It’s 10:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the valet stand outside Tony’s is backed up—which is strange, as the restaurant doesn’t open until 11. Yet there it is: a line of Cadillacs and Mercedes and Oldsmobiles holding drivers waiting patiently for their tickets, as the valet, clearly in need of help, scrambles to open doors.
The restaurant’s automatic doors open to a scene of controlled chaos presided over by owner Tony Vallone, a vision of calm ensconced at a corner table. He explains that the logjam out front holds a group of ladies, scheduled for lunch at 11:30, who had shown up early. “They got here at 10:30, before we even opened,” he tells us with a hint of amusement, before ordering an espresso and inviting us to join him. (“It’s all I drink,” Vallone says.) He pauses for a moment and watches the ladies streaming inside. One thing is certain: the staff will accommodate them immediately, whether the restaurant’s technically open or not.
Accommodating Houstonians, after all, is the 71-year-old Vallone’s specialty. He’s been doing it for 50 years, with a you-want-it-you-got-it attitude that’s won over generations of customers—society types, visiting heads of state, celebrities, politicians, couples treating themselves on their anniversaries—for whom dinner at Tony’s is an escape from daily life and a chance to be pampered. “One doesn’t age at the table,” Vallone likes to say, quoting an old Italian expression.
Tony’s has been the place to see and be seen in Houston since the ’70s, and nothing, it seems, will knock it off its throne. At the restaurant’s third incarnation, on Richmond and Timmons, where it’s been since relocating in 2004, many regulars still don their designer finest to grace the dining room. And it’s this dining-room floor that Vallone, a social wizard who never forgets a face, often works himself.
The restaurateur’s ascent is, in some ways, unlikely. His slight New York Italian accent, passed down from his parents, belies the fact that he is a native Houstonian, born and raised in the Sunnyside neighborhood of the Third Ward. He began working in kitchens at the age of 12, but otherwise had no formal training when he opened the first incarnation of Tony’s, in 1965, on Sage Road.
“It was like $500 a month fully equipped, except for refrigeration,” Vallone remembers. “Nothing matched because it had been so many restaurants.” The cuisine was simple Italian food, which, along with Vallone’s trademark charm, caught the eye of local developer Gerald Hines. Hines helped Vallone transition from his modest digs to more posh confines on Post Oak and up his game from casual to fine dining.
Vallone is passionate about food, and he rarely strays from the topic, which perhaps explains why, when asked about his favorite Tony’s guest, his reply isn’t as curious as it first seems. “I never thought I’d say this, because I was not a fan of his politics, but Richard Nixon,” he says. “In person, he knew food and we talked recipes, nothing like I envisioned.”
The cuisine at Tony’s has evolved over the years, going from Italian to French and back again, but always with an emphasis on hard-to-get imported ingredients that Houston diners won’t find anywhere else. In the past few years, he’s implemented more casual lunches and affordable menu items, matching trends in the industry at large. “I’m still evolving,” he says. “I think the day you stop evolving is the day you need to retire.”
An intense stickler for detail, Vallone is obsessed with food quality and the happiness of his guests. “If the heart of a restaurant is the dining room, its soul is the kitchen,” he says, pointing out the “old-school” chair he keeps near the line so he can still inspect the food sent out to the dining room by current chef Kate McLean (whom Vallone calls the best he’s ever had, by the way).
Though he inspires enviable loyalty among his staff—several have been with him for 40 years or more, and his former chefs gush over his generosity—Vallone admits he can be a tough boss. “I am a little demanding, I’ll admit that,” he explains. “I don’t ask anything of them I don’t do myself.” He’s also a bit of a workaholic, spending 10-plus-hour days at Tony’s or his other restaurants, Ciao Bello and Vallone’s. “What else would I do?” he says. “I’m not the type to sit home. You can’t run a fine-dining restaurant from an office in Cleveland or the golf course. You have to be right there watching it.”
And being there has helped Vallone stay active. He shows us the Nike FuelBand fitness tracker on his wrist. He’s already at just over 5,000 steps, with a long day ahead of him, which is how he likes it. After a life-threatening bout with West Nile virus in 2003, he put a greater focus on his health, undergoing lap-band surgery, outlawing late-night snacking and working out with a trainer.
This month, Vallone is celebrating his golden anniversary in the ruthless restaurant business with a charity dinner at Tony’s benefiting Memorial Hermann Life Flight. It’s a program he’s long supported but only recently appreciated from personal experience, after his grandson Anthony was involved in a serious car accident. “I picked Life Flight because it’s touched the lives of so many people I know,” says Vallone. “Little did I know, I’d be sending Life Flight to go get him.”
As the lunch rush comes to an end, several of the early arrivals move toward the door, looking content. What’s next for Vallone? “That’s a good question,” he says. While retirement is clearly not an option at the moment, should he consider slowing down? He says his wife, Donna, who works the floor at Tony’s, thinks so; she’s always reminding him to take breaks. “She tries,” he says with a grin, before repeating a favorite catchphrase. “I hope they carry me out with fish in one hand and pasta in the other.”