“Mocked, ridiculed and ignored”

If not for the Twitter, I might have totally missed the coffin-nailing of a restaurant every critic in the eons I’ve lived in Manhattan has felt compelled to evaluate. My first reaction as the Tweets started was: Shouldn’t that be a TONY “who goes there?” When, really, was the last time that particular circus came to town in anyone’s cognizance? So I slogged through the dis and was rather stunned that the service is the only thing four-star about it these days. Wonder what could possibly have happened to change the arrogant assholes who tapped their order pads and wondered “did you come to talk or come to eat?” and then upended chairs around us as we finished our big-deal dinner after getting suckered in by my lunch with a big-time editor at which the asshole-in-chief did some serious butt-kissing himself? So I did a little poking around online and was reminded of another young un who was disabused of the notion that the temple of haute cuisine was anything but a private club, and then I turned up a story of how that same temple is now dependent on websites offering discounts. So file this under Dover sole served cold, the incomparable Seymour Britchky in 1990 on the ringleader now reduced to kowtowing to the hoi polloi: “With his slicked-down hair and accidental face, in his surely hand-tailored but too-tight suit, [he] is not aware that, though the moneyed and the powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, he and they will be separated at the first cut.”


I was treated to a cappuccino this week by a true Southern gentleman, with the usual awkward moment in an afternoon encounter: We had needed somewhere to meet for coffee around 3, and our waiter needed to close out his dealings before we moved on ourselves. Is there no better method than having the poor guy approach the table and ask us to settle up? I was a waitress in college (and for exactly one day after dropping out and moving to Lincoln, Nebraska), and even diners (places, not people) had a rule that the customer was always a guest — a new waitress simply stepped in and turned the tip over the next day. I guess this is just another example of how computers have dehumanized the world. And I’d like to think if we had not, at my stupid suggestion, met in the dread TWC it might have been different. But, as they would never say in a city where you can linger forever: J’doubt it.

Spaghetti inverno

Who could have guessed, 25 years ago, that the top bastion of haughty attitude would one day be reduced to a sports bar? Thanks to the Twitter, I saw a shill on game day promising an open bar plus “Mama’s artichoke pizza, Tuscan fried chicken, mini burgers, Caesar salad, $50.” And that reminded me of the incomparable Seymour Britchky’s observation 20 years ago that the ringmaster was “not aware that, though the moneyed and powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, they and he will be separated at the first cut.” Wait long enough and all jerques get their due.

Heard it on Bleecker Street

I should have listened when a fromagey friend emailed to say he “wouldn’t go to Butter if a top model from the next table promised to blow me under the table.” But my consort reserved without putting me through the craziness of too much choice for my birthday, and I was so touched I went along after he said our friend who has infallible taste (in music) had suggested it. Calvin Trillin was right when he wrote that a relationship is not just about the pasta but about sharing the hell of finding the pasta restaurant. Plus I had no more compelling ideas; we’ve been eating so far down the food chain for so long that the usual “top chefs” just don’t hold much allure anymore. And to be honest, I was curious, having been to a good press lunch there and having heard the chef speak engagingly on a panel once. But Bob is very lucky he humored me with Mexican for lunch or he would have had to talk me off a 14th-floor windowsill after dinner. I can’t remember food that lame or a crowd so depressing: fat women, anorectic women, skanks, plus the odd beaten-looking guy. (Not across from my plate, though.) My image of New York is rooted more in Joan Didion than Candace Bushnell, so I will never understand why women feel compelled to head out on the town dressed like what we saw along the highway into Rome one Sunday morning, flagging down truckers for tricks. What’s most depressing is that the place was mostly empty when we got there at 7:30 (and they still tried to seat us downstairs, in what felt and looked like a rectory rec room where nothing nice happens) and getting zooey by 9 when we fled. Too late, we both admitted we had peeked at online reviews and noticed most of them didn’t mention the food, only disappointment at not seeing celebrities. And we’d both forged on because that was the reverse of our first experience at Le Cirque all those years ago. Somehow, though, I doubt the terror of cookbook publishing’s daughter is going to be running a Big Homme empire anytime soon.

North of South Beach

My consort and I have cut back so radically on going out to restaurants that choosing one can take me the better part of a day, especially when we’re hooking up with other people. Paralysis of analysis would be an understatement once I abandon my little notebook and the weekly magazines and descend into the bottomless pits of Menupages and blogs, with their Chang Kool-Aid and KFC kraziness. What I want seems pretty straightforward: Food at least more interesting than I could cook at home. Entree prices that leave some money for the elixir of life. A noise level at least slightly below Bedlam. (Why go out to talk when you can’t hear?) And Jeebus, is that one unfillable prescription. But I learned something from this latest bout of angst, when I thought back on the restaurant formerly known as Montrachet, where braying Wall Street jackasses were doing everything but peeing into the eggplant terrine just before the Eighties crash: The more buzz a restaurant gets, the less appealing it now seems. Given that heat attracts assholes and inspires attitude, trendy can wait.

You say lasagna

I must have been an elephant in a previous life. I read all the gushing online coverage of a fadeout on Central Park South and could only remember bad stuff: The first time I went, with a bunch of food photographers, and how underwhelmed we all were by the raviolo with egg and how poleaxed we were by the bill. The second time I went, at the insistence of a sommelier friend who comped me lunch, and how astonished I was to be virtually shoved against my chairback by a pissed-off owner insisting he was right and I was wrong about a piece I’d written in the NYTimes magazine about bogus Italian (my editor there, to her eternal credit, later admitted she had read his letter and sent it straight to the trash, do not pass writer). And the last time was truly the anti-charm: A neighbor who happens to move among the lawyer class wanted to indulge for Restaurant Week and I indulged her, only to find ourselves shunted off to some shitty table in the back with contemptuous waiters and fish that was already in Purgatory and really kiss-off desserts and appetizers. Every time I have walked past the place since I have wondered how it has hung on so long when it is truly the antithesis of true Italian (Italy being, of course, the country where I have eaten more often than I have anywhere but the “homeland”). But I do give him credit. He knows how to work the cyber-world. Next he’ll be hooking up with that superhero Ko-Man and banning photography.  

Strawberry butter forever

The biggest Epago on the Upper West Side has the funniest “contest” going to commemorate 20 years in a space that previously did in big stars from both California and Cajun country: Submit a favorite memory and get a whack at a gift certificate worth up to $500. (Insert your own W.C. Fields joke on the second prize here.) Most of my recollections involve waiting for the toilets in the grody basement, and I suspect those would be disqualified. I do remember dragging my brother from the Bay Area, his wife and his younger son there one long-ago summer, just because there were tables outside, and I think he has never taken me seriously on food since. If people actually celebrated wedding anniversaries in the joint, this neighborhood was in worse shape than Panchito knew. All that said, though, I heard an interesting story from a friend who just tried to eat at the hottest thing off the avenue (according to everyone but the Mighty Cuozzo) and was actually turned away from his 6:45 confirmed reservation by a maitre d’hostility who said someone had called to change it to 9:45. Where did he wind up? Epago’s upscale sister. I guess that’s why I have so little interest in the really swankola places opening up here. Assholery should require a train ride.

Beyond epago

Is it just me, or has hostility become longhand for host? My consort and I stopped at Q Bar on a whim early one evening and the suit at the front mumbled: “We have no availability.” What? That’s more verbosely ridiculous than “fully committed.” And a “sorry” wouldn’t have killed him. Then there was the teeth-clenching woman manning the door at Bouchon who looked to be one Uzi away from a postal incident. Separating the paying customers from the rigidly arranged tables in a mall can’t be any more fun than getting dressed up in a suit to stand at a silly podium and mumble all night. But if you’re that miserable-to-condescending, there are better jobs out there. Flack with spelling deficiencies, say (I got an e-release touting 10 questions for “Rachel”) or with fusion confusion (tortilla chips topped with crab, avocado and salsa are not “taco bites” — they’re nachos, for crap’s sake). And just as I was typing this, an e-mess landed that inspired a whole new verb: dracking, for catapulting the propaganda after a little too much vodka. What else would explain “fresh hunky potato salad.” Do you fork it or fuck it?

Before pain was Quotidien

I’m so old I remember when a certain mini-chain was one Tex-Mex joint downtown, and one that was best known for always making the Health Department shit list back in the days when ratings were actually reported in the papers. (The first casualty of corruption is transparency.) When a branch came to upper Broadway, I figured it had to be cleaner and went once when it opened and once in a moment of indefensible weakness. The latter encounter was memorable because the one waiter at lunch had a rather grimy bandage on his business hand and I didn’t instantly flee when I saw it. It seemed rude to run, so I ate whatever I ate and went home. And next day I was sick as a perra. The only worse experience was eons ago in Florence, when our waiter at lunch kept wiping his pimply nose — that had to be what did me in and not the horse salad my consort insisted on ordering and sharing. But all funky places come to an end, especially in New York, and so this one is no longer around to tempt the unwitting and undiscriminating. Now it’s like all the other storefronts I passed on the way home the other night, sitting empty with a huge “for rent” sign in the window (or, in the case of Aix, with the new definition of loser out front: a guy who didn’t realize the place had closed and had actually arranged to meet a date there). I just hope all the greedy landlords routing longtime tenants know we’re a long way from that elephant on CPW. Walk down Columbus with all the “apartments for rent” signs and it’s obvious what’s going up closer to home: Mastodons.

Scratch this

Every so often an obituary for the restaurant matchbook comes out, with the cause of death listed as the decline of smoking and the survivors being alternatives like miniature notepads or packs of toothpicks. Unfortunately, all those reports are premature, but if matchbooks do go the way of ashtrays it’s because they are being made so shittily. I used to collect them as souvenirs but now tote them home to light the one recalcitrant burner on my 50-something stove. And lately I’m finding they all either break instantly, don’t have enough head or friction on the box to light or are too short or too twiggy to be good for much of anything. So now rather than having something that brings back good memories, I have a reason to curse wherever I picked them up. The obvious comparison is to business cards printed with the wrong address. Both insure you will not be going back. Then again, if only souvenir T-shirts were as degradable as restaurant matches. We would never have to be visually assaulted with Hard Rocks.

Money can buy you friends

As I’ve often complained, the Upper West Side has the terrible reputation for restaurants, but its eastern equivalent is the real wasteland. Once again after PT I found myself adrift at lunchtime between 56th and 96th on the wrong side of the park, gimping from posted menu to posted menu trying to find the elusive combination of interesting and affordable. I wound up at the bar at Payard, having retained some distant memory that it was running an anniversary special, and of course was immediately put very firmly in my place for crashing a private party. Luckily the duck terrine was calling my name and I could be glad I had not settled for the $19.97 deal when the bartender went off on a rant to the regulars on how “they come in for it, but they never come back.” That led to a bitch session about Restaurant Week and how someone at San Domenico has the same complaint about one-time bargain hunters. I suspect I know why the “cheapskates” are never seen twice. Shit on them once and they won’t get fooled again. But it turns out the rich are no different. The old guy next to me started chortling that he had gone to Cafe Boulud “by accident” during Restaurant Week “and they were serving mackerel — can you imagine?” Yeah. It keeps the ignorant away.

Years ago we swung through Atlanta to visit friends who took us on a weekend expedition to a rural B&B where a 300-pound relative of the proprietor was rocking on the porch as we arrived and warning that “if I don’t eat in 30 minutes I’m gonna starve to death.” Which taught me that “Deliverance” can take many forms. The Italian translation on this trip came about an hour or so out of Fiumicino when we pulled off near Mazzano for something better than Autogrill processed crap and came across an Old West-looking restaurant where three or four people were sitting out on the veranda. The fattest of them jumped up as we locked the car and asked something starting with “mangia . . .?” We said “si” and followed her inside as she slapped on a cap and showed us to a table in a huge unlit dining room with a pizza oven on one wall and black lawn jockeys scattered around the others. She rattled off a few pastas and sauces, we nodded first at strozzapretti and then at amatriciana and she waddled off, seemingly disgusted that we did not want wine. Not long after she slapped down two plates of something toughly frittata-like topped with zucchini blossoms, plus a carafe of water, and we sawed away until a big-eyed young girl wearing a red T-shirt with a swastika on it brought bread and condiments. Then the pasta landed, two medium bowls of chewy noodles with chunks of pancetta and onion in faint tomato sauce. I sprinkled mine with grated cheese, ate a few bites and threw on a little more much-needed cheese, only to have the Dick Cheney of cooks appear and whisk it away disapprovingly. She was even more annoyed when I left behind half our shared insalata mista. I think the tab was $40US for two pastas, one salad, two coffees and all the scorn we could swallow. The printed menu I had sneaked a peek at listed pastas at 7E. Several times on this trip Bob quoted John Krich, who said when they worked on a travel story together many years ago (and I paraphrase): Getting ripped off occasionally is the price we pay for not speaking the language. And at least this time we didn’t have to squeal like pigs.