Cafe Milano: Where They Know You’re ‘Very’ Important

Responding to speculation that allegedly Iran-linked terrorists were planning to blow up Cafe Milano in Georgetown, Tim Noah wonders what the deal is with Cafe Milano, a very expensive but fundamentally “meh” Italian restaurant:

I mention this because the Saudi ambassador’s purported fondness for the place is merely the latest instance confirming that Cafe Milano has become the most fashionable restaurant in Washington, DC, without ever entering the usual intermediate stage of becoming one of the best. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it or anything. Zagat says a bit snottily that it’s got “chow that’s ‘better than you’d expect,’” but shouldn’t the chow be fabulous at such a place? (Zagat also says that “unless ‘your name regularly appears on the Washington Post’s front page,’ prepare for ‘long waits’ and ‘smug’ treatment.”) I can name half a dozen Italian restaurants in DC that offer better food, usually at lower prices. And I don’t get out all that much. Yet celebrities, especially Hollywood celebrities, adore the place. I’m no reverse snob. I’ll readily grant that celebrities are usually pretty good at sniffing out the best restaurants in any given city (I think they have assistants specially tasked with the assignment). As a foodie middlebrow I usually don’t question their authority in such matters. But their fixation on Cafe Milano is a pretty clear instance of market failure. As best I can tell, Cafe Milano was a celebrity favorite long before the locals were paying the place much notice. If anyone can shed light, in the comment section below, on how this happened, I’d love to know the restaurant’s secret.

I think the answer is right there in the bolded text. Or if I may quote a bit from the About Franco Nuschese section of the Cafe Milano website “Nuschese is known in relationship-conscious Washington for going the extra step to care for his guests, many of whom always reserve the same tables for their power lunches and dinners … on any day, Nuschese is likely to greet socialites, dealmakers, Cabinet secretaries, members of congress, ambassadors and senior embassy officials, wives of the high-ranking, and sports greats.” He has, in other words, a business strategy built around flattering important people about their importance. And the food isn’t bad, it’s just expensive. The VIPs are paying a premium for “VIP treatment” and then other people (the suckers) are following the celebrity hype.

For the record, I think you should be instinctively suspicious of a restaurant named “Cafe Milano” whose proprietor isn’t from Milan and whose menu doesn’t feature any distinctive Lombard dishes.