Arguably the most difficult restaurant reservation in America is in Atlantic City at an eighty six year old landmark known as Chef Vola's. There is no listed phone number, no sign on the wood frame house; it is the last nondescript small white beach house on a short dead end street that only exists for a hundred yards. From the parking lot on the far side of the building you cannot see nor smell the Atlantic Ocean or the Boardwalk. You could as easily be in a rundown area of Hoboken as you could a run down area of Atlantic City.
And the "restaurant" is in the low roofed basement of the house that has no sign. The entrance is a narrow, partially obscured short walkway that looks like it leads to the alley behind the house. Rather it leads to a side door where the frame is barely tall enough to let a full grown human inside.
And they do not always answer their phone. They have an inflexible policy of not serving anyone without a reservation. Billy Crystal is reputed to have once been turned away.
Did I mention that they do not have a liquor license and do not even sell a glass of beer let alone a bottle of wine. And, that it is cash only-no credit cards?
I knew the "legend" of Chef Vola's and having been successful at snagging reservations at both the French Laundry and El Bulli, I felt truly fearless and confidant when I called.
The first of 15 or more times. Finally, on a late November weeknight around five o'clock I got through. I don't remember hearing the name of the restaurant when the phone was answered. Just a "hello." I hesitated and thought that if I asked a question, "is this Chef Vola's?" that I would give my innocence and ignorance away, clearly by asking the simple question I would be branded, "unworthy."
I, matter of factly, said that I would like to make a reservation for my wife and I-but I did not say when. I didn't want to give a reason for being told no. I was not asked when. I was asked if I had been to Chef Vola's before? I hesitated and lied. "Yes."
"Who were you here with?"
I was stunned. Shocked? "Who was I there with?" "Who?" WHO? Was he serious? They wanted to know who I knew that generously allowed me to accompany them on a visit? I wasn't prepared for this. I lied and said "Vincent."
Oh my God! "Vincent who?" This was the stuff of my dreams. My nightmares!
"Vincent was a friend of a good friend of mine from Philly. Don't remember his last name but it was long, 10-12 letters or something."
"Ah! You mean Vincent C-------------------. He's one of our best customers!"
"When would you like to come?"
Wow! I should lie more often! When would I like to come? I said that we were going to be in Atlantic City in several weeks and wanted to know which nights might be best. (Still didn't want to give a reason having come this far!)
"How about the day after Christmas?"
The day after Christmas? Who goes to Atlantic City the day after Christmas? I said, "OK, there's two of us. Say, seven o'clock."
"We've only got 5:30 or 9:30."
He was serious, too!!! My brief flash of confidence and sense of belonging burst, realizing that we were going to be relegated to the least desirable dinner times.
Well, I made the reservation and he again asked if I "remembered how to get there?" I lied again and said yes. He also told me the reason that he asked who I had come with was that the restaurant was very difficult to find (I would, of course, understand this having been there before...) and didn't know if I would need explicit directions. Also, they had a lot of regulars and many of their regulars gave directions to friends coming for the first time.
Wednesday night I thought about that conversation while my wife and I were walking around the white house in the rain trying to figure out how to get in. We were getting wet and maybe I should have been a bit more honest, maybe I had not needed to lie. Perhaps, he was REALLY just being helpful and knew that I really would have a problem figuring out how to get in, especially if it was raining. Which it was.
We saw a small door with a Zagat sticker on the glass and opened it.
Inside we found one of the most incredible dining rooms I have ever been in. Perhaps as much or more character and warmth as anywhere. Chef Vola's has a low slung ceiling, perhaps a bit more than seven feet high. (It is, after all, a basement. Literally.) But the ceiling is beamed with wooden planks spanning the walls for the entire length. On the walls of several sides of the room there was more wood framing with white washed walls into between the timbers. Soft pink tablecloths along with dim lighting and streaming tinseled Christmas decorations and carefully strung lights added to the feeling of a very private and very personal room that, curiously, had an overall romantic and intimate, special feeling to it.
"Frank" was everywhere. Photos of him on the walls, newspaper clippings, magazine clippings-apparently he had been a regular. On one wall was a signed photograph-with Michael and Louise Esposito standing on either side of George H. W. Bush. In the restaurant. I thought I saw a photo of Clinton and a half dozen or more congressmen. Numerous celebrities. A few Phillies, Flyers and Eagles, too. Including two coaches and a "good friend of Steven Van Zandt" at the table next to us. In all there were a total of 48 seats including two tables built in a room that had been carved into the area beneath the front steps of the porch above.
I sat at our table and my mouth dropped: I was not prepared for this. The place was not a basement "joint." It dripped comfort, romance and wanting to share the expressive obsession of its twenty five year owners who presented and caressed their restaurant as they would a son or daughter. Clearly, this was their life's love. And it showed. And they could not have been warmer, more welcoming, more actually caring. They really, honestly were doing everything in their power to make everyone in the room feel, indeed, special. They also seemed to know many of them. Louise, especially, IS Chef Vola's. Loquaciously sweet, obsessively focused neither a person nor a detail in the room escaped her. Her husband, Michael, seemed much more restrained, respectful and even indulgent of her presence.
There is a menu. The waiters also recite the evening's specials. All twenty or so of them. In detail. I handed my bottle of Dal Forno Valpolicella (what did you expect? Not too over the top but definitely a special bottle. I wanted to demonstrate my worthiness of being accepted into their home.)
We settled on a split course of linguine with Bolognese sauce, a split House salad (we were told the courses were large), a filet special with bleu cheese, a red snapper filet with crabmeat and champagne sauce and a lemoncello and butterscotch pie for dessert.
Our salads were brought first and they were disappointing. Iceberg lettuce, canned black olives, decent tomatoes, dices of a white cheese (mozz?) and vinegar and oil. The bread and breadsticks that accompanied this were not much better. In fact I noted that this felt exactly how a decent but no better restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy felt in the early 1970's. (I wondered if Chef Vola's had garlic bread since places like Maria's 300 made up for their salads with garlicky, oozing toasted slabs that I would travel the 80 miles roundtrip from D. C. just to have.)
Two bowls of pasta were brought out, each the size of a dinner size bowl anywhere else. The server told us we each had a half order. A half order? About this time another server with particularly strong forearms was carrying two twelve inch long, six inch wide oval platters each fully laden with fresh linguine and with either a Vodka sauce or the Bolognese sauce threatening to spill over the sides onto the floor.
Twelve dollars for one of these three pounds troughs!
There are restaurants like That's Amore and Logan's Roadhouse and places in the Bronx that serve huge platters of food like this. Most are not very good although there is at least one on Arthur Avenue that was excellent on a visit several years ago. Chef Vola's Bolognese sauce was as good as any I have had even in Bologna. And there was a lot of it. After finishing the linguine I took a spoon and scooped it like a rustic red stew.
A few minutes later our entrees were served. One of several house specialties (Bruni had raved about it on his only visit) was the Red Snapper. This was a two and one half pound fish that had been fileted with the result that a one pound + filet was on my plate topped with a quarter to a third pound of nugget size lumps of Indonesian crabmeat. Over all of this was a champagne cognac pesto cream sauce with a crown of a fresh chiffonade of basil. It was delicious. An outstanding conception-I knew I would have several excellent dinners out of it! For $34.00 this was an incredible bargain that remarkably tasted even better than the prodigious size was impressive.
My wife order a filet. This was a softball sized "top prime" aged butter crusted Filet (sixteen ounces?) topped with numerous chunks of slowly melting, oozing, dripping, caressing Maytag bleu cheese. Nested on a half pound of eight inch asparagus spears in their own pool of good butter.
I've had Luger's and Dallas' Del Frisco's in the '80's, Bisteca Fiorentina at Sostanza and Vescovino in Tuscany along with sliced beef of one kind or another at a number of three Michelin starred restaurants in Europe and New York. This was at least the equal of any. The $48.00 steak (well worth it!) was intensely flavorful, perfectly charred and cooked medium rare-an incredible steak, far superior to anything we had even fantasized about. At one point my wife noted that I was slicing the three inch tall hunk with my bread knife. I wasn't even aware that I was using the wrong knife.
Dessert didn't disappoint. In fact the warm rum butterscotch pie with dollops of fresh whipped cream and, especially, the intense lemoncello pie were wonderful compliments to what, quite honestly, was an amazing dinner. All from a kitchen, obscured in what must have once been a closet-a small closet-with only three behind the counter serving the forty eight out front as well or better than twelve would elsewhere.
We will go back. I will call as many times as I need to for whenever they will have me. It is "only" four hundred miles roundtrip" from Reston where we live to Chef Vola's. I believe this is the best "Italian American" restaurant in America. It is a regional treasure and landmark. I believe it is time that it become a national treasure and landmark.
A helluva dinner in someone's basement!