Categorized | Restaurants

New York’s veteran waiters aren’t going anywhere

Tommy Rowles has been working at the Carlyle's Bemelman's Bar for 51 years. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Tommy Rowles has been working at the Carlyle's Bemelman's Bar for 51 years. (Photo: Joel Meares)

By JOEL MEARES

Tommy Rowles has been shaking martinis at the Carlyle Hotel’s swish Bemelmans’ Bar for 51 years. He was 17 and fresh from Dublin when he first got the job.

“I came in to go to the bathroom and there was this Irish bartender here,” says Rowles, standing at the bar on a quiet November morning. “He said, ‘Are you looking for a job?’ Then he asked, ‘Do you own a pair of black socks?’”

Rowles told the man to mind his own business – he wanted to work in an Irish pub, not a ritzy hotel – but he was soon swayed. Just weeks later, he was serving his first drink in the bar named for “Madeline” creator Ludwig Bemelmans.

New York is famed for its old-time waiters, bartenders and deli workers; raspy raconteurs like Rowles who have taken tips for decades at places like Bemelmans’, Peter Luger’s and Katz’s. They’re as familiar as the towering pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli: always there, always smiling and always with a special in mind. Some are as famous as the celebrities they serve. This June, Vanity Fair profiled Elaine Kaufman, of Elaine’s on the Upper East Side.

While many of these familiar faces say they’ll never retire, others are hanging up their aprons. Bartender Hoy Wong, who worked at the Algonquin Hotel past his 90th birthday, retired this year, and the veteran waiters at the Café des Artistes lost their jobs when the restaurant shut its doors in September. But there are those, like Rowles, who are defying the clock and keeping the spirit of the long-serving New York server alive.

New York Times writer William Grimes, who recently released the book “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” says the city’s dining and drinking scene has been transformed by this changing of the guard. Flair is being replaced by expertise as diner legends retire.

“The younger generation of waiters is required to be much more knowledgeable about what’s on the menu and the ingredients that are in each dish and be intimately familiar with the wine list,” says Grimes. “There’s almost a requirement that waiters be foodies. I think that in the old days the personal touch of the waiter was much more important than technical knowledge. People went to a particular restaurant because they knew their waiter and cultivated a relationship with him and trusted their dining fate to his capable hands.”

Carnegie Deli’s Jack Sirota might have had the New York food scene’s most famous personal touch. The 77-year-old began working night shifts at the Seventh Avenue deli in 1959, the same year he married his wife, Renee. Grimes says delis like Carnegie are legendary for waiters who gave “not just instruction on the menu, but on how to live your life.” Sirota did just that.

Through his 44 years at Carnegie, where he later switched to lunches, Sirota kept customers smiling with stories, advice like “you can’t go wrong with pastrami,” starred as himself in Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” and wrote a chapter of a book about the deli, “How to Feed Friends and Influence People.”

Sirota officially retires this year, though he has been on sick leave since 2003 when he fell from a footstool in his kitchen. He was later told he had an enlarged heart and never returned to work. Over the phone from his home in Lakewood, N.J., he says he misses the buzz of the busy diner and its regular customers.

“I loved being around people and I had a good time,” he says. “My philosophy was, every day is Christmas; every day was good.”

Sirota’s customers miss him too. “Bert and Ruth,” who ate at the Carnegie seven nights a week when they lived in Manhattan, were delighted to run into Sirota at a bakery in Lakewood this year. And he hasn’t lost the waiter’s wit that made him a hit on the floor. To a doctor who’d just put a stint in a blocked artery, he said: “I bet you took out the pastrami!”

If gregariousness was Sirota’s secret to success, Rowles’ says his is discretion.

“They tell you that everything that’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas and it doesn’t,” he says, looking as though he might be hiding a million secrets in his flash red Carlyle jacket. “Everything that happens here stays in the Carlyle. People know that if they screw up, they’re not going to see it in the paper in the morning.”

Rowles works the lunchtime shift Tuesdays to Fridays and drives in from Pearl River, N.Y. He says he had a regular crew of men who drank at his bar during the day, but “I’ve buried them all in the last three years.”

His favorite customer was one of his earliest. On his first day of work, the then 17-year-old Rowles served Harry S. Truman. The former president became a regular, drinking bourbon with the young Irish bartender most nights before heading off to visit his grandchildren on the Upper East Side. “He was really nice,” says Rowles, “an American hero.”

Rose Donaghey, an 89-year-old Ulster native still carrying burgers at the east Bronx’s Wicked Wolf restaurant, treats all her customers equally. She says it’s the secret to a 50-year career as a waitress in the city. “I didn’t care, rich or poor, I treated everybody the same,” she said over the phone from her home in the Bronx. “It didn’t matter who they were, I made them feel at home.”

Wicked Wolf owner Kathy Gallagher, whom Donaghey had worked with for 14 years at another restaurant, Charlie’s Inn, roped her in to the job. She works just two days a week – Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  – and her son drives her to and from the restaurant.

“It’s great therapy,” she says. “If I’m at home, I would be playing games, on the television, going to church, things like that.”

When she began at the Wicked Wolf last year, newspapers across the city covered the story of New York’s oldest waitress. Ellen Degeneres even approached her and offered her a first-class ticket to L.A. to appear on her talk show. Donaghey turned her down. “I didn’t want to fly seven hours,” she says.

Like Rowles and others among the city’s old-timers, Donaghey has no plans to retire and she won’t become a modern “foodie” waiter, either. She says her parents, who were farmers in Ireland, never stopped working.

“It’s in my genes,” she says. “We can’t relax, all my family worked to the very end. If they told me they didn’t need me, I would stop working, but that’s never been a question.”

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This post was written by:

Joel Meares - who has written 7 posts on NY Food Chain.

Joel Meares is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, he was a full-time writer for the(sydney)magazine, a monthly glossy in Fairfax Media’s Sydney broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald. He also wrote a blog on sharehouses for the newspaper’s Web site and covered film for Australian industry magazine Inside Film and Web sites such as filmcritic.com and Urban Cinefile.

Contact the author

3 Responses to “New York’s veteran waiters aren’t going anywhere”

  1. John Smith says:

    Point Break – A Perfect Bar Experience in NYC

    A local friend recommended and took my Cali group to this amazing bar. He said that mostly locals came here so I didn't really know what to expect ambiance wise… but screw it, the view at this bar was absolutely breathtaking! No joke. I felt like a celebrity w/ superstar treatment as the staff are friendly and amazing to say the very least.

    I don't know who the house DJ was but he definitely was playing music right up my alley. It would've been my dream for people to start dancing, but it's all good.

    It's a bit sceney for my taste, but it really didn't bother me much. the bartenders knew their stuff, although their 1st cocktail was a little weak, when he saw i understood cocktails the next 2 were stronger. I also liked that even though the place was really hopping the bartender remembered what i was drinking when i came to order another. (he also understood how good a gin hendricks is, and not to overpower it with the mixer). It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied..try it ..you will love it!! Oh..how can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!!

    We ordered the Veal and Fish Tacos. They were delicious. Mm! We ended up asking for spoons to polish off whatever remained in the platter. (Faux pas? Who cares as long as it gets in my tummy.) The fries were crispy, but not overcooked, just the way that I like them.

    So take in this scene: You walk in to what seems like an overly crowded place, but soon fine an empty table. Time seems to stop and the only indicator of the night moving on is the moon and your brain cells slowly going to bed forever. The music is not to loud and the people around look good, the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy that drink you paid ridiculously low for and laugh at the joke your co-worker just told.

    The vibe of the place just never seems to die out and if you happen to spot some NYC socialite, sports player, or star, don't let it get to you… because for that moment, this night they are no long more important than then you. In fact go up to them and introduce yourself!

    All in all just a great place to meet new people, or just have drinks with people you already know. I've been to numerous bars in the city but i would say this place is just great. Very welcoming staff, very laid back ambiance. I’ve been here twice after my first visit with my Cali group . I would say its worth the every penny you spend!!

  2. John Smith says:

    Point Break – A Perfect Bar Experience in NYC

    A local friend recommended and took my Cali group to this amazing bar. He said that mostly locals came here so I didn't really know what to expect ambiance wise… but screw it, the view at this bar was absolutely breathtaking! No joke. I felt like a celebrity w/ superstar treatment as the staff are friendly and amazing to say the very least.

    I don't know who the house DJ was but he definitely was playing music right up my alley. It would've been my dream for people to start dancing, but it's all good.

    It's a bit sceney for my taste, but it really didn't bother me much. the bartenders knew their stuff, although their 1st cocktail was a little weak, when he saw i understood cocktails the next 2 were stronger. I also liked that even though the place was really hopping the bartender remembered what i was drinking when i came to order another. (he also understood how good a gin hendricks is, and not to overpower it with the mixer). It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied..try it ..you will love it!! Oh..how can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!!

    We ordered the Veal and Fish Tacos. They were delicious. Mm! We ended up asking for spoons to polish off whatever remained in the platter. (Faux pas? Who cares as long as it gets in my tummy.) The fries were crispy, but not overcooked, just the way that I like them.

    So take in this scene: You walk in to what seems like an overly crowded place, but soon fine an empty table. Time seems to stop and the only indicator of the night moving on is the moon and your brain cells slowly going to bed forever. The music is not to loud and the people around look good, the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy that drink you paid ridiculously low for and laugh at the joke your co-worker just told.

    The vibe of the place just never seems to die out and if you happen to spot some NYC socialite, sports player, or star, don't let it get to you… because for that moment, this night they are no long more important than then you. In fact go up to them and introduce yourself!

    All in all just a great place to meet new people, or just have drinks with people you already know. I've been to numerous bars in the city but i would say this place is just great. Very welcoming staff, very laid back ambiance. I’ve been here twice after my first visit with my Cali group . I would say its worth the every penny you spend!!

  3. John Smith says:

    Point Break – A Perfect Bar Experience in NYC

    A local friend recommended and took my Cali group to this amazing bar. He said that mostly locals came here so I didn't really know what to expect ambiance wise… but screw it, the view at this bar was absolutely breathtaking! No joke. I felt like a celebrity w/ superstar treatment as the staff are friendly and amazing to say the very least.

    I don't know who the house DJ was but he definitely was playing music right up my alley. It would've been my dream for people to start dancing, but it's all good.

    It's a bit sceney for my taste, but it really didn't bother me much. the bartenders knew their stuff, although their 1st cocktail was a little weak, when he saw i understood cocktails the next 2 were stronger. I also liked that even though the place was really hopping the bartender remembered what i was drinking when i came to order another. (he also understood how good a gin hendricks is, and not to overpower it with the mixer). It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied..try it ..you will love it!! Oh..how can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!!

    We ordered the Veal and Fish Tacos. They were delicious. Mm! We ended up asking for spoons to polish off whatever remained in the platter. (Faux pas? Who cares as long as it gets in my tummy.) The fries were crispy, but not overcooked, just the way that I like them.

    So take in this scene: You walk in to what seems like an overly crowded place, but soon fine an empty table. Time seems to stop and the only indicator of the night moving on is the moon and your brain cells slowly going to bed forever. The music is not to loud and the people around look good, the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy that drink you paid ridiculously low for and laugh at the joke your co-worker just told.

    The vibe of the place just never seems to die out and if you happen to spot some NYC socialite, sports player, or star, don't let it get to you… because for that moment, this night they are no long more important than then you. In fact go up to them and introduce yourself!

    All in all just a great place to meet new people, or just have drinks with people you already know. I've been to numerous bars in the city but i would say this place is just great. Very welcoming staff, very laid back ambiance. I’ve been here twice after my first visit with my Cali group . I would say its worth the every penny you spend!!

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