Victor Rallo is Beverage Director and Partner at Esca on W43rd St between 9/10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. He shared his harrowing Saturday night experience with us.
The weather was great and momentarily I wasn’t pissed off at Governor Murphy or Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio or Menna, the building department or anyone else for that matter. We had a chance for a fantastic mid-October Saturday night, with outdoor and partial indoor dining. It was days and nights like this that got us to where we are today with this pandemic.
When I got to Esca I was excited, the reservation book was at 70 — the most we have seen since reopening 4 weeks ago. The day was warm, the wind was quiet, and it was looking like a perfect night.
Dave Pasternack, my partner and Chef at Esca, and I did the menu for the evening, we had our daily pre-shift meeting with the staff, lowered the lights, and put on the Rolling Stones, we were ready to rock.
The doors opened at 5pm and we started selling great bottles of Italian and French wine. The aroma of Spaghetti Aragosta (with lobster), Linguine Vongole (with clams) and the grilled whole Branzino filled the room. It was delightful. Our guests smiled and laughed, ate and drank and everything seemed on the precipice of normal.
I walked through the dining room to our private courtyard patio where a middle-aged man on his first Tinder date (I’m guessing) was waving the wine list frantically as he looked for words, anything to keep the conversation going with the women seated across from him. I hurried over to help. A wine list makes that easy for me. I talked to them about what they were going to eat really, I told them what to eat and what wines they should drink and why. It was what they needed — a culinary guide — and just maybe a new long-lasting romance was sparked at the moment.
I moved away from the table and out of the corner of my eye I saw a man walking through our planters separating our courtyard from West 43rd street and Ninth Avenue. This night was about to change. He was dressed in dark shorts, a green t-shirt and had a blue mask on. I immediately asked him if I could help him, he told me he was meeting friends, I politely asked the name of the reservation and he pointed and said over there. He pointed into space. At that moment two of my service staff realized we had a problem and flanked my right and left sides. I asked again if I could help him and he became defensive. He then said, “I am not leaving unless you give me money.”
Every table was filled with customers eating, laughing and drinking, oblivious to what was happening. I immediately felt an oncoming sense of urgency. Regardless of the man’s intentions or capabilities, I had a responsibility to make sure the guests and our team, in our courtyard at Esca were safe.
I asked the gentlemen to leave as we slowly walked him back to the edge of the courtyard. He again reiterated he was not leaving unless we gave him money. Do I tackle him — push him over the planters — does he have a knife or a gun? I stayed calm and said: “sir you are going to have to leave or I am calling the police.” The man looked me straight in the eyes and laughed and said: “they’ll do nothing”, and he again in a louder tone demanded money. The lawlessness I had read about and saw on TV was staring me right in the face.
I put my hand in my pocket and fiddled around with my billfold and pulled out a bill — a twenty. I was sweating and shaking as I handed the man the twenty dollars in my hand. He mumbled a quiet “that’s it, that’s all?” and turned away and walked through the planted barriers as he disappeared onto 43rd street.
Could this have happened at any other time? Sure, maybe. But in the midst of pandemic, was the scene more urgent; more unsafe; scary in a way unique to the circumstance of outdoor dining? Yes.
Ultimately, did I lose anything physically, more than a 20 dollar bill? No. But could I have? Could WE have? Absolutely.
At that moment, I thought on my feet. Had the man refused to leave, I could have called the police, but in the immediacy of the moment I had a duty and a responsibility to protect my staff and guests at Esca. We are lucky that it wasn’t more violent, more chaotic — putting our guests, myself and my staff at risk.
With the reality of outdoor dining — the only plausible manner for small business owners to survive amidst pandemic in New York City given trying circumstances — we not only combat the obvious challenges, but also, the spur of the moment challenges as well. This city has failed small business owners, citizens and the homeless, all of whom are floundering to survive in what is supposedly the greatest city on earth.
I ask myself, can 200 years of history be destroyed in 6 months? I believe the answer is no, but I’ve yet to see that with my own eyes.
So I ask of our leaders: Step up, be strong, put politics aside, respect law enforcement, protect our people, protect our streets, protect the American dream. Let’s reclaim the narrative of our streets, our towns, our cities, and our country.
The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote: “Lawlessness is lawlessness. Anarchy is anarchy is anarchy. Neither race nor color nor frustration is an excuse for lawlessness or anarchy.”
I am ashamed of what happened that night, I didn’t sleep. Instead I wrote……..
You can find the unedited version of Victor’s story here. It was originally published in Esca’s newsletter to their customers.