Monday, 3 December 2012

The art of seduction

Blythe Gruda runs the bar at Il Buco, a restaurant in NoHo, New York that somehow manages to be upscale, chi-chi, rustic and cosy all at once. Slight and beautiful, with long dark hard parted in the centre like a young Janis Joplin (she also sings), she is warm and chatty. The bar is her domain – and watching her work is a lesson in hard work, efficiency and the art of seduction. 

We met last week for Thanksgiving with mutual friends. I promised I'd visit Il Buco, where she and her husband Paul work, before I left for home. 

Her role is, ostensibly, to keep the half dozen people perched at the bar happy; welcome new arrivals with a drink before they are seated; confer with waitresses. But her real job is people skills. And these she has in abundance. 

She greets regulars like family, with kisses, smiles and tasters of new wines just in ("It's not as heavy as you usually like"). Not-so-regulars, whose names she has almost certainly forgotten, are met with a cheery "Hi, long time no see. How've you been?" And newcomers, such as the young men at the end of the bar, are welcomed with a beaming once-over of the menu, and a hearty recommendation of a glass of something. I look over and, within minutes, they too are beaming. 

Assholes are treated almost as well as the nice customers. Almost. "Would you like a top up?" she asks one. "First, I want a water, then I'll have another wine," he barks. Gruda smiles, narrowing her eyes almost imperceptibly as she slides the water glass sitting under his nose a few inches closer. 

Nothing goes unnoticed. If one half of a couple is drinking faster than the other, she tops them up with a splash of wine so their partner isn't drinking alone. She informs me I have a bit of food between my teeth by gently setting down a toothpick and quietly telling me I could use it. She moves a candle a few inches closer so I can see my menu more clearly. And she softly informs a waiter to hold back on the next course if someone is eating slowly. 

At the end of the night, as I get up to leave, she beckons me closer. She has gossip. Turns out, the couples on either side of me had history. Nice Guy to my right was dumped by Not So Nice girl to my left, in favour of the Quite Irritating guy she was mauling all night. 

There could have been a scene. But Gruda let it run. And if things had turned ugly, I have a feeling this supremely confident woman would have had it all under control. 

Photograph: Victoria Matlock