There are so many factors that contribute to a restaurant's success: quality of food, enjoyable ambience, attentive service, convenient location, decent drink selection -- the list could go on and on. And while a solid combination of these qualities can make any restaurant successful for a year, or two or three, you have to be really good at all of the above plus cultivate a loyal fan base and remain relevant, and consistent -- yet interesting -- to your audience to hit the five-year, ten-year and 15-plus-year mark.
I contemplated this upon receiving a press release about Damian's Cucina Italiana (located in Midtown) celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. I thought to myself: Thirty years is a long time -- especially in restaurant years, in which 30 years is, like, 125 human years. Accompanying the press release was an invitation to a media dinner highlighting Damian's anniversary specials. I accepted the invite, as I knew I had to go and find the secret to its longer-than-a-quarter-century success.
When I walked into Damian's, I was met with a white-linen-clad restaurant enveloped in soft yellow light. Large murals of the Italian countryside adorn the walls, and ceiling arches frame the whole scene. It was formal without being stuffy, classic in style without feeling outdated. I was greeted quickly by the attentive manager, who led me to a table of fellow bloggers.
We started the night with a mini-Cosmopolitan, which tasted good and felt strong but was a little too sweet for my taste. I abandoned my drink in favor of bite-size crostini topped with a dab of rémoulade and a small boiled shrimp -- a great reminder that good things often come in tiny packages.
Soon enough came the first course: a refreshing "Mona Lisa" salad, which combined different lettuces with tomatoes, feta, small bunches of sweet roasted almonds, and a light, creamy balsamic dressing that added a hint of sweetness to the mix. The latter two items made the good salad a great salad. I accompanied my greens with two breads -- one, a delicious fluffy, buttery and herb-filled focaccia, the other an underwhelming sourdough. Although the sourdough wasn't my favorite, I have to extend credit to the Italian restaurant for baking its own breads in-house at its upstairs bakery.
Next up was a plate of decadent ravioli, made so by a sage-butter sauce -- with strong emphasis on the butter. Filling the ravioli was a sweet potato puree that had the perfect consistency, a nice texture that wasn't the least bit runny. Best of all, the ravioli was cooked perfectly -- a task that, strangely and unbelievably, many "high-end" Italian restaurants fail at.
After proving itself a reputable Italian restaurant through its pasta, Damian's went on to impress with its branzino azzurro, my main dish. Its sheer size -- gargantuan -- was more than enough to leave an impression. But the defining qualities of the incredibly well-grilled, herb-dusted sea bass were its freshness and its straightforward preparation.
Like the other items on Damian's menu, the fish didn't need any over-the-top sauces or crazy ingredients added to be fantastic. The accompanying garlic-sautéed spinach and cannellini carrettieri (white beans in a white wine butter with fresh tomatoes) followed this same principle. Not only were the side dishes unexpectedly delicious, they were also an excellent complement to the sea bass. For one who doesn't typically go for fish as an entrée -- or beans as a side dish -- I was quite content with my main course. Further complementing the dish was a glass of Cantina di Casteggio Oltrepo Pavese Pinot Grigio out of Lombardy, Italy.
A slice of tiramisu punctuated my pleasant Damian's experience. Unfortunately, tiramisu is one of the few desserts that I don't care for, so I turned to my dining companions to seek their feedback. It turns out that all four people sitting around me weren't fans of tiramisu, either. What are the chances? I guess we'll never know how Damian's tiramisu stacks up to its competition.
Despite the dessert not being up my alley, I did end my dinner on a sweet realization: I looked at the dining room, where 55-plus-year-olds dined and imbibed throughout the restaurant. I suddenly recalled the section of the Damian's Web site that I checked out prior to my visit -- the "Find your Server" section -- which lists every server's name, photo and number of years with the company so that guests can request their favorite by name when making a reservation.
Half of the servers, also leaning towards the older, rather than younger, end of the spectrum, have worked at Damian's for over 20 years. The other half have worked at Damian's for five to 12 years. And there I had it: The restaurant, its employees and its guests have been growing older together for all of these years. And it's no mystery why these folks are so loyal after one experiences the Italian restaurant's simple yet delicious menu that offers a great value, quality service and a pleasantly conservative interior. It definitely seems that the venue, its staff and its patrons will only continue to grow older -- together.
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