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Trader Vic's Maître D' Retires After 57 Years of Mai Tais


The 80-year-old will retire at the end of this year

Trader Vic’s long-time maître d’, Claudette Lum, has decided to retire after 57 years of working in Victor Bergeron’s famed tiki restaurant and bar. location in Emeryville.

"It's a very bittersweet departure. Because my heart will always be here with every single person who walks into Trader Vic's," she told local news station KTVU. Although “every single person” for Lum includes both Trader Vic regulars and bric-a-brac, the maître d’ has also seated big names like Queen Elizabeth II and former first lady Nancy Reagan.

The restaurant’s longest-standing employee told KTVU that she plans to spend her retirement enjoying her eight grandchildren. "All the people who have touched my life and heart at Trader Vic's will forever be with me,” she said. “Now it is getting emotional, because I love them all.”

Since its opening as a small tiki bar in the 1930s, Trader Vic’s has grown to include over 19 locations worldwide. While every location parrots the original’s South Pacific kitsch, only those lucky customers in San Francisco and the East Bay got to experience the hospitality of Claudette Lum. We recommend these eight tiki cocktails to drink in her honor.


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Maestro of the Polo Lounge

It’s cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d’. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, “Nino! We haven’t met. I am Katrina. I’m new. It’s an honor to meet you! You’re a legend here.”

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn’t shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say “Thank you.”

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

“Nino was a maestro,” says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. “It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it.”

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn’t sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti’s day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. “Nino became the password.”

That applied in spite of the place’s being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest’s collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

“Ah, I could name names,” he’ll say, “but I don’t want to forget someone.”

“Ah, so many memories, I couldn’t choose one.”

“Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment.”

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can’t help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti’s art is like the seam in a good suit. You don’t notice it.

Osti didn’t so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city’s top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

“She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head,” says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, “A customer from the hotel said, ‘Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?’ He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain.”

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the “hostess with the mostess’” who was Truman’s ambassador there, or “Madam Minister,” as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

“She said to me, ‘Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.’ So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do?’”

In 1952, he moved to Canada, where he worked in a private club. Within months, he wrote to Ada saying, “It’s kind of lonely out here. It’s probably kind of lonely where you are, too. Why don’t you come out here and we’ll get married?’”

By 1959, the Canadian cold and all that dirty snow drove the Italian couple south, and west, to Los Angeles. From 1960 to 1968, Osti worked at La Rue on Sunset Strip, a restaurant dating to 1943. It had a special phone line for Sinatra’s reservations and served all the swell food of the day, says Osti, “You know, caviar and crepe suzette, Dover sole, tournedos Rossini.”

After seating all the guests and ensuring that their orders were taken, he would oil the social wheels. “I used to tell the owner, Mr. Bruno, go say hello to so-and-so, and go say hello to so-and-so.”

Osti’s silky touch, the habitual grace with which he could bone a sole and the sure way he never over-fired a flambe pan, did not escape the notice of Ben Silberstein, then owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silberstein began pestering him to move to the Polo Lounge. Osti wanted to open his own restaurant with a chef from Perino’s. That didn’t work out. “My friend at Perino’s goes home one night has a stroke and he dies,” says Osti. So he took the job at the Polo Lounge on a “temporary basis.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel was already a haunt of the stars and had been since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days. Osti didn’t care who the customers were as long as they met the dress code. “‘Treat everybody nice and you can’t go wrong’ is my credo,” he says.

Selvaggio goes further. “You have tables that are in very, very high demand,” he says. “You have clients where the position--being seen in the right place with the right table--is everything. He had the capacity of knowing who to put where. There has to be a real affinity for people.”

Behind the scenes, he kept the mood high by making short work of sassy waiters. “I used to say, ‘Don’t ever go over and say to a customer, ‘You did too order this.’ Never argue.”

A big name never compensated for making a reservation too late. On the occasions when he could not seat a regular, Osti would cry, “I am more embarrassed than you!” He would then phone the customer the next day to apologize and beg the customer to give him “a little bit more notice” next time.

He had built up the lunch crowd to 300 covers a day when Silberstein asked him to take on nights. Osti recalls, “I remember going by one night and wondering, ‘What are all those hookers doing here?’”

One of Silberstein’s vice presidents suggested demanding the identification from every woman who came in alone. “It was such a terrible idea. I said, ‘Forget it! I’ll take care of it.’” Osti’s solution was to seat single women near wives of married customers.

“That sort of controlled it,” says Osti. “But I used to tell even the owner, ‘This is not a church.’”

Eventually he was a celebrity in his own right. Long-time customers Kitty Carlisle and Soupy Sales could scarcely keep straight faces as he went on “To Tell the Truth.” The contestant had to pick whether he was the manager of the Polo Lounge or the operator of a float of gondolas in Venice. The contestant guessed gondolier.

(At home, Ada berated him for not allowing her to believe it.)

His greatest genius was for solving problems. When he finally convinced management to take out a booth to move the piano to an accessible spot, Christopher Plummer took to playing it.

On Super Bowl nights, he’d call waiters together for his own pre-game huddles. “Try to suggest a bottle of champagne,” he’d say. “Making 10 drinks will take too much time. Nobody will get an order. Leave the empty bottles in a visible spot so the next people see them and want champagne too.” The night the Denver Broncos played the New York Giants, he reckons they had the bar packed six per booth and served 1,300.

But by 1992, even Osti couldn’t keep the place full. Hollywood had changed. Silberstein was dead, the hotel had repeatedly changed owners, staff was demoralized and the Beverly Hills Hotel was down to 30% occupancy.

Then came the riots, “I remember I had to sleep in the hotel,” says Osti. “I had to phone my wife and say, ‘Ada, I wish you were here. We’ve got the best suite.’”

The next year, the hotel closed for refurbishment by the sultan of Brunei, and Merv Griffin invited Osti to Trader Vic’s.

“They flew me to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me? I don’t know nothing about your food. I don’t know nothing about your fancy drinks.’ But they said, ‘You know people.’”

For 21/2 years, the man who had poured Robert Mitchum’s scotches learned how to put orchids in mai tais and gardenias in stingers. He struck the low-selling dishes so customers didn’t have to spend “the first 20 minutes reading a long menu.” He even learned some Chinese to joke with the waiters.

He was happy, he says. But when the Beverly Hills Hotel refurbishment was completed in 1995, the management came looking for him to relaunch the Polo Lounge. Osti hesitated, he says, but “when they told me they had kept the same decor, the same green walls, my heart went like this.” He makes a patting gesture on his chest.

Everyone from “60 Minutes” to the New Yorker magazine and even Huell Howser seized on Osti as the soul of the bar during the relaunch of the hotel. “He was one of the key elements to bring back the old glory, the old luster,” says Selvaggio. “But mostly the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t performing the old magic.”

Osti was indeed unhappy. He could make neither heads nor tails of the new computerized phone system. The dress code was gone. Smart crowds had moved on to Morton’s, Spago and the Ivy. He stayed only three years before retiring in 1998.

He spent his first New Year’s Eve with his family. He and Ada traveled and spent time with their sons, Nicholas and Daniel, and grandchildren, Francesca, Nicholas and Christiana. Plummer got them seats to “Barrymore” in front of Ann Miller. News of this flew across Italy, where relatives joked about their being celebrities. He introduced his grandchildren to an astronaut. They decorated their home with drawings by Neiman, a wooden duck from Johnny Carson, photos with Reagan.

On Nov. 19, 2000, the bliss was shattered. He awoke at 3 a.m. to find Ada struggling for air in a sudden asthma attack. “She said, ‘Io vado,’” whispers Osti. “It’s Italian, for ‘I’m going.’” Within hours, his wife of 48 years was dead.

The good and the great flocked to console Osti. Producer Arthur Cohn wrote. Plummer embraced his old friend. Two years later, Osti is still stunned by the loss and its incomprehensible suddenness.

But this recent evening as he sits in the Polo Lounge, time plays tricks on him. It could be 1968. The fact that the sultan of Brunei didn’t change the decor outside that infernal modern phone console is both disturbing and comforting. “Maybe it should have changed,” he says. “We have.”

Pepe, the new tuxedoed maitre d’, leads a party of guests past the table. The guests wear shorts and slapping flip-flops. Osti winces.

But in the next instant, another set of guests arrives. They are dressed elegantly. They are old-time regulars. He is quick to his feet, smiling with perfectly pitched bonhomie, greeting old friends much as he has for three decades.

“Nino was a star before people in restaurants became stars,” says Selvaggio. “He’s a dying breed. Being a great maitre d’ takes a tremendous commitment and love for people, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”


Watch the video: Trader Vics on Atlanta Eats (January 2022).