The great pleasure of old-school dining

By Caitlin Kelly

Fogey alert!

If you consider thick white tablecloths and enormous floral arrangements and black-clad waiters who wouldn’t dream of introducing  themselves to you by name stuffy and boring….this post isn’t for you.

But if, like me, you adore a fine, old restaurant that still does things right, here’s a lovely paean to them, from The New York Times Style magazine:

In an age of studied casualness, of competitive waiting in line and chef-stalking and meal-Instagramming, of pedigreed pigs and forced intimacy with your neighbors’ elbows, it is novel to be served by a dignified career waiter in a jacket who knows his business. It is relaxing to look at a menu and (with the exception of certain démodé concoctions) know exactly what you’re getting. And most magical of all, it is astounding to be transported to a time when people not only dressed up, but also when your chair was pulled out for you and your cigarette (yes, cigarette!) was lit before it had reached your lips.

The writer, Sadie Stein, names a few old-school spots I’ve been lucky enough to eat in as well:

"The Sower," Simon & Schuster logo, ...
“The Sower,” Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— After a meeting at the offices of Simon & Schuster, on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, on a bitterly cold, wet winter’s day in 2002, I knew they were going to buy my first book. I was insanely excited but had no one, at 4:00 p.m., to share that moment with. My agent had rushed back to his office downtown. So I went into the “21” Club, at 21 West 52d,  and ordered coffee and profiteroles and sat by the fire and cherished this wonderful moment I had longed for my whole life. It was the perfect place to seal the deal.

Galatoire's Beer Dinner
Galatoire’s Beer Dinner (Photo credit: rdpeyton)

— I’ve been to Galatoire’s, a New Orleans institution, several times. The most recent, in late January 2012, was three days before I would lie on an operating room table to get a new left hip. I needed a good stiff drink and a delicious meal. What if they were among my last? I’d been in town to address a conference of liquor store owners, offering my suggestions how to hire, manage and motivate their workers, (the topic of my second book.) Galatoire’s was absolutely perfect, filled with elegance and celebration and fantastic food.

English: The main dining room of Galatoire's, ...
English: The main dining room of Galatoire’s, a noted restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I’ve only eaten (so far!) once at La Grenouille, one of Manhattan’s true legends. It opened Dec. 19, 1962 in a townhouse in midtown. We ate upstairs, at L’Ardoise, and it was amazing. Here’s my post about it, from October 2009, a celebration meal in honor of my second book sale, treated by my father visiting from Canada:

Upstairs is a narrow room, with white-painted brick walls, lit by three 20-foot-tall lead-paned windows. A huge rug in the lightest shades of yellow, cream and green. A highly polished dark wood table marks the entrance. There are only five white-tableclothed tables, with another at the top of the stairs beneath a skylight, shaded by palms. Each has a small, perfect floral arrangement. There are paintings and drawing everywhere. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many years, this was the home and studio of French painter Bernard LaMamotte — and before that, in the 1800s, the stable housing the horses of the owners of the mansion across the street, now the Cartier boutique. Those tall windows were once used to bring in hay.

It is, wrote Vanity Fair last year, “a private dining room of such beauty that one could be talked into becoming bedridden as long as one’s bed were there.”

Have you had a memorable meal in a place like this?

What was it like?

16 thoughts on “The great pleasure of old-school dining

  1. you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many

    I think such is a very enchanting atmosphere esp in many roomed old houses that have been converted to restaurants with only 3 or 4 tables per room

  2. We have a favorite fine dining restaurant in Burnaby known as the Hart House. The thirteen-acre estate on which Hart House stands was first purchased by New Westminster businessman Frederick Hart in 1906, and he commissioned a leading architect of the day, Frank Macey, to design the Tudor Revival building. The home was converted into the present day restaurant in 1988, and it was the site of our wedding reception in 2004. We try and go there at least once a year to enjoy the food and the grounds …

  3. Lucky enough to go with my beloved uncle Edgar to Le Bernardin in NYC. Unforgettable – not just the service, the food, the wine, but the magnificent
    floral arrangements. I don’t think he’d be impressed that’s what I remember most.

  4. I like to do these meals at home (as we live far from anywhere comparable…). Linens, the Georgian silver fish service (from my husband’s great-grandmother), a silver bowl of roses (in season), candles in a silver candelabrum (found in a junk-store in rural British Columbia, covered in blue wax, and lovingly cleaned to reveal the beautiful patina underneath), the Waterford crystal goblets (a birthday gift). It makes those eating the meal rise to the occasional somehow and to see the faces of those I love reflected in candlelight, eating something delicious at my table, drinking good Okanagan wine — well, a kind of heaven. Have also eaten some memorable meals in Paris and Venice and a wonderful Czech restaurant overlooking the Cabbage Market in Brno (and that overlooked by a sculpture of Mozart who played in the gorgeous Reduta Theatre at age 11…) where waiters provided perfect service and where the hours passed in a golden glow. Candlelight? Rare wine? Hard to say. Memory softens the light and makes every wine perfect.

  5. I have eaten at a few excellent dining rooms but would be hard pressed to remember the names of most of them. One I can recall was the Hotel Frederick in Endicott, New York but, chances are, it no longer exists. Actually, the meals that evoke my fondest memories are pot-luck dinners at a gathering of family and friends that we host once every fall, very often in my cleaned out shop.

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