Tony Fortuna, Restaurateur With a Congenial Flair, Dies at 76

Tony Fortuna, a longtime Manhattan restaurateur who turned running a dining room into a fine art as a consummate host who treated customers as friends, died on Friday at his home on the Upper East Side. He was 76.

His son Danny said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

In a 40-year career as a restaurant manager, host and, most notably, owner of TBar, on the Upper East Side, the tall Mr. Fortuna, an Italian immigrant who started his restaurant career in France, built a loyal fan base with subtle charm and a soupçon of Continental polish always displayed without fanfare.

“He had a level of graciousness at the door that was better than anyone,” Pino Luongo, a restaurateur who worked with Mr. Fortuna at Mad. 61 in the basement level of Barney’s on the Upper East Side, said by phone.

The interior of the newly opened TBar in 2022 at a townhouse on East 60th Street in Manhattan. The restaurant thrived in its original location, on Third Avenue, until it lost its lease in the fall of 2021.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

His was not a household name but, as the restaurateur Penny Glazier said, “his passing is being felt by the entire restaurant community.” He joined a short list of beloved Upper East Side restaurateurs who have become memories, particularly Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque and Glenn Bernbaum of Mortimer’s.

Mr. Maccioni poured Champagne for heads of state, and Mr. Birnbaum fortified socialites with salad, while Mr. Fortuna was known for greeting and serving precisely-charred steaks to devoted customers whose Park Avenue apartments were just a short walk from his restaurant’s original Third Avenue location, a clubby hangout for the well-heeled but not necessarily well-known.

Mr. Fortuna’s first foray into New York’s restaurant scene was in 1986 at the new Restaurant Lafayette with the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who was then young, unknown and also new to New York. At that point Mr. Fortuna had worked for about 20 years in France, rising to maître d’hôtel and acquiring an appreciation for French cuisine and style.

Mr. Vongerichten described him as a mentor. “He insisted on excellence,” he said in a phone interview. “I couldn’t put a new dish on the menu without his approval.”

The New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller named Mr. Fortuna best new maître d’hôtel on the scene in 1986. Two years later Mr. Miller awarded Lafayette — with Mr. Vongerichten in the kitchen and Mr. Fortuna at the door — four stars.

Mr. Fortuna subsequently worked the doors and dining rooms at a succession of Manhattan restaurants, including Tavern on the Green, Lespinasse (in the St. Regis hotel), Mad. 61 and the refurbished Monkey Bar. In 1995, he finally had a restaurant of his own, the Lenox Room, on Third Avenue and East 73rd Street, in partnership with the chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer.

He took a personal interest in both customers and staff; it seemed to come naturally. “People in the restaurant weren’t customers to him,” Mr. Palmer said. “They were friends, and he couldn’t do enough for them.”

Five years later, Mr. Fortuna became the sole owner of the Lenox Room. Its name was changed to TBar, a steak house with a varied menu, in 2007, after Mr. Fortuna was joined by Arthur Backal, of Backal Hospitality Group, as a partner. A satellite of TBar opened several years ago in Southampton, N.Y., so that Mr. Fortuna, typically in jeans, could welcome and feed his regulars in a summer setting.

Angelo Tony Fortuna was born on Oct. 22, 1947, in Sant’Elia Fiumerapido, Italy, situated between Rome and Naples. His father, Giuseppe Fortuna, a shopkeeper, and his mother, Concetta (Melaragni) Fortuna, a homemaker, emigrated with Tony and his two siblings to the Detroit area in 1955. Tony was the second oldest. Two sisters and a brother were later born in the United States.

In the early 1960s, after his father relocated the family to Marly-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris, where his brother had a restaurant, Tony became a busboy, igniting his career. He eventually became maître d’hôtel.

He returned to the United States in 1983 and began working in Florida, then went to Chicago for a job at the Mayfair Regent Hotel. His marriage to Mary Hayden in 1985 in Chicago ended in divorce in 2004.

In addition to his son Danny, Mr. Fortuna is survived by two other sons, Matthew and Vince; five siblings, Nancy Bonser, Antoinette Starrs and Mario, Joseph and Rita Fortuna; and two grandchildren.

None of his sons followed their father into restaurant careers. “He deterred us from going into the restaurant business,” Danny said, “but I learned a lot in terms of his work ethic, from watching him in action.”

Mr. Fortuna in 2022 at TBar in Manhattan with Derek Axelrod, an interior designer who partnered with Mr. Fortuna in reopening the restaurant that year.Credit…Brandon Schulman

Many of Mr. Fortuna’s professional encounters, both with customers and with associates, led to enduring bonds. For Penny and Peter Glazier, the owners of the Monkey Bar, a business relationship evolved into a 30-year friendship. The food writer Dorie Greenspan recalled a dinner at Lafayette when Mr. Fortuna appeared with a surprise array of desserts.

“We were celebrating a birthday but hadn’t said anything about the occasion,” she said. “Tony picked it up from our conversation at the table.” They, too, became friends.

TBar thrived on Third Avenue until it lost its lease in the fall of 2021. The next year, with a new partner, Derek Axelrod, an interior designer and a customer whose parents also frequented TBar, and with Mr. Backal, Mr. Fortuna reopened TBar in a townhouse on East 60th Street.

The partners plan to keep it open, even without Mr. Fortuna on hand to greet the guests.

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