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Turning the Top Tables

How the legendary New York restaurateur Ken Aretsky built a fabled résumé of fine dining by turning setbacks into life-affirming experiences.
Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

Ken Aretsky had been looking forward to playing the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York, ever since his friend John Hennessey invited him. When the day—Wednesday, August 5, 1998—finally arrived, the weather was spectacular and as he pulled his car into the parking lot of the historic golf club, Aretsky was sure it would be an experience to remember. Indeed it was, but not for the reason that Aretsky, the New York restaurateur and proprietor of Patroon, had guessed. He'd imagined golfing with friends and cigars at one of the world's most celebrated golf courses, maybe even for draining a 20-foot birdie putt or chipping in for eagle. To this day, Aretsky remembers it for something else.

Aretsky got out of his car and an attendant at the golf club approached him. "Mr. Aretsky?" he asked. "You have an emergency phone call from your restaurant." Aretsky immediately phoned his manager, who told him that United States Customs agents with a search warrant were raiding Patroon's walk-in humidor. Aware that the humidor was stocked with Cuban cigars, Aretsky dialed his attorney. He told Aretsky not to worry. The worst that would happen is that the Cuban cigars would be confiscated and a fine levied.

Although upset and concerned, Aretsky lunched and then set out for the first hole, which he parred. On the second, he reached the apron in two shots. As he approached his ball, he looked out on the horizon to see a golf cart driving toward him through the shimmering heat. "I knew something bad was going to happen," Aretsky recalls. "The guy stopped and asked if I was Mr. Aretsky. I said yes, and he said I have to get off the golf course. So I went off the golf course, phoned my manager, and she said there was a warrant for my arrest." The charge? Trading with the enemy, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Aretsky's golf outing was over and the most difficult period of his life had begun. But Aretsky, a New York restaurateur for more than 35 years, with a résumé that lists award-winning eateries like Arcadia, '21' Club and Patroon, knows something about survival. He's learned that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. He's also learned that he isn't one to back down from a challenge.

It's said that all things begin with an idea. For Ken Aretsky, the idea of opening his own restaurant came during a night out in Manhattan in 1970. The setting was Maxwell's Plum, an Upper East Side café owned by Werner LeRoy, with flashy Art Nouveau decor and a vibrant bar. But what struck Aretsky most was its separate, upscale dining room, which boasted a different, more expensive menu. One night might be a casual get-together in the front bar and café. Another night could be a more intimate meal in the back. Some nights it was both. "I thought it was an amazing concept," says Aretsky, who was living on Long Island at the time. "I loved it and I thought it could translate onto the island."

Although Aretsky had never owned a restaurant, he was intrigued by the business ever since he worked for his father, Sidney, who supplied restaurants and malt shops around New York with soda systems. "I didn't like my father's business," says Aretsky, "but I liked the restaurant business and I liked the characters that I was meeting. They were a fascinating group of people." So with little experience, but an idea he felt could blossom into success, Aretsky opened Truman's in 1972.

Located in the village of Roslyn on Long Island's north shore, in a house Aretsky converted into a restaurant, Truman's featured a café on the main floor, while the second floor—inspired by Maxwell's Plum—was known as Upstairs at Truman's. The only problem was that Aretsky ran out of money before completing the upstairs dining room, so it remained closed, even though a brass plaque on the front of Truman's suggested otherwise. "Truman's started doing well and the food was really good," Aretsky remembers. "Suddenly people began calling for reservations upstairs, but we weren't open upstairs—the room was empty." Not wanting to turn patrons away, Aretsky instead said they were booked. "The more we told people that we were booked, the more they wanted to come."

Eventually Aretsky finished Upstairs at Truman's. By that time, the restaurant was besieged with customers, thanks to excellent reviews in local papers. Truman's did so well that Aretsky opted to sell his share of the restaurant in 1975. "The truth is, I couldn't understand how it was going to continue to be as busy as it was," he explains. "I wasn't really knowledgeable. I just thought I got lucky, which in fact I did."

After moving back to New York City, Aretsky tried his hand as a stockbroker. Then, in the summer of 1978, he bumped into Steve Orenstein, a high school friend, at Jim McMullen's Restaurant on Third Avenue. Aware of Aretsky's success with Truman's, Orenstein, a sportscaster and successful male model known to his friends as Oren, suggested they open a restaurant together.

Aretsky didn't give it much thought until he passed an abandoned bar on Third Avenue with a "For Rent" notice taped to the window. When he returned the next morning, the door was open, and inside he discovered an "unbelievable Irish bar" that convinced him of his future. Hours later, Aretsky was shaking hands with the owner and handing him a check for $4,500—three months' rent. "I didn't have money to cover the check," Aretsky recalls, "but it was July 4th weekend, so I figured I had [a few days] to come up with the money."

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