New York

Legendary Rao's in East Harlem Is Offering Takeout for the First Time in Its 124-Year History

The normally impossible-to-book restaurant is now more accessible than ever.

Rao's
Rao’s
Rao’s

On a quiet corner of an East Harlem block, a dining institution founded over a century ago is one of NYC’s oldest restaurants and also the city’s hardest-to-book reservation, where seating is so exclusive and unattainable, that even its owners have no guarantee of securing a table. At Rao’s (ray-OHs), the legendary eatery serving home-style Southern Italian cuisine, it’s not about who you are, but instead, who you know. And it’s a good thing the current owners know exactly who to ask on the occasions they want to accommodate guests of their own: the regulars of Rao’s who possess all of the “table rights.”However, Rao’s notorious booking system hasn’t always been a part of its operations. The spot debuted nearly 125 years ago, in an era when local breweries would set up taverns in various NYC neighborhoods in order to sell their beer. Charles Rao, an immigrant from Southern Italy, purchased an already existing, single-room tavern on 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue in 1896 from George Ehret Brewery, and established it as Rao’s. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, with the addition of dishes from family recipes originating from Italy added to its offerings, that the watering hole transitioned into a restaurant. And by the mid-1970s, a network of loyal customers began to occupy the six booths and four tables that comprise the small menuless dining room, enjoying items like the signature meatballs in a space reminiscent of a family gathering night after night.

Rao’s transformation into a culinary urban legend came in 1977, when a three-star review from New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton lauded the “simple, honest, and completely delicious Italian food,” where other than the marinara sauce, “there is no precooking at all.” Putting Rao’s on the radar of food enthusiasts everywhere, the restaurant was inundated with bookings and reservation requests. “It changed overnight,” co-owner Ron Straci and grandson of founder Charles Rao, tells Thrillist, “and became a place everyone wanted to go to.” As a way of looking out for their regulars, Rao’s implemented a special system where those who had been devotees before the review would still be able to eat there without difficulty.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

With the start of “table rights,” regulars were bestowed a standing reservation that could be passed down to their family throughout generations, making availability rare and it nearly impossible for the average person to just snag a table. On evenings when regulars weren’t able to use their weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even yearly, standing reservation, they could invite guests to take advantage of it instead, creating a time-honored NYC tradition of only being able to eat at Rao’s by knowing someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who was a regular. And for the owners of Rao’s, they too have to inquire with regulars to see if they’d be able to relinquish any tables on a given night.

Until COVID-19 hit earlier this year, this was how Rao’s operated for more than four decades: as a mythical dining destination few have experienced, but countless have fantasized about. However, like so many businesses since the spring, adapting during the pandemic has been vital, and after NYC restaurants were first forced to cease their indoor services this March, Rao’s closed for a single day and then pivoted to takeout-a first in its 124-year history-in addition to donating meals to frontline works and first responders in the city.

With their iconic dining room-strewn with Christmas lights year-round and walls adorned with framed photos autographed by its famous clientele-shuttered to guests since then (Rao’s opted not to relaunch indoor dining in September due to its limited space), one silver lining is, along with their regulars who continue to order from the restaurant, the general public has finally been able to get a taste of Rao’s cooking as well.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

“Everyone is happy we’re doing it,” says Straci, “We’ve got someone almost every day that says ‘I’ve heard of your restaurant and tried to dine in it but haven’t been able to-I’m so happy I can now try your food.'”

Now more accessible than ever, diners can order from the famed kitchen helmed by executive chef of 25 years, Dino Gatto, through Rao’s To Go or by texting 646-200-1787. And for those in the downtown Manhattan area, Rao’s delivery is now available through Thrillist Ghost Kitchen, a special series of restaurants in two-week residencies offering limited-edition takeout and delivery of their most beloved menu items from Dec 9-18.

Offshoot locations of Rao’s are now open to diners outside of NYC (Las Vegas opened in 2006 followed by Los Angeles in 2014), along with Rao’s Homemade, their popular line of packaged sauces and cooking products that launched in 1991. But the allure of the original uptown property still endures, especially with its much publicized onsite dining experience still out of reach to most. And the good news is, Rao’s plans to be around for another 125 years.

“I’ve never thought for a moment of becoming a former owner,” says Straci. “This is part of the family heritage and it will stay in our families for as long as there’s a need for this restaurant to be open.”

When restaurants are allowed to operate back at a semblance of how they did before the pandemic, Straci hasn’t yet determined if Rao’s will continue to offer the dining options outside of the onsite experiences that are available now during COVID-19. “It depends. I really think that the size of the restaurant almost demands that we not do takeout at any great amount,” he says.

When asked if this is the opportune time for non-regulars of Rao’s to get a taste of their East Harlem kitchen’s cuisine, Straci agrees and quickly responds with: “They should do it now.”

Thrillist Ghost Kitchen will not only be the first time the majority of New Yorkers can get a taste of Rao’s famed cooking, but also the first time to do so via delivery.Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.

Tae Yoon was born and raised in Queens, and is the Editor of Thrillist New York.

New York

Scavenge for Peeps Cookies and More Fun Treats in NYC This Easter

The best Easter desserts in NYC this spring include Easter Bunny Churros and Carrot Cake Macarons.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

As spring makes its way through New York City, not only do we get to enjoy beautiful weather, stunning cherry blossoms, and cool activities priced at $Free.99, but it’s also the perfect time for some limited-edition desserts.

With Easter fast approaching, bakeries are filling their shops with tons of chocolate eggs, carrot cake-flavoured everything and all types of flavours that offer both nostalgia and innovation within the city’s dessert landscape. After you’ve picked up a cake from the city’s best new bakeries, from Easter Bunny Churros to Carrot Cake Macarons, here are 8 Easter desserts to try in NYC right now.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery

Magnolia Bakery

Throughout April
Various locations
There’s great news for devotees of Magnolia Bakery’s Classic Banana Pudding: For Easter, the spot is mixing up the iconic dessert’s vanilla pudding with some carrot cake. The Carrot Cake Pudding is filled with freshly grated carrots, coconuts, pineapples, raisins, and walnuts. And if both bananas and carrots aren’t your thing, they’ll be offering their Classic Vanilla Cupcakes in pastel colours with a Cadbury chocolate egg hidden inside.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

Funny Face Bakery

Through Easter Sunday
NoHo and Seaport
Known for their celebrity face and meme-worthy decorated cookies, fans of Funny Face Bakery know that a new fun design is always just around the corner. For Easter, they’ve created the adorable Hoppy Easter decorated cookie that resembles a classic box of marshmallow Peeps. Along with that, they also have the return of their fan-favourite Caramel Pretzel Chip cookie flavour, plus a set of three mini-decorated cookies perfect for gifting.

The Doughnut Project

Friday, April 7 through Easter Sunday
West Village
With the ever-changing flavours at The Doughnut Project, it’s super easy to miss out on trying out a new debut. But this Easter weekend, there will be two new flavours available. One is of course, a carrot cake doughnut topped with a cream cheese glaze, and the other is known as the Doughnut Nest-a French cruller “nest” with a cream-filled doughnut hole “egg” in the centre.

Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour

The Fragile Flour

Wednesday, April 5 through Easter Sunday
East Village
For stellar vegan desserts this holiday, head to The Fragile Flour, a plant-based bakery and dessert wine bar. They’re known for going all out for each holiday with a variety of new pastry options that you can pair perfectly with a glass of wine. This Easter, they’ll have a whole dessert menu that’s both delicious and gorgeous for posting on IG. The menu includes Stuffed Carrot Cake Cookies, a Lemon Cake (whole or by the slice), some festive cupcakes, and specialty macarons.

Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Through mid April
Midtown
For a luxurious take on Easter chocolates, browse the selections available at Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. You can even pick the Easter Signature Chef’s Selection for a special box curated by award-winning chefs. For something other than chocolate, choose between the Carrot Cake Macarons or the cake flavored Easter Marshmallow Trio, both of which are almost too cute to eat.

La Churreria

Throughout April
Nolita
This churro-centric spot is putting the cutest Easter spin on their crispy cinnamon churros by twisting them up into bunnies and bunny ears. At Churreria, choose from a Bunny Churro Lollipop topped with your choice of chocolate or dulce de leche and sprinkles, or the bunny ear churros in the Ube and Matcha ice cream sundae or the Ube Milkshake, both of which are made with ice cream from il laboratorio del gelato.

Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci

Lafayette

Throughout April
NoHo
You’ve surely seen this croissant tons of times while scrolling through IG or TikTok, whether it’s the Pain au Chocolat one or the latest of the month. Known as Supr√™mes, these filled croissants went viral and continue to live up to the hype each time a new flavour comes out. April’s flavour-sour cherry amaretto with a Luxardo custard and toasted almonds. While you’ll have to be super early and wait in line during one of their three drops of the day to get a taste, we promise you it’ll be worth it.

Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain

Levain

Seasonal
Various locations
We all know the iconic cookies from Levain-they’re gigantic, perfectly crispy and chewy, and well worth the long lines. For spring, the shop is launching a new flavour: Caramel Coconut Chocolate Chip. Filled with gooey caramel chips, fresh shredded coconut, and melty dark chocolate, it’s one you’ve got to try while it’s still around. To further celebrate the new season, all of Levain’s storefronts will be decked out in spring floral displays, serving as the perfect backdrop for pictures.

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Alaina Cintron is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Her work can also be found in Westchester Magazine, Girls’ Life, and Spoon University. When she’s not at her desk typing away, you can find her exploring a local coffee shop or baking a new recipe.

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