If you live in Manhattan, chances are you’ve eaten at one of Shelly Fireman’s restaurants. The famed restauranteur has given the city iconic dining mainstays like Café Fiorello, the Brooklyn Diner, the Redeye Grill, Bond 45 and Trattoria Dell’Arte.
The quick-witted Bronx native, who credits both sides of his family for teaching him the art of hospitality, started his career by opening The Hip Bagel on McDougal Street in 1963. The all-night café lived up to its name, welcoming the hippest people of that era, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Shel Silverstein and Barbra Streisand.
That humble beginning was just the start to a future of building a dining empire in New York. And now, close to six decades later, Fireman, who lives above Fiorello on the Upper West Side, is still actively involved in the day-to-day operations of his seven New York locations. When reopening after the first wave of COVID-19, his goal was not to transform his eateries with the changing times, but to remain true to their roots as warm and welcoming neighborhood institutions.
Despite the Omicron variant, the new year is bright – and busy – for the Fireman Hospitality Group, founded in 1974 with Fireman himself at the helm as president. And although he said that having the pandemic in front of him has been the worst part of his job, he is not letting it stop him from expanding. Next year, another Brooklyn Diner is slated to open at La Guardia airport, a 150-seat delicatessen will open on 43rd Street in the Paramount building and he will introduce a high-end “steak joint” next door to the Redeye Grill designed by David Korins, the acclaimed creative director behind “Hamilton” and the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit. “It’s called a steak joint because we have portraits of famous people like Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy all smoking marijuana,” he said.
You have said that your family taught you about hospitality.
My parents, my grandparents, my uncles and the whole family. Both sides of the family, because one was trained European cooks and one was a trained family where everybody would play a musical instrument, so it was a pretty happy environment.
Tell us about your first restaurant, The Hip Bagel.
I should have stayed with The Hip Bagel. I made the bagel hip and the world took it over. I couldn’t imagine, because it was such an epic thing. Nobody outside people from the Bronx or Brooklyn ate bagels; it was such a Jewish thing. It’s now an American thing, God bless it.
You grew up in the Bronx. When did you move to Manhattan?
The day my mother let me out of the house.
You’re also an accomplished sculptor and travel to your studio in Italy often. Do you have any Italian in you?
Wait a minute, I’m from the Bronx. If you want to hang out in the Bronx, you’ve got to have Italian, otherwise they’d kick the s**t out of you. I have a home in Pietrasanta. Thirty years I’ve had a house there. I go there because I don’t go to the Hamptons with you guys. I’m trying to avoid you guys, so I go to Italy. I’m kidding. The Hamptons are beautiful, but it’s too much like the Bronx for me.
What are your favorite items to eat on the menus of your restaurants?
I could make a joke, c’mon, are you kidding me, gefilte fish. I’m making a joke there, but If I don’t like the item, it’s not gonna be on the menu. Why would I serve you something I don’t like?
Who are some memorable people you met during your career?
Should I mention the jerks that I met or the nice people I met? I met a lot of people. Did I meet people. I don’t know how to answer that question because some of the people that really misbehaved in my restaurants, they’re long gone from this world, so why point them out? I remember Anthony Quinn, he’s dead too now. He was such a jerk, but God bless him, he was Anthony Quinn.
You have a table at Fiorello for Nick Cordero, who passed away last year.
One of the unique things about my restaurants is we honor a lot of the famous people with plaques. We honored him after he passed away, but he and his wife had been loyal customers of Fiorello for a long time.
After the first wave of the pandemic, what changes did you make to your restaurants?
We prayed more. [Laughs] We didn’t change our personality. We really did remain true to who we are in terms of, while there were minor tweaks, I don’t think any outsider coming into our restaurant would notice much change. We view our places like Café Fiorello as neighborhood institutions. For people who have been coming a long time, we want them to find their favorite dishes, we want to welcome them home, welcome them back. So that’s what we were more focused on rather than changing.
I went to eat with my sister outside at Fiorello and it was the only restaurant we’ve seen where someone came by to lock up her bag, which was on her chair, which I thought was very good customer service.
Unfortunately, there was someone taking purses when we reopened from the pandemic, so Michael Vitanza, our GM, would go around and carabiner every pocketbook to the chair. We do want to respond to whatever’s going on in the neighborhood to make our guests comfortable.
Now, with the variant, how are you prepping for New Year’s Eve?
We’re very busy for New Year’s Eve. We’re really entertaining. We’ve got Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Live at the Redeye Grill, a 13-piece band. They do a great show at Bond 45 every Monday and Tuesday night. At Brooklyn Diner in Times Square, where the ball drops, we’ve partnered with Holly-Anne Devlin again. We partnered with her when first reopened Bond 45 and put on a show called “Speakeasy,” and it just finished running for this season. And she’ll be bringing Broadway singers to entertain our guests at Brooklyn Diner 43rd Street. And we have an enormous amount of entertainment at Bond 45 in Times Square. We have live entertainment hosted by Tony and Emmy Award winner Dale Badway, featuring Raun Ruffin and a 10-piece Motown band. And so, at this point, we are planning for success until someone tells us the plans have changed.
Do you go to those events yourself?
Well, we’re too crowded for me to go. I don’t want to take up a table that people are willing to pay for. I’ll eat some caviar at home.
What is the best part of your job?
We always have new ideas and other adventurous things to do, like we’re developing vodkas and boxes of chocolate. So we’re doing things all the time and it’s never boring. And the ideas keep coming, so it’s fun.