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Gabriel Aiello: The Restaurant Ruler

December 17, 2010

Aiello, flanked by hostesses Liz Darroch, left, and Lucy Sutton (Photo by Harry Huggins)

One night at Gabriel’s Bar & Restaurant, an upset customer refused to pay his bill
and began heading for the door. Gabriel Aiello, the restaurant owner, sprinted past the man, and locked the door before the customer could flee. He directed waitress Melissa Gallagher to call the police.  Trapped inside, the customer started to go off on a rant about being locked in.

“Gabe got right in his face and went ‘Bugha bugha bugha bugha bugha,’ and shook his head like this,” Gallagher said, rattling her head like a basset hound coming in from the rain. Coming from a man of average height with short blond hair, Aiello’s strategy, as unorthodox as it may sound, worked. The customer stopped ranting and waited until the police came and made him pay his bill.

Aiello’s management style leaves no confusion about who owns Gabriel’s Bar and Restaurant. He is always on the floor, coming up with quick solutions to any problem that arises. At the same time, he tries to greet each of the 260,000 people Gabriel’s serves every year. But despite his constantly busy state, Aiello keeps the mood light — even when a customer is threatening to leave without paying.

Aiello always appears ready to chat with customers and make them feel at home. Since he opened Gabriel’s in 1991, Aiello’s welcoming personality has attracted a regular stream of celebrity patrons to what is definitely his restaurant.

During a Saturday lunch, it was easy to pay special attention to the one party in the restaurant. He leaned on a nearby chair and became part of their party, joking about Coldstone ice cream, the abstract portraits on the restaurant’s walls and similarly random topics. Aiello makes it a point to be friendly to everyone, even during the 6 p.m. rush later that night. He circled the restaurant, talking to his customers.

“We treat everyone as if they were on their first date,” Aiello said. According to Aiello, Gabriel’s went against the trend of ’90s restaurants that were treating people as if they were doing the customer a favor by serving them. “We turned that around, I think,” Aiello said. “We appreciate everybody and treat everyone like they were a big shot.”

Photographer Frank Stewart is a regular at Gabriel’s and has experienced Aiello’s attention first-hand. “Gabe is magnanimous, an interesting character and really takes time for details,” Stewart said.

It is this homey attitude that attracts celebrities to Gabriel’s, from billionaire philanthropist George Soros to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Aiello told a story about one of the mayor’s recent visits: “The mayor came in a couple weeks ago with Barbara Walters and Barbara Walters goes, ‘Why are we here?’ which is a little rude, and the mayor goes, ‘Well, this is my kitchen.’”

Coming from the small town of West Milford, NJ, Aiello does not hesitate to drop names, now that he has the chance. He mentioned “putting the clamps on” Andy Garcia and his request to smoke indoors. Two minutes later, he brought up a similar situation with “Bobby” De Niro. “It was really hard because as an owner who is a big fan… it’s really tough to tell Raging Bull he can’t have a cigar,” Aiello said.

Sometimes the celebrities can become real problems. One day Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller and director Brett Ratner walked in for their 10-person reservation with 40 people behind them. “That’s what it is with the restaurant business,” Aiello said. “Your philosophy has to be that you handle it, you deal with it. You have to fix it, make it happen.”

This is Aiello’s other strength: fixing it. When a match would not fit into a votive candle’s tall glass holder, he used a longer toothpick to light it. When a couple of women arrived without reservations, he seated them at a table whose reservation had been canceled as the women entered the restaurant. While he mingles with the customers, Aiello has to deal with all the problems of his restaurant.

As owner of Gabriel’s, Aiello’s to-do list covers almost every aspect of a restaurant: clean the sidewalk upon arrival, run the coffee grinders early so they do not disturb the diners when they come, make sure the refrigerators are working properly, hire/fire necessary staff, fill the payroll, make the bank deposits, overlook the reservations, organize the seating arrangements. At mealtimes, Aiello switches to “meet, greet and seat” mode, reprising his role as maître d’ before he owned his own restaurant.

Gabriel Aiello making the rounds at his restaurant. (Photo by Harry Huggins)

He enjoys doing everything. Once a customer saw him bringing food to a table and commented that the restaurant must not be doing well if the owner had to be a runner. His response: “Well, this is my sport.” According to Aiello, he likes dealing with the emergency issues, the floods and the communication of problems. An explanation of why he likes his job became almost psychological:

“I like the challenges of getting things fixed that are broken, getting things that we need almost instantly. I get to take care of things immediately.”

Aiello demands that his staff follows his mix of professionalism and passion for their job. He cares that they have jobs and wants them to care about what they do, but he also thinks that there is a line where you become vulnerable to people not doing their jobs. Fortunately, most of his employees like their jobs and enjoy working with Aiello.

Gallagher, the waitress who told the story about Aiello locking in a customer who refused to pay, has worked at Gabriel’s for eight years and considers Aiello a funny, hands-on owner. She notices that people come in for the food, “but they all want to see Gabe too.”

Waiter Raul Carranza has known Aiello since 1987; before Gabriel’s, they both worked at TriBeCa’s Arqua restaurant. Carranza thinks Aiello is understanding and flexible, but most importantly, he feels comfortable working with the Aiello, even when “he is losing his mind,” like with the customer who tried to walk out. “Once we get things done, he calms down,” Carranza said.

This last part might not be entirely true. Even when the restaurant is near empty at the end of the night, Aiello still has something he wishes he could do better. “I would like to remind people that we’re still here,” Aiello said.

Despite what he may think, after a night of Aiello’s drive and friendliness, most customers tell him they’ll never forget their dinner at Gabriel’s.

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