Why Is Rao’s So Popular? 7 Things You Need to Know About the Toughest Table In Town

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Four tables and six booths. That’s the total eating space at Rao’s, the legendary southern Italian eatery in East Harlem. No doubt you’ve heard of it. But If you want to get in, you have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. Fortunately, we are that someone…

Since Charitybuzz’s founding in 2005, we’ve offered more than 150 memorable dinners at this legendary eatery. In the process, we’ve helped raise over $1.1 million for more than 60 charities, including arts organizations, schools and universities, foundations, health challenges, and more. Here are the 7 things you need to know about a night out at Rao’s.

1. Instagram Filter? Fuggedaboutit!
The ultimate #NoFilter: Stepping through the distinctive red entrance at the corner of East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue is like stepping back in time. The intimate one-room space now known as Rao’s began as a saloon in 1896. Well-worn wood lines the booths, and red leather covers the table seats. Christmas lights brighten the paneled walls, as do hundreds of framed headshots and photos of the restaurant’s famed clientele over the years.

2. How Rao’s Became Famous
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Rao’s became the famed spot it is today. A three-star New York Times review in 1977 turned it into the hottest place in town when Mimi Sheraton dubbed it, “the sort of place every reviewer longs to come upon. It is, in every sense, a find.” The next week, the Times reported that Victor and Anne Rao, who did all of the cooking themselves, were so overwhelmed with the influx of reservations that they had to stop answering the phone and institute a first-come, first-served policy.

3. Then Getting a Table at Rao’s Became Even Tougher
Following Rao’s explosive success, current owner Frank Pellegrino Jr. (the nephew of Victor and Anne) instituted a system of time-sharing the booths and tables on a regular weekly or monthly basis. There usually are no reservations (hence Frank’s nickname “Frankie No”), just table assignments that were designated decades ago.

4. Famous Diners at Rao’s
Of course, there was always room for a familiar face, and Rao’s has served everyone from Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Over the years, you might have heard Keith Richards, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart singing along to the jukebox. Celebrity private investigator Bo Dietl has had a regular eight-top table at the restaurant every Thursday night since 1977. Other table “owners” include movie producer Sonny Grosso, the ex-cop who inspired The French Connection; billionaire investor Ronald Perelman, who has had a booth for over 25 years; and former prosecutor of the Central Park Five, Linda Fairstein, a Monday regular.

5. How to “Own” a Restaurant Table
On their appointed night, Rao’s table owners arrive whenever they want, and the table is theirs for the evening. If they can’t use it, they must give Pellegrino plenty of notice of its availability (a rarity), find a friend to take it, or sell it as a donation to charity.

6. Rao’s Other MVPs
Historically, East Harlem wasn’t the safest neighborhood. However, Rao’s diners had a special in. Reports that the Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese crime families were all regulars made 114th Street the safest block in the neighborhood to park your car.

7. Rao’s As the Star
Rao’s has also been featured prominently in film, television, and music videos. Jay-Z shot his “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” video here, and Martin Scorcese filmed scenes for both GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street among the fabled booths.

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