Legendary Restaurateur Tony Vallone Dies Unexpectedly at Home in Houston, Tony’s To Live On

Shelby Hodge Reminisces on the Halcyon Days of the City's Top Restaurant

BY // 09.10.20

The quiet passing of restaurateur Tony Vallone at home early Thursday morning marks the loss of a legend and the end of the old-school era of celebrity-driven restaurants. Yet, his wife of 36 years, Donna Vallone, promises to steadfastly helm his namesake Tony’s restaurant in this new world of culinary excellence even without its legendary chieftain, who died at age 75.

From the beginning of his 55-year career heading his eponymous restaurant, Vallone began carving a formidable niche in Houston’s restaurant and social scene, along the way earning high esteem throughout the country. The starry nights at Tony’s on Post Oak Boulevard are legendary, the celebrations held there were over the top and the occasional delicious naughtiness was the stuff of Jackie Collins novels.

Major oil deals were consummated over the white tablecloths in the shadow of the sumptuous fruit towers that concluded every meal. Marriage proposals with rings hidden in lavish desserts or in champagne glasses were made. Anniversaries and birthdays were regularly celebrated there. Mistresses were entertained at back tables while the city’s Brahmans dined in the famed “Gaza Strip,” the prime seating aside a wall of flowering azaleas in the main dining room. When Tony designed his location in Greenway Plaza, he insisted that there be no recognizable A-list seating as he had had enough of the near brawls over seating at the Post Oak location.

Alex Brennan-Martin of the famed Brennan’s family notes, “There are few known by their first name because of outsized persona. Fewer still because of their outsized influence. My mother was known as Ella. I know how much she admired Tony as I do.

“I pray Tony finds his way to what Mom called ‘the saloon in the sky.’ The dining wherever he is now has certainly improved while dining in Houston will never be the same.”

Indeed, it was Tony’s perfectionist bent, demanding the best from his staff and the best for his customers that skyrocketed the second generation Italian-American into the supernova realm of gourmet dining.

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‘Tony Vallone was without a doubt, the greatest restaurateur in this country,” says commercial developer David Greenberg, Vallone’s closest friend and a Tony’s regular. “He set the standard for fine dining and ran the best fine dining restaurant that I’ve ever seen.”

Tony Vallone’s Immense Restaurant Legacy

Among the countless celebrities who have crossed the portals of Tony’s, every U.S. President since Lyndon B. Johnson has dined there. In one remarkable evening following a charity gala in the late 1980s honoring then-Governor John Connally, former President Richard Nixon dined with future President Donald Trump and a host of Houston’s shiny people.

In 1990 heads of state attending the G7 Economic Summit at Rice University dined at Tony’s. It was a stunning assembly of world leadership, among them President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and French President Francois Mitterand.

Tony’s on Post Oak
Tony’s on Post Oak Boulevard was the epicenter of Houston’s social life for three decades in the era of celebrity restaurants. (Photo from Tony’s The Cookbook)

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Tony’s was THE place for society mavens to preen in their designer fashions and for denizens of the corporate world to flaunt their expense accounts.  It was also the place for the highest level of entertaining. Lynn Wyatt hosted a glamorous dinner for Princess Margaret there. At the the other end of the spectrum, there was a March of Dimes benefit that had a handful of social swans purposely dancing on the tables.

Baron Ricky di Portanova and his wife, Sandra, regularly lit up the dining room with their lavish parties, mind-boggling jewels and orders of Beluga caviar. The ladies who lunch in their wide-shouldered suits would start at noon with salads and often remain, moving into the bar, until dinner time. There was never a moment that was not festive in this inner sanctum of Houston society. Table-hopping was de rigueur as swells moved through the theatrical evenings schmoozing late into the night.

And late night was another story for Tony’s as the well-heeled poured in after galas for the chef’s French toast and the world’s crispiest bacon. Philanthropist Margaret Williams would hold court in the bar and order dessert for her table.

‘Tony Vallone was without a doubt, the greatest restaurateur in this country” — commercial developer David Greenberg.

The notorious multi-millionaire J. Howard Marshall regularly lunched at Tony’s with his buxom girlfriend Lady Walker and one day he had two shiny Bentley’s brought to the restaurant as a surprise. On another occasion, an oilman was having lunch with his mistress when his wife walked in the front door. The savvy Vallone jumped into action, escorting the illicit couple out the kitchen door.

No recounting of Tony’s history would be honest without noting Houston Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger’s profound influence on the success of the restaurant. She regularly held court in the dining room, reporting almost daily on the goings on of the city’s “bold-faced types” who considered Tony’s their personal country club. The two enjoyed an exceptionally symbiotic relationship.

As word of  Tony Vallone’s passing circulates, the acknowledgements are growing including this statement from billionaire hospitality magnate Tilman Fertitta, who purchased La Griglia and Grotto from Vallone some years ago.

“If there was anyone in the restaurant industry who truly motivated me, it was Tony Vallone,” Fertitta says. “Every aspect of his business from culinary and service to hospitality, Tony took it all to a different level. Even in the last 20 years, I would regard Tony Vallone as one of the greatest, true restauranteurs in all of America.”

A close friend of Vallone for 50 years, prominent Houston attorney Marvin Nathan, shares with PaperCity, “Some men when they die after long labor and toil leave great estates and fortunes, but Tony Vallone’s treasure is found in the hearts of his family, friends and community and his memory will be cherished by them forever.  Tony was always faithful to his friends, and he possessed a special instinct for seeing beyond words and things.  His impulse for perfection was second to no others.”

While the restaurant will be closed until Tuesday, fans are already planning dinners and luncheons in honor of the remarkable restaurateur with Tony’s continuing on under Donna Vallone.

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