Waiter as much a tradition as restaurant’s famed arancini
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — You can hear it across the restaurant.
Alvin “Butch” Smith is engaging in friendly banter with his customers. His section at Gino’s Restaurant on Bennington Drive in Baton Rouge sounds like it usually does, full of jokes and jabs between regulars and Smith himself, a career waiter who has worked at Gino’s for 42 years. It doesn’t take long before diners are also making conversation across tables, not just with Smith, but with each other.
“It’s just something I do,” says Smith, 65. “By now, people who ask to sit in my section know what they’re going to get.”
Tall and striking with a trim Van Dyke, Smith is known by generations of Gino’s diners. It’s commonplace for them to request his section, the rightmost room in the 220-seat eatery. Longtime Gino’s diners remember it as part of the old smoking section, a stone’s throw from the bar, the kitchen and the piano where jazz musicians play on Thursday nights. It’s also adjacent to a private room where lobbyists and state legislators once holed up to do business.
“More deals got done in there that at the Capital,” Smith says.
Career waiters are common in New Orleans, where generations of families work for the same restaurants, but they’re unusual in Baton Rouge, says owner Gino Marino, whose mother Grace “Mama” Marino founded the restaurant in 1966.
“We’ve been lucky,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have someone work for us this long, and to have such a loyal staff.”
Several of the 35 full- and part-timers employed by the restaurant have worked for Gino’s for more than 20 years, says Marino, including bartender Karen Sanders, another 42-year employee.
“That’s rare in a college town,” Marino says. “Finding good people is one of the biggest challenges of this business.”
Smith’s father Alvin Smith, Sr. also worked for Gino’s, first at its original location on Perkins Road, and briefly at its Bennington location. Butch Smith was working at the City Club when his father got him a job at Gino’s in 1976.
Gino’s is the longest running privately owned restaurant still open in Baton Rouge, says Marino.
Grace Marino, a Sicilian immigrant, created the restaurant’s menu and ran the kitchen well into her dotage. She still visited the restaurant often until she died last year. Her three children, Gino, Laurence and Frances, operate the restaurant and Gino’s two sons now run the kitchen. The menu includes the popular arancini, the Sicilian street food Gino Marino says his mother introduced to Baton Rouge, veal Sorrentino, Laurence bread and a wide variety of classic Italian dishes.
Smith remembers the high bar Grace Marino set for employees, but also her appreciation and fondness for them.
“She’s missed around here,” Smith says. “She demanded the best out of you, and she would let you know it if you did something wrong. But then she’d always come back and say something nice.”
A lot has changed for old school businesses like Gino’s. More restaurants are opening throughout the community, many of them trendy, boutique establishments. Traffic has compromised the ability of diners to reach College Drive at lunchtime, stifling the flow of downtown diners. Lobbyists have stricter laws on per legislator expenditures, and people don’t go out much anymore after LSU home games.
“We used to get hundreds of people in here until late at night after games,” Smith says. “But now they start tailgating so early, and the traffic is so bad that they don’t go out afterwards.”
But a mainstay like Smith is a hook for the restaurant.
“His section will fill up like that,” says Marino, snapping his fingers. “It means a lot to customers that he knows them. He knows their names, knows something about their families and knows what they like to drink. It is really hard to find that nowadays. He’s a rare breed.”
Both men joke that their relationship is like a marriage.
“Full of ups and downs,” says Smith, who also serves as head waiter. “Some good days, some bad days.”
In one instance several years ago, Smith recalls Marino dressing him down for his repartee with a prominent lobbyist. The lobbyist told Marino that it was welcome.
“I do the same thing with people, regardless of who they are,” says Smith. “I know how far I can go.”
Says Marino, “I heard him mixing it up the other day with priest. People love him.”
Wednesdays through Saturdays, Smith works double shifts, and when things are slow between lunch and dinner, he engages in a ritual Grace Marino used to keep — watching the soap opera, The Young and the Restless.
“She used to watch it at the bar and if people were too loud, she’d tell them to be quiet,” says Smith. “She’s the only one that could get away with that.”
It’s not unusual for Smith to get calls on his personal cell phone from customers requesting a table in his section. He says some call and ask if he can get a table ready for them on their way over.
“I told Gino he needs to start paying my cell phone bill,” he laughs.
Information from: Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, http://www.businessreport.com