Joe Vilardi is the hands-on restaurateur, constantly present at , his Old Bellevue restaurant. The consummate gracious host, he greets guests at his restaurant by first and last name. Some are public figures most humans with a pulse will recognize. Others are more private.
He answers the phone in the mid-afternoon lull between lunch and dinner service or during the dinner rush. Sometimes he will answer two phones at a time, the restaurant’s landline and his personal mobile phone.
On rare nights off he still feels like he’s on duty. He will be dining at neighboring restaurants such as , or where he is recognized by his regular guests. Vilardi will stop to indulge his regulars on the latest at his restaurant.
It is that relentless attention to guests that has distinguished Vilardi and helped Bis on Main thrive. Vilardi celebrated 13 years of greeting guests at his restaurant on Main Street in Old Bellevue on Wednesday. Next month it will be five years since he opened the expanded Bis on Main, a significant threshold in the restaurant business.
“The secret is recognition, identifying those people and how they want to be treated,” Vilardi said. “I’ve spent so much time working the front door I try remember every guest.
“I always remember if they had a problem. Even from 10 years ago. I’ll remember where a guest sat and that their steak was overcooked and it was their anniversary. You don’t lose sight of that. You don’t want to repeat that. The guests will be surprised and say, ‘you remember that?’”
Vilardi spent close to $1 million remodeling Bis on Main to its current sleek and modern look. The main dining room remained about the same size. He added a bar area and a private dining room, in the process growing from 48 to 130 seats. He says Bis on Main has doubled its revenue since its remodel. The success has helped pay off the construction loan in less than three years.
“I wanted to keep the intimacy of our dining room,” Vilardi explained of the remodel. “I had to think about what the guests liked about the old Bis on Main and maintain that and then sell them more. That’s why we partitioned the layout.”
The result, Vilardi says, is that guests will come back more often, sometimes to their usual dining room table sprinkled with visits to the bar for more casual occasions. He also says the bar business has leveraged the restaurant during stretches when the poor economy reduces consumer confidence and guests prefer to spend less snacking and ordering a glass of wine or two at the bar instead of a full dinner and a bottle of wine in the dining room.
“It’s given us an enhanced presence,” Vilardi said. “We expanded what we could offer to the dining public. We did that from a very solid base that we are well known.”
What Vilardi and Bis on Main have been known for is spotless service and classic French and Italian cuisine emphasizing seasonal ingredients and clean flavors.
Rigatoni Bolognese, Caprese salad, roasted duck breast and crispy garlic chicken are staples on the menu, created by Chef Shawn Martin, who rose from lead cook five years ago to head chef now for a year. Steak frites (flat iron steak served with truffled fries and a bleu cheese aioli) is a lunch specialty along with the Kobe-style beef burger and the Italian grinder.
The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning wine list features classic California and Washington producers such as Shafer, Opus One, Peter Michael, Justin, Betz, Delille, Mark Ryan, Fidelitas and Leonetti as well as collectible Italian wines such as Gaja, Antinori, Pio Cesare, Clerico, and French producers such as Bouchard, Beaucastel, Vieux Telegraphe, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Latour, Armailhac, Leoville Poyferre and Clerc Millon. The lists boasts over 300 selections in all.
Vilardi built his restaurants chops working for chef-driven restaurants for 20 years in Los Angeles, chiefly Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago and Michel Richard’s Citrus. He also spent four years at Il Terrazzo Carmine in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
At Bis on Main it’s Vilardi’s show.
“When I was at Il Terrazzo Carmine I met all the rich Eastsiders who came into downtown Seattle for dinner,” Vilardi recalls. “I thought I could serve them food in Bellevue.”
Millionaires, billionaires, coffee moguls, athletes, musicians and authors are among Vilardi’s regulars as are coffee drinkers, fans of said athletes, musicians and authors, and users of the software and mobile phone services produced by the billionaires.
“It’s important to make guests feel important,” Vilardi said. “It may be a guest who is frugal who is trying to impress a date or a client. It’s important to make them feel important. If they are trying to impress their friends you have to show their friends why they love it.”
Vilardi plans to make guests feel important for many more years to come.