Career waitress Asma Allalou can tell a lot about you once you sit down at NYC's Strip House. Here, we find out a bit more about her, a rare front-of-house breed in today's dining world.
It’s easy for Asma Allalou to read you. There are a few tells, according to the 20-year veteran waitress who has spent the last 16 years at Strip House in New York City’s Union Square. Do you smile when she asks if she can start your table with an emergency cocktail, sensing your need to unwind after work? Are you tickled if she continues to joke with you, or are you suddenly fixated on your phone, oblivious to the world?
In those first moments of your meal, she’s surveying every guest, eyeing the ringleader of the table and discerning the vibe or occasion. And in less than a minute, Allalou knows what kind of night you’re coming in for—and what kind she’s in charge of ensuring.
As easy as it is for Allalou to quickly diagnose her customers at Strip House, however, it’s hard to get a sense of Allalou herself. But that’s what I’m here for one chilly night last November—to understand the career waitress, what makes her tick, what drives her. As restaurants open and close, trends come and go, talking to Allalou is a breath of fresh air. Though she fell into the food world by accident, she’s committed to staying in it, not for the recent rock star-ification of the industry but for the people, inside and outside the kitchen.
“I get a kick out of people, I really do,” says Allalou. “Kill them with kindness. That’s my motto.”
“Troubles” (what she's really referring to is the Algerian Civil War) brought Allalou and her family to the states in the early 90s. At the start of the war, her parents sent her to boarding school in France, but a green card for the whole family reunited them in New York City. Since both parents were lawyers and spoke little English, Allalou soon started working to support everyone as a part-time nanny and French language teacher on the Upper East Side. Her ritual before French school was grabbing coffee at a nearby diner. She became friendly with the owner who said his friend was look to staff up his Italian restaurant, the now-closed Portfolio. Intrigued, she went in for the interview and turned on the charm. She got the job, picking up quickly on the essential skills. What goes into a Manhattan. Shifting her British English to more American English. Handwriting orders and firing them verbally in the days before ticketing machines.
From there, she bounced around from Remi in Midtown to Larry Forgione’s short-lived restaurants to Artisanal in Murray Hill. Allalou just went with the ebb and flow of the restaurant industry, following wherever there was an opportunity. Then opportunity found her. Well, shouted to her at the last stop of the 6 train in Financial District.
“He’s like, ‘I’m looking for you. I’ve been asking everyone about you.’” says Allalou. “I ran into my old general manager at Remi and found out he was at Strip House. He wanted me to come work for him. At that time, Artisanal started doing brunch, so I’m like…”
She laughs. “I don’t eat it, so I don’t want to serve it.”
So began her 16-year tenure at Strip House in January 2002. Every day, she commutes from Astoria to Union Square, using her time on the train to read thrillers by David Baldacci. Allalou clocks in around 3 p.m., checks on mise en place, eats staff meal, plunges into the controlled chaos of dinner and then heads home by 11:30 p.m. She’s off Sunday and Monday, which she’ll spend at Edi & the Wolf in Alphabet City.
It’s hard to get her out of the restaurant mindset. If she’s at a place, she’ll watch the front of house, feeling irked if it feels like the “waiters are in la-la-land” or become completely mesmerized by the efficiency and speed of bussers. “When you do your job well, it shows,” she says.
In the middle of our interview, one Allalou’s regulars come in. In her years at Strip House, she’s seen it all—first dates, engagements, marriages and kids. “They start coming in a little less,” she says. “But you feel like part of the family because you can see how far back they go.”
Today, it seems like just a drink and snacks for her regular, and that's fine with her. “Let’s go take care of them,” says Allalou, as she walks towards a familiar face in need of an emergency cocktail.