Long before he opened Bis on Main — the decades-old downtown Bellevue restaurant known for its white tablecloths, hand-polished wine glasses, and steady clientele of local business moguls — 64-year-old restaurateur Joe Vilardi learned the business much like an itinerant journeyman might learn his trade.
At age 14, he was hired by Raleigh House Caterers in Southfield, Michigan, and paid 70 cents per hour to scrub the dirty pots, pans, and utensils left behind following high-profile catered events for the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Detroit “Big 3” automobile executives, and The Temptations.
As a young adult, he was a waiter at Perkins Cake & Steak in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he served “drunks, hippies, freaks, and loners,” all while he pinned his own long hair under a short wig to keep the 24-hour diner’s management off his case.
In later years, he moved to New Orleans, where he bused tables at Arnaud’s in the French Quarter and was a server at the Rib Room of the Royal Orleans Hotel. By 1979, Vilardi was living in Los Angeles, where he was the maître d’ at La Maganette on the Sunset Strip and, later, a waiter at the Palm restaurant in West Hollywood.
“Anyone who was anyone in L.A. during the 1980s came through the Palm,” recalled Vilardi, who spent nearly six years working at the legendary restaurant, once the most expensive dining establishment in Los Angeles, and a place where celebrities entered and exited under paparazzi flashbulbs. The Palm was where Vilardi learned how to handle high-profile diners and earn sizable tips in a hectic dining room that served exceptional fare.
By the early 1990s, Vilardi was married, and had relocated with his then-wife from Los Angeles to Utah and, later, the Puget Sound region, for her job at Microsoft. Vilardi was hired as the maître d’ and manager at the esteemed and storied Il Terrazzo Carmine in Seattle, and spent the next four years there before Michel Fredj, a New Orleans-era restaurant industry friend, moved to the Pacific Northwest and encouraged Vilardi to open a restaurant with him. On June 1, 1998, the pair took ownership of a little sandwich shop on Main Street in Old Bellevue. Three months later, Bis on Main opened its doors (Vilardi bought Fredj’s stake in the business and is now the restaurant’s sole owner).
“This is not a stuffy place by any means, but we like to think that we have a very high-quality product, and that we have very good, attentive, and proper service.”
Working in different cities and various castes of dining establishments over the years imbued Vilardi with distinct knowledge of the restaurant industry. It shaped both his personality, as well as the vibe at Bis on Main (Bis, by the way, means “two, twice or another” in French and Italian).
“I try to focus on being accurate and attentive to service, but also being friendly and kidding and not taking anything too seriously,” Vilardi explained. “This is not a stuffy place by any means, but we like to think that we have a very high-quality product, and that we have very good, attentive, and proper service.”
Vilardi works 60 hours per week and is often the first to greet diners at the front door. He stops by tables to refill wine glasses or ask after loyal customers, while his staff of three dozen employees (classically attired in crisp white shirts, neckties, and dark slacks) prepares and serves appetizers such as Dungeness crab cakes and steamed Manila clams, or entrees that include crispy garlic chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes, filet mignon, dry rubbed New York steak, and grilled Alaskan King salmon. It’s not uncommon for notable Eastside business leaders to be spotted at Bis on Main, experiencing what Zagat described as “an oasis of sophistication that boasts a wonderful staff that makes you feel like an old friend.”
Vilardi recently reflected on his career as a restaurateur, as well as Bis on Main’s longevity as an Eastside fine-dining establishment.
Contemporary Northwest Cuisine
It’s telling that the most popular menu items at Bis on Main are simple, classic, and not too fussy — a lot like the restaurant itself. So, what’s popular at Bis on Main?
“The crispy garlic chicken has been our best-selling dish from day one,” said owner Joe Vilardi, who learned how to prepare it with roasted garlic, chopped parsley, and salt and pepper while working at Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles decades ago. “Many of our customers have never ordered anything else when dining at Bis.”
Another often ordered classic is the dry-rubbed New York steak. “This is by far the most popular steak we’ve ever served,” Vilardi added.
In 2010, Vilardi compiled recipes for these entrees and more than 100 others in his book, Bis on Main: Contemporary Northwest Cuisine.
Q: Working at the Palm restaurant during the 1980s sounds like a wild experience. Can you describe what that was like?
A: The Palm is probably the centerpiece of my waitering experience because I worked there the longest, 5 ½ years, and it was such a rough-and-tumble place. We would stand in the dining room, smoke cigarettes, flick our ashes and put our cigarettes out on the wood floor. We could drink on the job, order food. We used to eat clams and shrimp cocktails in the back. Whatever we wanted, it was just wide open.
It was the best waiter’s job in the city. Waiters at the Palm made approximately double what the other good jobs made. It was a very tough place to get into, and a tough place to get out of, as well. The Palm went against every restaurant principle I had learned up to that point.
Also, a lot of celebrities passed through the Palm: Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, Billy Crystal, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, you just name it. I probably waited on them or saw them there.
Q: Bis on Main will mark its 20th Anniversary in September. How do those early years compare to today?
A: Twenty years ago, there was virtually little in the way of white tablecloth or fine dining on the Eastside. Daniel’s Broiler, Spazzo, and Tosoni’s — those are the only three I can think of.
People told me, “Oh, you might do a little lunch business. But nobody is going to come for dinner.” At that time, a lot of wealthy people lived in Bellevue and Medina, but they didn’t eat out on the Eastside. They went to downtown Seattle for dinner. Working as the maître d’ and manager at Il Terrazzo Carmine in Seattle, which still draws the creme de la creme of Seattle society, was a good entry for me here at Bis on Main. A number of people said, “Well, let’s give Joe’s place a try.”
Apparently, they liked it. I’m happy to say there are still quite a few people who have been coming here for 20 years.
Q: Bellevue has expanded and grown quite a bit since Bis on Main opened. How have you responded to this growth? Has it helped Bis on Main, or created more competition?
A: We’ve absorbed one slew of new restaurants after another. We took a licking and kept on ticking.
A lot of restaurants have opened within two miles of here. There was the first slew of restaurants at Lincoln Square — P.F. Chang’s, Maggiano’s (Little Italy), and (Cactus). I worried to death about that, but then nothing happened. And then there were Cantinetta and Carmine’s, which opened a block away. We still did fine after that.
We had our best year in 2016. The most recent spate of restaurants at Lincoln Square is probably why we ended up a little bit down in 2017. I’ve only had two down years. But 2018 is off to a great start, and our numbers are up.
It just goes back to the adage that you do what you do, do it well, and keep on keeping on, as the old 1970s song goes. We have remained a favorite mainstay for many people. It’s just a matter of keeping to your guns. We stay pretty busy by doing a good job day in and day out, creating a good reputation, and becoming a destination place.
Q: Have you made any changes to give yourself a competitive edge?
A: A few years ago, a lot of restaurants started transitioning to smaller plates and sharing. I paused to wonder, “Should we change our format, change how we do things?” Ultimately, I decided to keep doing what we do. Guess what? That crispy, roasted chicken with mashed potatoes is still pretty damn good, and it still sells. People still enjoy that 16-ounce dry-rubbed New York steak.
Q: In what other ways have you set yourself apart?
A: The other great thing about this place is that we have a long-tenured front-of-the-house staff. Lance Winn, the first person I hired 20 years ago, still works here. Kristen Jaglois has been here 12 years. Richard Hager and Greg Abajian have been servers here for 15-plus years. Anthony Hodge is in his ninth year.
Q: How does that help Bis on Main?
A: It’s like our customers are coming home. Even if I’m not here, there’s going to be someone who knows them, knows what they like, knows where they like to sit — that is just invaluable.