John DeLucie is a chef who knows how to bring the New York elite to his restaurants. He was notably the chef at the impossible-to-get-reservations-at Waverly Inn, before replicating that magic at the Lion. His latest venture is Crown (24 East 81st Street, 646-559-4880), a decidedly fancier affair on the Upper East Side that opened a few months ago. We called him up to learn more about his opinions on fine dining and the crazy rich patrons who frequent his restaurant.
So Crown has been open for a few months now. How have things been going?
I’d say things are going beyond expectation. We are doing an upscale restaurant. I think it was the New York Post critic who said that it’s comfort food for millionaires, and I am using that to describe it. It’s a funny way of saying it.
How do you feel about fine dining?
It depends. The future is certainly the casualization of the New York City restaurant. Our Lion restaurant is fairly casual. But [at Crown] we’re on 81st between Fifth and Madison, so it changed the dynamic of our customers. It’s all about what the market will bear. We serve caviar. If you’re a restaurant on Clinton Street, you’re probably not selling caviar. You’ll always have your Le Bernardins and your Daniels, but overall, there will be more places like the Lion.
Do you eat a lot of fancy food?
Personally, I’m a simple guy. I grew up in the suburbs. I like veal parm.
Why is it that all your restaurants seem to cater to New York’s elite?
You know, hell if I know. I had an opportunity to open the Waverly Inn with Graydon [Carter] and cooked chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. Then it just sort of went from there. I can’t say I set out to do that; you just find your niche and do what works.
What should someone who’s never been to Crown order?
Jason Hall is our executive chef, and it’s really a team effort. There’s a fantastic mushroom salad as an appetizer. We have two really great handmade pastas and a Taylor Bay scallop dish. And we have our pastry chef, Heather Bertinetti, doing a fabulous chocolate soufflé. It’s just really sublime.
Do customers ever order ridiculous things off-menu?
Not so much, but it’s funny when people do come and order stuff. We have an amazing menu at Crown and the Lion, and we had someone come in and order a mushroom omelet or a bowl of white rice. And we happily do it. We’ve also had someone order a côte de boeuf for their dog. It costs $125!
Who is your ideal customer?
If I could cook for anyone? I love cooking for my parents. They just love everything and they’re not critical or award stars.
What makes a restaurant successful in your mind?
Well, I can only speak for mine, and the thing is I don’t know what makes others successful, but in my mind, it’s ambiance, solid, consistent food, and nice people — people who are respectful and willing to bend over backwards for great service.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
Twenty years ago, I’d be trying out for Led Zeppelin. Now I’m too old for that, but I’ve always been enamored with entertainment. I write and play music, and it’s the thread that’s been going through my life. My dad is a musician, so I’d be a jazz musician or recording something. I handpicked the jazz band for the new weekend brunch at Lion.
You’ve been in the business a long time. Would you say your culinary outlook has changed?
Twenty-one years of gainful employment! Yeah, as a young cook you want to set the world on fire and want to do what you want to do and invent the next great dish and put together combinations no one’s done. Now, I want to be successful and please people and make sure they have a nice time and leave happy. From a culinary standpoint, that means creating great food and giving them what they want. If they want a mushroom omelet, hey, they paid for it.
Check back tomorrow to learn more about John’s favorite New York City restaurants.