I feel like everyone here knows each other,” said a friend on a visit to Sartiano’s as we tore into a high-domed puck of olive-studded focaccia, oven-hot, and a TikTok-bait $48 plate of “caviar cannolis,” gooey with mascarpone and American sturgeon, fridge-cold. A neighboring patron, a Long Island real-estate developer out on a girls’ night — charmed to be offered a bite of our paccheri with Sunday sauce, large enough to require its own tray — confirmed. “I love all these private clubs,” she said, ticking off a roomful of acquaintances and notables: the designer Ronny Kobo at a table of nine, some owners of the Setai hotel, a Trump-connected Israeli American heiress-divorcée. That wasn’t even everyone. “All the Syrian Jews are here,” she said.
Sartiano’s, which has taken over the space vacated by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen in the Mercer hotel, is not a private club, though it can often feel like one. Scott Sartiano, its owner and namesake, has one of those, too: Zero Bond, the members-only establishment a few blocks north that regularly hosts celebrities, money-men, and the mayor. No, Sartiano’s, in a dim cavern newly reupholstered by William Sofield, Tom Ford’s preferred store designer, is that more nebulous thing, a clubstaurant. Sartiano has been plying this kind of hybrid since at least 2002, when he opened Butter, an early-modern exemplar of the form. Butter had both a DJ and a chef de cuisine but was nevertheless open to anybody. These days, doors across town are locking tighter against the rabble, as those who wish to mix their meat with mingling barricade themselves against an intrusion of smartphone cameras and common citizens. While Sartiano’s is open to all, its mood is firmly “semi-private”; it joins the ranks of places that — if you have money and certain kinds of connections — are inner sanctums where everybody knows your name.
Since Sartiano’s opened in June, those names have included Paul McCartney, Martha Stewart, Gettys, Barbie herself (Margot Robbie, for a Chanel party), and James Marsden. During my first visit, Kim Kardashian, Lauren Sánchez, and Nicky Hilton commandeered a prime table with two camera-men and a lighting kit to capture it all.
Clearly, the food is not the point. It is, nevertheless, pretty good. Alfred Portale, a veteran of city fine dining with decades of experience and his own namesake restaurant on West 18th Street, supervises the menu, and the kitchen is in the hands of Chris Lewnes, who worked at Bâtard, Augustine, and American Brass. The menu is Jersey Italian à la Carbone, another big-macher joint for parsing the social strata. Navigate carefully and you can do surprisingly well. I couldn’t stop eating the tempura-battered fritto misto — steroidally puffy and salty as a bag of potato chips — plucking out the silver-dollar-size zucchini chips as well as the rock shrimp and squid. Among the pastas, we enjoyed bucatini tumbled with lobster in Calabrian-spiced tomato sauce and tender, creamy agnolotti brailled with little tablets of sweet corn.
Is that enough? Restaurants of this caliber are not rare in New York, and at most of them you don’t find an abandoned fake fingernail on your table as you’re seated. There are other places where one can get a cartoonishly giant, entirely pleasant veal parm, served with a deep-fried axle of bone, and a well-cooked pork chop (Portale, for example, serves a not dissimilar one at his own place).
Sartiano’s most distinguishing characteristic, its brittle veneer of exclusivity, is less appealing. Reservations are available on Resy, though not during prime hours; for those, the public is instructed to call or email. But show up without one, as I did early one pouring Monday night, and you can find yourself unwelcome. A host regretted, barely, that the tables — the lion’s share of which sat empty — were all reserved. “First come, first served at the bar,” he told us. Citing the weather (inclement) and the vacancy (omnipresent), I offered to leave a name or a phone number in case of any cancellation. The man was stone. No name. No number. With the most blistering disdain, patience exhausted, he repeated himself once more: “First come, first served at the bar.”
Okay! We found two seats around the side of the bar, which, being roughly waist high on one side, gave an ample view of a sink and nothing else. Easily the worst seats in the house (though curiously close to the private dining room). “Main Bar B,” as our bill identified it, was fenced in by a mirrored column, reflecting back our B-list selves. The one thing we were able to see was the second-worst seats, a table for two 20 paces away that went unused for the entire three hours we were there.
The mid-evening arrival of the Kardashian party was likely to blame for the depressed capacity. Or maybe it was the need to know exactly who was in each seat. Everyone at Sartiano’s, from the staff to the clientele, seemed alive to the possibility of an important encounter. “Just saying ‘hi’! Come and talk to us,” a drunkish woman yelled at me mid-meal from what I can only assume was “Main Bar A.” Ours was destined to be an aborted meet-cute, however. She had thought, and asked the bartender whether, I was Mark Zuckerberg.