Anjelica Huston at the release party for The Only Place to Be in 1982. Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

For New York’s anniversary, we are celebrating the history of the city’s restaurants with a series of posts throughout the month. Read all of our “Who Ate Where” stories here.

If you were a big-shot writer, editor, publisher, newscaster, or novelist in the 1980s, you went to Elio’s on 84th and Second Avenue. David Halberstam, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, George Plimpton, Carl Bernstein, Kurt Vonnegut — they all went there. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were the most loyal of regulars and could be found many nights dining up front, at table one, by the window.

Elio’s was the descendant of another Upper East Side media canteen, Elaine’s, up on 88th and Second. But the food was bad. A waiter there named Elio Guaitolini — he had been the very first waiter, in fact — decided to split and do his own thing. He partnered with an editor at Random House named Joe Fox, whose writers included John Irving, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and Truman Capote. It opened in 1981.

“Sometimes people would say, ‘Don’t tell Elaine that we had dinner here,’” says Anne Isaak, who was married to Fox and today owns the place. Lewis Lapham would come in a lot — “Big smoker,” says Isaak — and S.I. Newhouse, too. What was he like? “Very quiet,” says Giovanni Bertagnoli, the restaurant’s original manager who recently returned to work there.

“This became the Times place — not the younger set but the Sulzbergers, the Gelbs. Abe Rosenthal and his wife, Shirley, they came at least once a week,” says Isaak. “The Sulzbergers used to sit on table two all the time,” says Bertagnoli, adding that Punch Sulzberger was perhaps the “most respectful” guest he’s ever served.

Less so was Sumner Redstone, who once threw a fit because he couldn’t have table one or two. Six months later, Redstone’s secretary called the restaurant. “She said, ‘He really wants to come back. Do you think you could write him a letter to invite him back?’” Isaak declined.

Shortly after it opened, Elio’s hosted a buzzy book party for Joan Juliet Buck (future editor of French Vogue), who was publishing her first novel. “I said it had to be at Elio’s, ’cause that’s where I ate dinner every night,” said Buck. “The day before, Anjelica Huston and I went to the basement to help Anne make tartufos for dessert. Elio put the book’s title, The Only Place to Be, on the awning, ordered ice sculptures, and hired klieg lights — two gigantic 20th Century Fox searchlights that rotated on a truck parked outside the restaurant.”

Isaak says, “It was a very splashy crowd — Carrie Fisher, Lauren Bacall, Andy Warhol.” Society took notice and started to come to Elio’s. “Casey Ribicoff, the Erteguns, Jerry Zipkin, the famous walker,” says Bertagnoli. “Nancy Reagan used to come all the time.”

But then the restaurant established a rule that it wouldn’t shut down for private parties; it wasn’t worth it to turn away the regulars. Years later, the rule was broken for one special regular who asked to throw her 40th birthday party in the restaurant: Gwyneth Paltrow. “This was after our heyday,” explains Isaak, “but when she was growing up, Gwyneth Paltrow came here because she went to school down the street, and her parents, Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow, would bring the kids in.”

“I could tell you about fistfights, I could tell you about drunks, I could tell you about people trying to snort cocaine on table two,” says Isaak. “There are a million stories, but unfortunately, you’re not going to get them.”

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