Salad bar at Applebee’s

The WSJournal had to reach all the way back to August in San Francisco to make its point that the restaurant business is waist deep in the big doody, but anyone who’s paying attention can see the strains closer to home. Relatively near me, Jonathan Waxman was obviously not enough of a flotation device for Madaleine Mae, which is becoming yet another Mexican. And when I got briefly swept up in Restaurant Week frenzy, I was able to reserve everywhere I chose, then when I called to cancel Bar Boulud for a Monday lunch I snared a Friday dinner slot with no trouble. I think it says it all that there are $4,700-plus bottles of wine on the list upstairs but empty slots in the racks in the eerily deserted downstairs. Maybe I was hallucinating, though. We could swear we saw Bernie Madoff outside, and those old people in furs could not really all have been trannies. Could they?

The bloom is off the primavera

Unfortunately, the lede was totally buried (billboard or no billboard) in the piece on the Oedipal issues at the relic in the Bloomberg building. Layoffs, selling wine to raise cash — HFS. After reading it, though, I see why one scion was so mellow in mockingly reintroducing himself as “the prick’s son” at a press event in the last couple of years. Public appearances count. Not to question any editorial judgment, but if I ruled the food world I would have gone for the circus over the sideshow as a feature. It had much meatier material than “they mug white boys, don’t they?”

First, we kill all the Realtors

Kudos to the City section for attempting to shame all those cretins I still see happily chowing down on the fruits of exploited labor at Saigon Grill. It would be one thing if the food were brilliant, or as cheap as the owners are alleged to be. But how can anyone who has seen the bugs under the flipped-over rock still patronize the place? Says it all, though, that it’s thriving while the Scharffen Berger chocolate shop just a few blocks south has thrown in the nibs. I’m no great fan of the stuff, but as far as I know no cacao growers were harmed in the production of its hot chocolate.

Diet meant Diet, though

Among the uncountable pleasures of being able to walk for blocks again is coming across street-level creativity in a city increasingly clogged with above-ground Subways. The other day I passed a Jamaican cart with different sizes of styrofoam trays attached alongside the takeout window, including “Charming, polite, little girl” and “Strong, healthy man.” Guess which one was bigger and more expensive? Clearly, the vendor was a woman who knows from dainty eaters — or at least from scarf-and-barfers.

Fish eggs, meet face

It’s hard to imagine how, in the age of print on demand and world domination by Rupert, the Page Six magazine wound up showcasing the Neptune Room just as the joint is locked away behind a sad sign. Really, how could it survive with a Mermaid Inn now so close? I guess they thought they could get by setting up “reviews” by Broadway actors who establish their expertise with stumbling assertions like “the crowd is typical Upper West Side in that there were young and old diners, but not many children.” Denial is not going to get downtowners to venture to the land of Baby Jesuses and triple-wide strollers. Especially if they all read the obit in the blogs already.

Would you like Xanax with that?

When I stopped to pick through the great bargain bins at Acker Merrill the other afternoon, the two clerks at the register were deep in debate on the newest addition to the Upper West Side Dining Wasteland. Those lines you’ve been reading about on the blogs? Not so much, apparently. I jumped in to ask how the burger compared to Fairway’s, and the guy stopped cold. “Well, it’s fast food,” he countered. Okay. Say no more. BK with strollers for Baby Jesuses is a very particular level of hell.

No curry. No hurry. No pommes frites, either.

With Panchito diverted to delusions of relevance, even the most codependent readers are probably turning more and more to alternative routes to restaurants on the series of tubes. And my advice would be to babble in fusionspeak: Caveat diner. My e-pals have so far been unanimous on a new place I would otherwise have tried in my underserved neighborhood, and it looks as if Menupages is underwhelmed as well (sample comments from both: “Manage [sic] of restaurant seems chaotic,” “Awful and expensive,” “Hope it lasts,” “WIGB? Not even on someone else’s tab”). No wonder the joint already has graffiti in its windows. But much more telling was what happened when I emailed a new friend who has gluten issues about a place that was being flogged almost to a Ko-level frenzy on the blogs. The day after she emailed back to say she had gone there before I even mentioned it, only to find it had only pasta and no pizza, one of the big boys reported it was . . . serving pizza. Even as a kid, I knew you can’t eat candy every day without sacrificing brain cells. Change that alert to Daily Cretin. 

Doonesbury meets Food & Appetit

Did you hear the one about the restaurant critic who used chefs as caterers at her wedding? Oh. Right. Now  how about an exposé of one who doesn’t lie down with freebies? Some days I truly wonder if Turd Blossom did not train with food people who blithely market cow-plop blooms as cardoons. The ones that were reportedly in the Greenmarket in July and are suddenly the fave thing for November. Yeow, indeed. 

That Seventies show

Maybe I’m losing my edge, though, because it took an astrologer friend to point out the hole big enough to drive a truck through in the elegy for a dying Jefferson Market. At a time when rent greed is running rampant, why no mention of a landlord? Do they own the space? The finger was pointed directly at the bloodsuckers in the NYPost’s piece on the end of the line for the Emerald Inn, but then that piece had a fatal flaw, too. In the mid-Eighties, I can attest, Columbus Avenue was far from “a rough stretch” of bodegas etc. It was so overrun with wannabe trendy bars and cafes and shops that it was impossible to retrieve my dry-cleaning on a Saturday; the sidewalks were mobbed. We were constantly tempted to dump buckets of water onto the sots carousing below our second-floor apartment at 72d Street. Memory is a tricky thing. But, as with Mama, you could look it up.

Apples on a cart

All that said, it was a little sad to see the table out in front of 81, laid with white linen, set with flowers and topped with menus propped up in hopes of luring in passersby. Somehow I kinda doubt $28 brunch or $39 lamb is the hooker in the Amsterdam window right now. A friend and I just passed up a place in the Village that had a sign on the door offering a penny off for each point the Dow fell — even with $7.77 discount, $25 entrees don’t look so appealing. And while I’m no fan of Beacon, I half-admire the ingenuity of its advertising its set meal not just in dollars but euros. Twenty-four sounds almost affordable.

Le Bernardin, oui, but not for the fish

Far be it from me to argue with someone who really has been chowing down for 40 years (I guess I was in second grade when she was balling Elvis). So I won’t, because I realize that might have been print’s most brazen attempt to ape blogging, posting for no other reason than to drive up traffic. Funny that two of the exactly seven comments it elicited touted Il Mulino. When Carmine’s might have been more influential.

And it still is less than a Quarter-Pounder

The best part of making time for the lunch on a day when I did not have the time to make was having my faith restored in really high-end cooking. Just a few days before I had wasted the better part of a morning trying to find a suitable mid-range destination for friends in from Portland, O., and rejecting old favorites and new possibilities alike for the usual reasons of eardrum-shattering noise levels, impossibility of reservations, cramped conditions, predictable flavor combinations and, most offensive, ridiculous prices. (Finding a doctor who takes my crappy insurance would have been quicker and easier.) My days of reveling in $30-plus entrees I could make at home are definitely over. And they will be for the next year at least, but I realize there is pricey and there is thoughtful. I’m not sure I would be able to tolerate the futziness of a real meal at the made-over grand temple of New York cuisine, let alone the crowd that can unthinkingly spring for it, but I realize afresh why those who can, do. The funny thing is that I used to ponder writing a piece about the 20 pounds that crept up on me before I had my eating habits changed the hard way: It would have been called “I didn’t get fat eating at the high end.” With brilliant food, I can just taste and stop. Mediocrity makes me keep forking through it, hoping for satisfaction. Today that would not be true. To get the full effect of a typical entree arrayed in three stops over a wide plate, you have to clean your plate.

Blame “Sex and the City”

I have seen a lot of bizarre behavior in restaurants, but not much can compare to the woman sitting at the bar at Atlantic Grill who, while her date had stepped away to make a phone call, took off her stiletto and proceeded to scrape dead skin off her heel. About a foot away from our table. In a city where you can’t walk four feet without passing a pedicure parlor. Given how the couple was acting before that, though, I guess we were only lucky he didn’t suck the polish off her toes.

Jinxed much?

A funny thing happened when a friend asked me to suggest a place to eat near “Dean and Fucking Deluca” (all caps). I dragged out the little notebook I used to diligently keep and turned to the SoHo pages and was amazed to see how many restaurants were at 199 Prince Street: Frontiere, Elysee, SoHo Cantina, Goblin Market, now Shorty’s.32. And I probably missed a few. Moleskine could run an ad campaign: The notebook that outlasts whole restaurants.

Count the silverware

On a related topic, it was more than amusing to watch the blowback when one restaurant reporter had the nerve to complain another was playing unfair. The commenters seemed to be in a wild contest to out-ignorant each other. What’s funnier is remembering what a crybaby she used to be when new joints would give their “news” first to the weekly magazines because they ran photos, and in color. Considering the Momofuku frenzy set off by the blogs, I kinda think the days when the likes of Mr. Ko could be extorted are running out.