RSVP’s Two-Man Show–They cook, you eat. That’s it.
“I’m sorry but we’re booked every Saturday through Christmas,” says Charles Cilona on the phone to a potential customer. “Have you been here before? You have? Great. So you know how things work here?”
The co-owner of RSVP in West Cornwall, Cilona feels he has to explain to all first-time diners that his restaurant is not like others. That’s because there’s no menu. You eat what his partner, chef Guy Birster, makes and you won’t know what’s being served until you arrive. “This is not a restaurant for everyone,” says Cilona. Essentially French, every meal offers an amuse-bouche, a soup, a fish course, a meat course, and a dessert—for about $110. “If you’re vegan or have certain allergies we can’t accommodate you and we want you to know that before you come.” The only thing that is guaranteed beforehand is that it will be one of the best meals of your life.
On a crisp fall afternoon, Cilona, silver-haired and dapper, is sitting at one of the 23 hardback chairs in RSVP’s small dining room opposite the old railroad station. The décor is modest and the only indications that you are in the presence of culinary greatness are the ranks of empty wine bottles bearing such labels as Haut-Brion, Margaux, and Lafitte that line the walls, and the Zen intensity of Birster as, single-handed, he prepares for that evening’s dinner in the adjacent open kitchen.
“We opened in 2001,” Cilona says. “I’m originally from Chicago. Guy and I met at a restaurant in Pasadena 30 years ago. He was chef and I was a waiter. Before that I had been an actor, a journalist, a nightclub maître d’.” The tall, curly-haired Birster hails from near Dijon, in Burgundy, where his father was a baker. He had a picaresque youth before apprenticing in a kitchen and gradually rose through the ranks until becoming a chef de cuisine.
The two came to Litchfield County in 1993 and opened a restaurant in the area called the Brookside Bistro. “It was more typical. We did lunch and dinner. A thick menu. Huge staff. It was exhausting. One vacation we were at a small restaurant in Sicily, a father-and-son place. No menu. Someday, we said, we’re going to do that. You cook what you want. So we did. It’s a chef’s dream.”
They got rid of lunch, the liquor license—wine is BYOB and they don’t charge corkage—the menu, and the staff. Today they are only open Friday through Sunday, and the only other person working there is their dishwasher. “He also grows the most amazing vegetables,” says Cilona.
Despite its small size, RSVP had developed a well-earned reputation that reaches far beyond the area. “We have plenty of regulars, mainly weekenders,” says Cilona, “but we also get people from Hartford, Greenwich, New York. In fact, this summer was the best we’ve ever had and a lot of it has to do with social media. More people are coming for the first time because they read about us online.”
During the months they are open the pace is grueling so they take off several months a year. The restaurant is open from mid-April through Labor Day and then re-opens late September to Christmas. How far in advance can you book? “We don’t like to book more than six weeks out,” says Cilona. “But you’re usually better off if you ask for a table on Friday or Sunday.” Do they do anything special for the holidays? “Not really. Every dinner here is special.”