With former president Bill Clinton settled into his new headquarters on New York’s 125th Street, in central Harlem, the danger for the culinary crowd is that he may now take to hanging out at Sylvia’s, the famous soul-food restaurant barely three blocks away on Lenox Avenue near 126th.
For almost 40 years, the family-owned restaurant has been celebrated for its homestyle meatloaf, spare ribs, candied sweet potatoes, and other dishes long popular with black diners. The possibility that Clinton—inveterate, self-professed know-it-all—might feel compelled to offer advice on the menu should strike terror into the hearts of the management (one or two of whom are actually Republicans) since, with Bubba’s involvement, Lord only knows what might happen. Pretending to do research for his rumored TV cooking show, “The Recidivist Gourmet,” he may suggest that the collards be replaced by something of dubious origin called “Castle Grande Greens” and that the restaurant be compelled, perhaps under threat of an IRS audit, to buy all its chickens directly from his pal Don Tyson, who will begin turning up in New York unannounced, clamoring for free drinks at the bar.
This cannot be good. As with popular television shows, a change in concept, even when heralded as “evolution,” generally brings with it declining ratings and ultimate disaster. And in New York City, where restaurants serve additionally as clubhouses for business and social gatherings, no one wants to treat his guests to lunch at a place whose fortunes are suddenly in a nosedive because of bad advice from outsiders. Fortunately, a top-quality chef such as Jean-Jacques Rachou, owner of the classic La Cote Basque, would not put up with Jean-Marie Le Pen heckling his dessert chef with “suggestions,” nor would Danny Meyer, owner of several popular Flatiron area restaurants, including The Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, take kindly to demands, from the likes of Bob Guccione and James Brown, that he hire an accordionist to work the happy-hour crowd. A successful restaurateur, even if suddenly presented with the personal sauce recipes of Pope Urban VIII—and the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 was hardly a noteworthy era for sauces—knows that, with his reputation on the line, it is best to beware.
There is an unverifiable rumor, passed down through generations of literary critics like some precious nugget of information known only to initiates of the Order of the Knights of St. John, that the renowned Greek writer Plutarch, during a cocktail party in Thessaloniki in A.D. 91, scrawled on a bar napkin the words: “If that little pimp of a restaurant-garage attendant puts one more dent in my Studebaker, I’m taking him down!” Is this the forgotten stuff of legend? Apocryphal? In the same category as Noam Chomsky’s delusions about Cambodia or September 11?
Perhaps, but consider this: What if Plutarch’s puzzling comment referred to the fact that, in the restaurant game as in many other areas, the presence of the celebrity, the odd man out, was actually bad for business? When, in late spring 2001, the restaurant Ouest opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to excellent reviews, the legitimate gourmet clientele was quickly infiltrated by starlets, Kato Kaelin look-alikes, and near-bankrupt dot-com moguls, all wanting to be seen at a classy new spot and, no doubt, unnerving to the serious diners. And, sure enough, among the newcomers was former First Predator Bill Clinton, who turned up with a party that included his wife the senator and whose rumored after-dinner discussion with the manager, over what was reported to be several bottles of Clinton’s personal stock of Hamm’s Beer, created considerable gossip. Were they swapping barbecue recipes? Chuckling over stories of youthful girl-chasing escapades? Or, on a more sinister note, might Bubba have been counseling a wholesale overhaul of the decor to make it resemble one of his favorite Hot Springs watering holes of the 1960’s? The lesson for all restaurant professionals to bear in mind is that the food must always be most important above all else, with schmoozing of celebrities a very distant second. To put it another way, while you are out front hobnobbing with Phil Rizzuto and Cher, in the kitchen, the sous-chef might be tampering with the Bearnaise sauce behind your back and betting on the ponies with your delivery-boy tip money.
Today, even for a management team with good sense, running a restaurant in New York City is more perilous than ever. For one thing, relying on celebrities to provide trendiness has its drawbacks, among them the extraordinary liquor bills some of them can run up in the course of a single evening and, perhaps worse, the fact that a devoted clientele may disappear completely if someone famous is seen anywhere near the front window of a rival’s bistro. Virtually overnight, a room that might have entertained, in a single evening, Donald Trump, Alan Greenspan, and Sigourney Weaver is reduced to a backwater where one is forced to share a banquette with Scott Baio, Sergeant Flynn from the Fifth Precinct, and retired stagehands from The George Gobel Show. Whenever that happens, it is not long before the owner is deputizing members of his wait staff to hand-deliver frozen pizzas to rap stars’ bodyguards backstage at the Hucklebuck Lounge and changing the name of his own place every other weekend to throw food critics with drinking problems off the scent.
Leaving aside the erratic sensibilities and uncertain personal hygiene of some restaurant reviewers, the process of deciding what and where to eat in New York City has become immensely complicated, with countless possibilities for humiliation, disgrace, and, in the worst-case scenario, ptomaine. Even those social commentators who lament the passing of the era of elaborate socialite dinner parties in one’s own home for a small circle of 600 friends realize that, today, preparing dinner for a tiny group of six brings with it enough reflection, preparation, and anxiety to induce night sweats in each and every negotiator at a Kosovo peace conference. There are too many crucial determinations to be made—imagining, for example, the near riot that would ensue should a closeted vegan on the guest list encounter a serving of squab might, of itself, prompt a host to scrap the whole idea, phone the nearest kebab house, and squire the whole crew downtown for a fine meal of sweet-and-sour goat. Yet the “essential question,” to use the great fraud Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite catch-all description, is that restaurant dining brings an even more intricate set of questions. Not just type of cuisine but neighborhood, decor, placement of table and seat, and even dress are all key decisions. During the 1970’s, it was common to see, in the classiest restaurants, bar patrons clad in jeans, sandals, and T-shirts inscribed with such bons mots as “I Kayaked the Mekong With Abbie Hoffman and He’s My Friend”; today, however, the fashion statement at the best eateries has shifted back to more traditional outfits—or at least coat and tie for men, certainly enough to spook that member of the entourage who cannot wait to rush home from the office to change into deadbeat attire. And if the possibility of a guest’s aversion to meat, fish, poultry, dairy products—indeed, anything less “organic” than seaweed—is not enough to paralyze everyone with indecision, there remains always, hovering in the air like a colorless and odorless deadly gas, the ongoing row over smoking—the likelihood that, 80 feet across a well-ventilated room, a dowdy, self-righteous harridan lurks, possibly armed and certainly ready to denounce at top volume any flagrant assault on her health by a member of the oppressive patriarchal brotherhood. In this situation, not even the owner gets off the hook, reduced to sneaking an occasional Guatemalan cigar outside his own kitchen door, next to discarded fish scales and piles of trampled broccoli.
There are many variables to consider: Is a certain type of cuisine suddenly very trendy? Do you choose the type of cuisine first and then decide on a neighborhood and restaurant that suits? Or get everyone all fired up for a pilgrimage to Soho, Tribeca, or Little Italy and then prowl the streets upon arrival, looking for that Zimbabwean fish restaurant that appeals to all—the flounder, the bream, the xindook, all things of beauty and prepared personally by the owner, Fondu Salaam, whose name could be translated as “cheese of peace” (although, with that fillet knife in his belt, perhaps it is better not to remind him). And even if everyone can finally agree on a certain restaurant, the chosen place might be jammed with raucous merrymakers swilling Old Milwaukee or raki or some unmentionable liqueur made from parrot droppings, necessitating a bribe to a haughty maitre d’ with the improbable name of Rauf—by day, a struggling performance artist—and then a modest wait of 75 minutes before seating. Yet, even with these many imponderables, some of the old reliables of cuisine are still venerated: the snails, the moules, the scampi, the 45-ounce New York sirloin, the 26 different mysterious condiments at Indian restaurants—and the winners seem still to be French, Italian, and, more recently, a type of vaguely Continental cuisine with even vaguer Asian influences.
Thus, for many, the first decision to be made, before setting out for the evening, becomes a choice between a real Italian or French meal or a type of hybrid cuisine prepared at a new and unheralded room by a chef just in from a lesser position in Scottsdale, Tegucigalpa, or Rangoon, and whose stock in trade turns out to be a peanut-lime chipotle sauce drizzled over everything, including the chocolate mousse cake. The “influences” so dear to gourmet chefs and writers about food are, in some cases, precisely those elements likely to reduce someone in the party to a gagging, snivelling wreck incapable of digesting anything stronger than Mylanta and tap water for 72 hours.
Whatever the general consensus on type of cuisine, the next step is to go about choosing a spot and, more precisely, a strategy most likely to get everyone in the front door. Perhaps the plan is to scan the newspapers, attempt through subterfuge or outright intimidation to weasel a reservation at the newest hot-spot and catch the buzz of newly anointed genius. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you strike quickly, so that you are still riding the establishment’s hot streak on the night of the meal itself. The celebrated New Yorker critic A.J. Liebling once wrote of a Frenchman whose Westchester bistro had declined to such an extent by the following Fourth of July that the featured entree was jellied oysters dyed red, white, and blue: The host, despondent over the outrageous amounts of alcohol consumed by the clientele before dinner, had developed the attitude that “at least they’re aware of that, the colors attract their attention.”
Comedian Jackie Mason once commented that the only reason to go to the ballet is to come home from the ballet and tell everyone that you have been to the ballet. Even there, to many of the elite, the critical issue is the location of your seat, whereas a real baseball fan would relish being at any game at Yankee Stadium even if he had to watch through heavy lenses from the rear of Section 38, in the left-field upper deck. The restaurant crowd in New York, however, does not deal well with this type of thing: Any attempt to seat one of the “ladies who lunch” at a rear table near the kitchen, or too close to the front door, or next to a couple dressed like Vikings will prompt immediate phone calls to Liz Smith and Cindy Adams, and the resulting abuse could be enough to sink the business right there. For this type of diner, the most important element is not the quality of the gigot nor the consistency of the creme brulee but the perfect color scheme of tablecloths, napkins, floral arrangements, blouses, scarves, and Bermuda bags. Everything else is secondary.
Dining out is complicated and expensive enough without the added burden of pleasing all in the party whose tastes involve criteria as dissimilar as type of food, location, and prominence—although not necessarily quality—of restaurant, decor, expense, and size of portion. For every running mate with a genuine fondness for good food in attractive surroundings, there may be a chum whose only preoccupation, beyond never being forced to dine south of 59th Street, is a serving large enough to require not one but two doggy bags in order to get home to the apartment with leftovers sufficient for two nights of nonstop television watching, after putting away enough goodies during the meal itself to treat the entire homeless population of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to an excellent Easter supper.
Unfortunately, in today’s New York City, the fragmentation of social and cultural rituals has also placed a great strain on friendship, and, where meals are concerned, there are strange new opportunities for misunderstandings. Every city dweller has a story about the type of acquaintance who usually eats a solitary meal at home, wolfing down Chinese take-out from a cardboard box with plastic cutlery, and who, reciprocating for an earlier invitation to a delicious dinner in a well-appointed restaurant, drags his guests to a seedy beanery where coupons from a supermarket handout are exchanged for plates of warmed-over tapas, the barman’s name is not Andre or Jean-Louis but Iggy—by day, a struggling performance artist—the house white wine is decanted from what resembles a 55-gallon drum labeled “Iggy’s House White Wine,” and the dessert menu reads like a document captured during a raid on Al Qaeda headquarters in Kermanshah, Iran: “choice of 22 flammable items, no substitutions.” The modern social scene also involves an altered concept of hospitality, sometimes because of a host’s refusal to tidy up his apartment before the arrival of guests, forcing them to sit surrounded by irascible one-eyed cats the size of pumas, yellowing newspapers from 1928, and a personally annotated baseball-card collection from the 1950’s. Friends of this type of reluctant host should prepare for impromptu calls to an evening at McDonald’s, where the ringleader can munch Big Macs and gobble greasy fries out of waxed paper, not even up to the level of the roundtables at the coffee shop on Seinfeld.
Years ago, a diner could count on various ethnic neighborhoods with many restaurants of varying quality and comfort, and there are still Chinatown and Little Italy—Southern Italian restaurants on the north side of Mulberry Street, Northern Italian restaurants on the south side of Mulberry (a little insiders’ joke to confuse the tourists). In the New York of the new millennium, though, there are not many other such enclaves except for small areas like Little Senegal, around 110th Street and Amsterdam, or Little Brazil, along West 45th Street. The string of Greek restaurants that, years ago, sat along Ninth Avenue in the 20’s has disappeared, and there is not much left of the small Ukrainian section in the East Village, though there is talk of a proposed strip along Avenue “D” nearby to be known informally as “Little Paraguay,” where confidantes of deposed dictators Alfredo Stroessner and Andres Rodriguez allegedly plan to build a large complex with colorful ethnic restaurants, lively dance halls, and shops where some of the old palace guard will sell handicrafts and hang out drinking 170-proof tequila distilled from the larvae of indigenous up-country moths.
Perhaps it is a good thing that today, on the other hand, there are restaurants of all types scattered all over town—not merely French and Italian and that mysterious Continental-Asian but Egyptian, Armenian, Turkish, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Indonesian, and many other national cuisines. A discriminating diner does not need to play hooky from the office, stalking the South Bronx or Bensonhurst to locate a Bolivian neighborhood in which to sample choice native goodies, but can, instead, find a perfectly decent plate of hummus during a drinking bout at the upstairs bar at Sultan Mehmed’s Mosque, just around the corner from F.A.O. Schwartz, or an excellent Italian meal just about anywhere in surroundings populated by extras from the closing mob-conference scene in the Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal comedy Analyze This. Whatever your tastes, though, there is no denying that the New York dining scene in 2002 is eclectic, with such a variety of dining spots that it is possible to eat at a different place every night. Such a campaign would be good for the restaurants, for the diners, and especially for the horde of personal trainers brought in to instruct the perpetually hungry on how to burn off the millions of extra calories. The most difficult part of dining in New York these days, apart from the extra money necessary to pay the horrendous credit-card bills, is keeping track of those haunted locations where no restaurant of any type ever succeeds, where eventually the realtor’s sign, placed in a darkened front window after the latest fiasco, is amended to read “No Food.”
Beppo’s. Formerly Giulio’s. Formerly Nunzio’s. This is never good.