Nearly every night, Alisa Sokolova or another attractive young lady stands outside the lavishly landscaped and decorated Casa di Isacco on Ninth Avenue, inviting passersby to look at the menu, pop into the restaurant to look around, or consider the consumption of that night’s specials.
“We might not have come in if she wasn’t here,” said Lisa Giroux, a day-care provider from Salem, N.H., who was ushered into the restaurant by Sokolova, 21. “She was friendly and invited us in and made us feel right at home,” marveled Giroux, who, like her husband Dave, a construction foreman, had nothing but praise for the food and service.
Restaurant touts used to be confined to Little Italy and Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street, and were usually silver-tongued men who specialized in high-pressure sale pitches.
You could call the phenomenon’s latest incarnations, which is popping up throughout midtown and at random restaurants elsewhere around Manhattan, “Touts 2.0.” The promoters tend to be lithesome young ladies long on charm and international language skills.
Isaac Elvis, owner of Casa di Isacco, brags that he hires girls who speak Italian, Spanish, Russian, German and “American” to better entice the occupants of the nearby hotels. “Last night I had an Italian girl working, and the place was packed with people from Italy!” said Elvis, an effusive proprietor whose hair bears an eerie resemblance to that of The King. (Photos on the restaurant’s walls reveal him to be an Elvis impersonator, but also to seemingly have the surname Gutierrez Abreu.)
People are preconditioned to accept word of mouth for restaurant recommendations more than any other commodity, and tend to believe verbal assurances even when they know the speaker is being paid, said Michael Lynn, professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. Tourists are most susceptible to being swayed by restaurant-door sentries because they tend to be hungry, physically exhausted and mentally fatigued, he said.
Drew Nieporent, owner of the Myriad Restaurant Group, which operates Nobu and the Tribeca Grill, is repulsed by the “gypsy” trend of verbally prodding potential customers to come in. “It’s just low-class,” he declared. Great food and service are more powerful attractants than women stationed at the door, he said.
But restaurant barkers — common in warm-weather port cities around the world — don’t necessarily mean a restaurant is bad, countered Giuseppe Pezzotti, a senior lecturer at Cornell’s University School of Hotel Administration.
“The food could be outstanding,” he said. What the practice really signifies, he added, is the desperation of restaurant owners to fill tables in troubled times.
“Due to the economy, people now need to go out and work the streets,” Pezzotti said.