"Nick The Vest"
Rao's, New York, NY
If you've ever seen "Regis & Kelly," watched Martha Stewart's best bar episode, or the "Dick Schapp Story," or even if you've ever been to Rao's on 114th in New York City, then you know who Nick the Vest is. But, you probably didn't get into Rao's, being as though it's the hardest place in Manhattan to get a reservation.
Bartender, cocktail waiter, unlicensed psychiatrist, and wearer of over 136 different vests (two of them especially hand made), Nick the Vest has been a New York icon almost as long as the Empire State Building. Born Nick Zaloumis in 1932 in the Washington Heights area of Brooklyn, Nick went to high school, but the opportunity of college was not a reality so he set about "bouncing around" several jobs. But it took the Korean War to get Nick into bartending.
"When the Korean War broke out, I got drafted and when I came back, I got laid off from my job," said the Vest. "I started hanging around collecting checks and a friend of mine bought a bar in Brooklyn in 1958, which was a really rough place. He brought me in as the bartender. I lasted 9 months; he should have given me the congressional medal of honor after the first day."
From there Nick moved on to the Tic Tac Lounge in Manhattan for two years, then a "big band joint" called Falcaro's Night Spot, then onto Colony Hill, a country club caterer operation in Long Island as beverage manager. The last place Nick worked before he found his true home at Rao's was a spot called Dailey's Dandelion.
"I used to come up to Rao's and Frankie, who now owns the place, was the bartender. Well, he's an entertainer and he sings, and he said, 'Give me your phone number and when I get a gig, if you're not working, you can come up and work behind the bar for me.' I started in 1975, and six months later, the cocktail waitress left and Frankie had a vocal cord operation. So Frankie took over the floor and I became the bartender, which is history."
That history includes serving some of the most famous celebrities, politicians, sports heroes and writers that New York has housed for the past thirty years. Rao's is without a doubt the hardest place to get a dinner reservation in New York City. In fact, unless you know Nick or Frankie or maybe super cop turned writer turned Hollywood star, Beau Dietl, who owns a table, you can't get a reservation there.
Part of the attraction is the great food and "improvised" classic drinks that Nick makes his best customers. But most of the reason seems to be Nick himself. He's even mentioned in the Zagat's rating of Rao's.
Due to some health problems, Nick recently stopped working his regular Monday shift and that has thrown many a celebrity into a fit. "Now that I'm not working Monday, people get mad at me 'cause I don't get to see them," says Nick with a smile. "Some of them say they want to change their reservations on just the night I work, but I may switch so I tell them not to do it."