Legendary Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone has died. Vallone, 75, died of natural causes, according to a representative.
The restaurateur left an indelible legacy on Houston courtesy of Tony’s, his namesake fine dining restaurant. Tony’s started as an Italian restaurant in 1965 before turning more French when it moved to its location on Post Oak Boulevard in 1972, but Vallone’s presence ensured consistently high levels of food and service that catered to customers first and foremost.
“You want pasta with your mussels appetizer? Done,” Shelby Hodge wrote for CultureMap on the occasion of Tony’s 45th anniversary in 2010. “You want scrambled eggs and bacon at 9 pm? Done. How about that salad that you loved on the old menu? It’s yours for the asking.”
A move to Tony’s current home in Greenway Plaza brought another evolution to the elevated, Italian-influenced fare the restaurant still features. Vallone collaborated with a number of chefs over the years, including Mark Cox (Mark’s American Cuisine), Olivier Ciesielski (Avondale Food & Wine), the late Grant Gordon, and Kate McLean. Austin Waiter, the restaurant’s current chef de cuisine, had reinvigorated Vallone.
“We text all the time and he’s on Instagram,” Waiter said of Vallone in 2018. “We sit and drink eight to 10 espressos a day — no joke, we just keep them coming while we talk. We travel a lot together and it’s like a family trip where we just happen to be working. I feel comfortable talking him about everything; he’s been a good role model, not just in food or business, but in life.”
Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry’s, Inc. and the owner of the Houston Rockets, offered a similarly warm tribute. Fertitta purchased Grotto and La Griglia from Vallone in 2003.
“If there was anyone in the restaurant industry who truly motivated me, it was Tony Vallone,” Fertitta said in response to CultureMap’s request for comment. “Every aspect of his business from culinary and service to hospitality, Tony took it all to a different level. Even in the last 20 years, I would regard Tony Vallone as one of the greatest, true restaurateurs in all of America.”
Lonnie Schiller, a founder of the Schiller-Del Grande restaurant group responsible for establishments such as Cafe Annie and The Grove, recalled that he and Vallone once competed for the same customers from across Post Oak. After participating in a restaurant summit with Gow Media CEO David Gow (CultureMap’s parent company), the duo established a new friendship.
“I discovered him to be a really a warm and gracious person and of course a great restauranteur,” Schiller says. “We will all definitely miss him and his immense contribution to the Houston restaurant scene.”
Like Schiller, Berg Hospitality founder Ben Berg (B&B Butchers, B.B. Lemon, The Annie Cafe, etc) got to know Vallone through the restaurant summit.
“I am very sorry to hear about the passing of Tony Vallone. Although I was only able to spend limited time with him, I will always remember his charismatic personality and true passion for the hospitality industry,” Berg tells CultureMap.
“The Godfather of restaurateurs in Houston, he worked his way up from the bottom and knew what it took to succeed in our business. He was truly a class act and will always be remembered in this city. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.”
Scott Sulma, who worked alongside Vallone at Tony’s, casual Italian restaurant Ciao Bello, and the steakhouse Vallone’s, offered a simple tribute to the man who shaped his career.
“He was more than a mentor,” Sulma tells CultureMap. “He was family. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.”
Ciesielski expressed a similar sentiment in an email.
"Our culinary scene would not be where it is without his mentorship for so many people that walked thru his doors including myself when I was executive chef at Tony’s for 12 years," he writes. "Tony accomplished a lot for Houston’s restaurant landscape, and our industry will not be the same without him."
Tony’s will close from September 10-14 and will reopen Tuesday, September 15. Vallone’s wife Donna will lead the restaurant alongside Waiter and general manager Eric Pryor. “I’ve lost the love of my life and best friend, but I will continue Tony’s legacy,” Donna Vallone stated.
Details on a memorial service and memoriam donations will be announced at a later date.