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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.

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"I built Patroon as if it was going to be my '21' Club," Aretsky says. "It was going to be my place." In a 1995 auction, Aretsky bought the building where Christ Cella, once one of New York's top-rated steak houses, had stood. His renovation included building banquet rooms upstairs, each with its own ventilation system, to complement the main dining room and bar. He also built a walk-in humidor with cigar lockers and an extensive list of cigars for patrons to choose from, and a superb wine cellar. Patroon quickly garnered an excellent reputation for its New York dining experience and cigar-friendly atmosphere.
The new restaurant was going along sensationally well, when customers began inquiring about Cuban cigars. Pretty soon, Aretsky's humidor was stocked with brands from Montecristo and Cohiba to Romeo y Julieta and Bolivar. "From my perspective, it was very civilized," says Aretsky, but then came the arrest, the probation and community service, and finally, after several trying years, resolution.
Since then, Patroon has continued to evolve under Aretsky. "I'm constantly tweaking," he says. "I'm happy but never satisfied. Everything can always be better." Patroon's most noticeable alterations came courtesy of the New York City smoking ban, which Aretsky admits hurt his business. To counter, he made renovations, including the creation of a rooftop smoking area with a bar and lounge. Today, customers continue to come to Patroon to smoke cigars. "A Cognac and a cigar is a great finish," he says. "And if you try to tell me a cigar after a meal isn't a wonderful thing, I say baloney. It is."
Another notable moment in Patroon's evolution came in September 2006, when Aretsky amicably bought out his partners and became sole owner with his wife, Diana Lyne. "This is our business," he says. "This is how we provide a living for our children. And it's a serious business, but more importantly, I love it. I get to be in an arena every day that I love coming to."
While Aretsky is an almost constant presence at Patroon, when he does step away, you'll find him spending time with his family or fly-fishing the Delaware River or Beaverkill River with a cigar in his mouth. "There's nothing better than being in the middle of the river or sitting on the bank, smoking a cigar and watching the time go by," he says. "What is more beautiful than that?
"Quality of life is really important," adds Aretsky, who also believes that smoking a cigar on the front porch of his country home remains one of life's great luxuries. "A cigar adds to the quality and I'm not giving it up."
And what about giving up the restaurant business someday? "Retirement is not a concept for me," says the 66-year-old Aretsky. "This is what I do and this is all I want to do. This is where I'm happiest."
Photographs by David Eustace
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