New York had the Four Seasons. Beverly Hills had Spago. And Houston had Tony’s, simply the most fabulous restaurant in the city for the last quarter of the twentieth century. Owner Tony Vallone, the man who masterminded the dining destination down to the choice of table linens and sourcing of the white truffles, died overnight of natural causes in his sleep at the age of 75, his company announced Thursday.
Vallone was born in and raised in the Third Ward; his father, Vincent, was a restaurateur. Vallone was only twenty when he opened Tony’s in 1965 on Sage Road. Tony’s, which soon moved to its longtime home on Post Oak Boulevard, was an old-school, upscale Italian and French restaurant in a time when glamour was the rule and celebrities always looked like they were about to walk down the red carpet at the Oscars. It wasn’t just the locally rich and famous, like millionaire socialites Lynn and Oscar Wyatt; it was Hollywood stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Roger Moore, rock stars like Mick Jagger, real royalty like Princess Grace of Monaco, and presidents, starting with Lyndon B. Johnson. A pastry chef who worked at the restaurant in the nineties remembers, “There were always kings and princes eating there—and presidents. Mister Vallone was very picky about every single thing. He was in the kitchen all the time, tasting the sauces. He knew food, and he knew what he wanted. One time he cooked an octopus.”
More important, Vallone was the face of the restaurant, in the dining room every night in his tux and tie, greeting every rich and famous client by name, sending out little treats from the kitchen, bottles of champagne from the extensive and pricey cellar. He knew everything about every newsworthy person. And they knew about Tony’s. On most weekends, his clientele ruled the Houston Chronicle’s gossip column “Big City Beat” (the equivalent of Twitter and Instagram today). The columnist, Maxine Mesinger, had a permanent table in the most visible location. Vallone could work a room like no one else. And everyone—even movie stars—wanted him to stop by their table for a chat. After all, what would it say about you if he didn’t swoop in or send out dessert for your party?
In fact, it was almost impossible to come in anonymously, because Vallone and his people had photographic memories. I know, because I kept trying, back in the day when restaurant critics could actually be anonymous. But Tony’s manager knew when I or any other food writer had sneaked in. I remember one night in the eighties, smugly thinking I had managed to slip in under a pseudonym, when a bottle of very expensive wine appeared in a bucket of ice beside our table. “A gift from Mister Vallone,” whispered our waiter.
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Of course we didn’t touch it, but he had made his point. He knew everything. The following week, back at the office, I got a handwritten note on heavy, cream-colored card stock. “How was your evening. Was there anything we can do to improve?” Those notes soon became regular. Always handwritten, always polite. The personal touch. They arrived to let me know of a new dish, a change in hours, that the restaurant was redecorating. He must have spent hours a day writing them, because I feel sure I wasn’t the only food writer getting them.
Sometimes he would call, if there was something he was proud of. Or upset about. Always cordial, always chatty. Once, though, things got very tense.
The Texas Monthly dining guide had just given three stars (its highest rating) to Cafe Annie, the up-and-coming restaurant under the helm of chef Robert Del Grande, and Vallone was not happy. Tony’s had three stars, and he did not think the upstart was in the same league. That restaurant has no class, he told me, his voice rising. It’s doing nothing but “glorified Mexican food.” He was speaking of the then groundbreaking New Southwestern Cuisine, which had been created by a group of young Texas chefs (including Del Grande) and which was, to Vallone’s dismay, getting a ton of press around the country. I defended our stars. He continued to argue. And we hung up, never to talk again. The notes stopped too. Years later, we kind of made up. He sent a note, and I emailed back. We both acted like nothing had happened.
I think what bothered him the most was not that Cafe Annie was doing “terrible” food, but that it was getting the attention that was once his alone. Tony’s was suddenly not the only place for that fabulous evening out, an anniversary, a prom date. The times had changed. As the years passed, more places came along, Houston grew, and ever so gradually, the glamorous dining rooms on Post Oak Boulevard began to seem a little out of step with the times. The kitchen was still excellent, even though the chefs were always in the background, never in the news. Tony’s had one face, and that was Tony’s.
In 2005, Vallone moved Tony’s to Greenway Plaza, to a newer space, with a more modern aesthetic. His well-to-do clientele moved with him, always loyal, always appreciative. And Vallone never let his standards down. He opened other dining establishments over the years, but Tony’s was always the signature restaurant and remained consistently excellent, even though it gradually loosened up and modernized its menu. And Vallone remained a presence, never content to let the restaurant run itself, as many an owner would have done.
He did slow down, though. He had struggled with his weight in earlier years, and a few years ago, he contracted West Nile virus, which took a lot out of him. But Vallone, who was survived by Donna, his wife of 36 years, never lost his enthusiasm for the restaurant, which remained a standard-bearer for a type of formal and proper dining that is rare in these fast-casual-dining times.
If you want to see what it’s like, the 55-year-old restaurant it will be open again—following a short closure in memory of Tony—on September 15. Young Maine lobster with Saskatchewan chanterelles should be on the dinner menu. And if you just want a family pack to go, I suspect the Chateaubriand is stunning.