Pleasing palates

For 45 years, Tony Vallone has flourished by playing to the house

For 45 years, Tony Vallone has flourished by playing to the house

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Tony and Donna Vallone celebrate 45 years of Tony's restaurant on April 1. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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The third incarnation of the venerable restaurant enjoys a sophisticated New York or Los Angeles vibe. Photo by James Dean
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Tony's whole baby trout is gently oven roasted and swimming in a lemony sauce. Courtesy of GABE Progressive Buzz
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Lavish floral arrangements fill the restaurant's interior. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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The Greenway Plaza location is a contemporary departure from the Post Oak site. Photo by Chris Conyers
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The three muses, commissioned from renowned sculptor Jesus Moroles, hold a central position in the art-filled restaurant. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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Table place settings are elegant and grand. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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Ladies lunching in Tony's -- a favorite place for midday socializing. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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When a wet-behind-the-ears young restaurateur, barely in his twenties opened Tony's on Sage Road in the spring of 1965, he never dreamed of the accolades and successes that would eventually come his way. In fact, Tony Vallone says today that for the first two or three years he wasn't sure that his little Italian restaurant would survive.

A saucier by training, he cooked in those days. He waited tables. He served the customers' every need. It was a time when authentic Italian food was a rarity in this wildcatter town and he had some educating to do.

Oceans of champagne and herds of filet mignon later, Vallone's baby has flourished in an industry that is often brutal and always demanding. His is Houston's longest-living fine dining establishment that has remained in the same hands and thrived through economic booms and busts.

"You have to have consistency and quality and you have to really care," Vallone said, explaining his longevity. "I've put my restaurant first all of my life. That's all I know. I'm driven. It's more important to me that the customer be happy than the bottom line." Forty-five years after that launch in the treacherous seas of the restaurant business, Vallone remains a stalwart on the much-changed food service scene.

"You can't run any kind of restaurant from a board room or a golf course or some office in Cleveland," he said. "You've got to be here watching it and running it yourself."

Indeed, Vallone and his wife, Donna, are in the restaurant almost every lunch and dinner. Occasionally, they sneak out for a charity event. But don't expect them to be anywhere but Tony's on the busiest Friday and Saturday nights.

"I love what I do. I'm happy when I'm here," he said. "And I'm lucky that Donna likes it, too. She's here with me. That takes a lot of pressure off. It's really great and she adds a really warming touch to the restaurant."

Moving to Post Oak with help from Hines

At the encouragement of developer Gerald Hines, Vallone moved in 1972 from his matchbox eatery on Sage to the more centrally-located Post Oak address. Hines, in fact, helped Vallone get the loans necessary to build his glamorous cathedral to culinary excellence. Goodbye spaghetti, hello lobster thermidor. With the change of venue and a more sophisticated menu, the city's elite poured in and all but officially declared Tony's Houston's center of the social universe.

Tony's remains one of the few restaurants in town today where the customer's desires are the restaurant's command. And this is one of its long-standing draws. You want pasta with your mussels appetizer? Done. You want scrambled eggs and bacon at 9 p.m.? Done. How about that salad that you loved on the old menu? It's yours for the asking. 

No special celebration is planned for the April 1 milestone but much reminiscing and reliving the glory days of the glam restaurant era of the '80s and '90s percolates across the social fabric of the city. Lynn Wyatt, for example, recently recalled a dinner that she and Oscar hosted in 1982 in honor of Princess Margaret in Tony's wine cellar. The British royal, house-guesting with the Wyatts, was here to open the Da Vinci drawings exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 

The Wyatts invited a table full of friends to join them for the formal multi-course dinner and at dessert, a group of musicians arrived. The princess was so taken with the music that she insisted on dancing. Oscar obliged and before long former Texas Gov. John Connally had Princess Margaret in his arms two-stepping with her around the dining table.

Princess Margaret and Hollywood royalty

Princess Margaret was one of scores of notables who have broken bread in Tony's over the decades. If Vallone had a wall of fame, it would include Tony Bennett, Karl Lagerfeld, Shirley MacClaine, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar de la Renta, Farrah Fawcett, Sigourney Weaver, to name only a handful, and the heads of state attending the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, held here in 1990. That would include then President George H.W. Bush, French President Francois Mitterand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Dr. Denton Cooley and his wife, Louise, celebrated here as he accomplished milestones in the heart transplant arena. They entertained Dr. Christian Barnard, the first to make a heart transplant, at Tony's.

Joanne King Herring recalls a particularly spectacular evening with the uber-charming Saudi Arabian Prince Bandhar, then Saudi ambassador to the United States. He had just made a $50,000 donation (in those days in the mid-'80s a huge contribution) to Herring's fundraising efforts on behalf of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. He was so proud of his gift that he insisted on taking everyone, including the two dozen or so in his entourage, to dinner "at the finest restaurant in the world," according to Herring.

They took over half of Tony's, Herring recalled, and the Dom Perignon flowed like water as waiters delivered course after course of gourmet fare. No expense was spared. "The prince never counted a penny," she said. 

Dressing Up to Dine Out

Those were the days as Joan Schnitzer-Levy recalled when everyone dressed for dinner and you would not set foot in Tony's on a Saturday night in anything less than designer cocktail attire. Those were the days when diners would show up post-opera or post-symphony and settle in at tables in the bar for French toast and mounds of crisp-beyond-belief bacon. Indeed, those were the days when oil tycoon's mistresses would sneak out through the kitchen as the wives arrived through the front door. Those were the days when everyone dressed for dinner and the occasional couple made whoopee in the restrooms.

Tony's relocated once again, in 2005, to Greenway Plaza into a more contemporary environment built from the ground up. When the new location opened, Tony's loyalists praised the fresh approach and compared it to restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. But the dining scene had changed.

"It's more casual now. It's still fine dining and it's better, I think, now," Vallone said. "It's more fun and it's more casual."  

Cocktail suits not required for the ladies, even on Saturday night. That irks a few of the veteran Tony's fans, but for younger diners it's the only way.

"You have to keep changing and keep evolving," Vallone said. "Evolving is the key word. You can't rest on your laurels. You have to constantly change and evolve and keep honing your skills. I love being creative. I love bringing in all new blood around me. It keeps me wound up and ready to go. I have a lot of energy."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has long been a Tony's fan and when he and Tricia Bivins were married last fall, they held the reception in the San Remo Room. "Tony's isn't just a restaurant. It's an entire family,"  Dewhurst said, praising both Donna and Tony for bending over backwards to fulfill their wishes. Sheridan and John Eddie Williams took over the entire restaurant several years ago for their joint birthday party, inviting 250 guests who enjoyed sushi in the bar and a seated dinner that spread throughout the entire restaurant. They brought in rock violinist Bobby Yang to perform.

Despite the long hours, the challenges, the occasional frustration and changing economic times, Vallone would not consider any other venture.

"As you know, I'm here all the time," he said. "I think as long as you work hard and stay with it and you put your customer first, you're going to be OK. You have to love it — it's a hard business."