The dinner rush is still an hour or so away, but already Carrie Nation Restaurant & Cocktail Club in Beacon Hill is clamoring with life.
As the political types trickle in from the nearby State House on a recent weeknight, they are greeted by a man whose presence at the front of the restaurant has become such a constant that general manager Sharon Carey jokes that he’s part of the furniture.
“Hey Frank,” a thirtysomething says to him as he walks in and heads for the bar.
“Frankie!” calls Massachusetts House majority leader Ron Mariano.
Who is this immaculately groomed man everyone seems to know, with his tailored jacket, pocket square, and hint of Rat Pack swagger?
Anyone in the restaurant business in these parts will tell you: He is Frank Lunardi, the last maître d’ in Boston.
Time was that you could hardly step into a restaurant of any note in the city without coming across someone like Lunardi — greeting you with a deferential nod, leading you to your preferred table in the corner, and remembering that you take a Montecristo Cuban after dinner.
But, like the bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise at the extinct Anthony’s Pier 4, that white-gloved era is long gone, and so are the maître d’s who came with it. L’Espalier’s legendary Louis Risoli retired last year after 34 years. Now, Lunardi bears the standard of a vocation that many diners these days have encountered only in movies.
Of course, restaurants still have hosts and general managers or others who greet customers at the door. But authorities in the business, including Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, say there’s no one else left who, like the maître d’s of old, is so dedicated to getting to know customers, knowing their names, studying their wants and tastes, and seeing that they are attended to.
As Lunardi puts it, “I create an experience.”
At 62, Lunardi looks younger than his age, broad shouldered and broader chested, blessed with a full head of dark hair he keeps neatly coiffed. He is decidedly old-school, a guy who wouldn’t dream of showing up to work in anything short of a jacket and tie.
He’s been a maître d’ for 40 years, give or take, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you some of the stories he’s collected. There are the countless athletes and politicians he’s accommodated, and the old mafiosos who’d summon him to their homes to cook for their families, and a thousand others he’d love to share but won’t, because there are some things that must remain between a maître d’ and his customers.
And if you ask him what, exactly, makes a good maître d’, you will be treated to a detailed breakdown of the job’s particulars.
“. . . You can’t be a phony.”
“. . . If you dress like a bum and you try to do what I do, people will say, ‘What are you, a clown?’ ”
“. . . I’m on 24-hour duty. I get calls at 8 in the morning. My wife says, ‘You like your customers more than me!’ ”
Right about then, Carey, the restaurant’s general manager, walks over to ask if Lunardi knows where to find the kids’ menus. He jumps up, disappears, and returns a moment later with a couple buckets of crayons and some sheets of paper for a large family with children.
“I wanna see who can draw the best,” he says to the kids. “I’m gonna judge.”
Now, where was he?
He began in the business at age 14, as a dishwasher at Dini’s Sea Grill downtown before the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Dini — who taught him never to answer a customer’s question with “I don’t know” — invited him to work on the floor.
For 20 years he was at Dini’s, followed by stints at Phillips Old Colony House, Raphael’s, Granite Links Golf Club — the pages of his small notebooks of customer names filling with each stop. For a year-and-a-half in the middle of all that, he left the restaurant business to sell window treatments. He made a lot of money, he says, but didn’t have much fun. So he returned to what he loved.
In many ways, he says, the job’s the same as it’s always been. It’s about respect, reading people and situations, understanding, for instance, that the restaurant’s no-hat policy does not apply to Julian Edelman.
But it’s different, too. The ways of politicians he knew in the old days — some wouldn’t think twice about slurping their way through three-martini lunches — have changed, becoming more conservative and business-like over the years. The notebook he once kept in his pocket to remember names is gone, replaced by a smartphone currently containing 1,600 names and numbers. These days, he is perpetually reaching for a pair of reading glasses.
Most everyone who works in restaurants in Boston seems painfully aware that a once-great calling lives on in Boston only as long as Lunardi keeps working.
“When he quits,” says Lou Pasquale, his old colleague at Phillips Old Colony House, “there will be no more.”
Lunardi says he has no intention of doing that. He’s been at Carrie Nation about five years and is going strong, he says, which is apparent enough as he begins to prepare for the evening’s dinner rush.
One after another, the restaurant’s staff come with questions.
Frank, can you dim the lights in the dining room?
Frank, will you run next door and buy some batteries?
Frank, what to do about the table of women who say the music is too loud?
Each request sends him hustling off in this direction or that, a blur of motion.
Now, he’s telling the delivery guy where to take the dolly of liquor, and eradicating a smudge from the glass door out front — pausing only long enough to sip from the large pitcher of iced coffee he keeps hidden near the front desk.
And now — don’t blink or you’ll lose him — he’s over at the bar, doing what he does best, the old-school way, back-slapping a white-haired politician and reminiscing about the good ol’ days.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.