on their lockers,” he said. “It’s completely up to them.”