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:
— 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.
— 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.
— 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?
I finally ate yesterday at the Standard Grill, one of Manhattan’s trendiest restaurants — the scene at the front door a dazzling blur of entitlement, of leopard coats and Goyard handbags and great jewelry and the set jaw of the people who expect everything now having to actually wait a few minutes for their pleasure.
But it was worth it. I’d made a reservation five days earlier, sitting on hold for 10 minutes, to meet a young friend there visiting from Ottawa. He’s a stylish guy and I knew this would be a good fit.
(One of the greatest pleasures of living in New York is deciding which bar or restaurant to take someone to who is visiting from elsewhere; tonight we’re heading to Toloache, our favorite midtown restaurant, which is a gorgeous room, serves amazing, fresh small margaritas and serves beautiful Mexican food. Our guests tonight are friends from small-town Rhode Island, an artist and her professor husband.)
Our lunch was perfect, as much for the waiter’s patience as for the food and ambience — the penny tile on the floor actually was pennies. We had only met once before, last July in Vancouver, and we are still getting to know one another. Plus we’re both journos, both Canadian and love to read. I think we must have talked for at least half an hour before we even ordered.
The food was simple but good, and my martini blessedly powerful. We suddenly noticed the lights changing — and, having met at 1:00, it was now 4:40 and the sky outside was darkening.
My lunch companion was a young man half my age, someone (yay!) whom I recently found a job for through — who else? — a man who took over my Montreal apartment in 1988 and found me this summer on LinkedIn. We met on-line as bloggers for the same site, now defunct, and decided to have dinner when I visited B.C.
As someone self-employed, a long lunch and lazy afternoon are my best work-related “benefits” — not a 401(k) match or paid sick days — but the ability, when and where possible, to savor a great leisurely meal in lovely surroundings with someone whose company and conversation I enjoy.
One new friend, who lost her job two months ago, meets me once a week at a local diner where we catch up. She is OK financially, if bored and restless, and only now — now that she has time to sit and relax and not rush off — are we finally getting to know another.
Time to enjoy one another has become the ultimate luxury.
Do you ever take long, lazy lunches? Who do you have them with, and where? What do you eat?
I went out for dinner on Thursday with my colleagues on the board of a writers’ group. We ate at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, set menu: salad, steak, a piece of cheesecake the size of a foot for dessert. I ate strawberries instead, watching the man beside me dip large, multiple pieces of bread into olive oil. Everyone drank a lot of very good red wine, not allowed to me for another three weeks.
Lessons learned, so far:
You can say no to anything. You may have to say it loudly, and forcefully and repeatedly when out in public or at a restaurant — as I did last night when offered a fistful of succulent (off-limits) Peking Duck. Ditto, the rice.
A teaspoonful of peanut butter starts to resemble some sort of divinity.
Lean protein really makes you feel very full for a long time.
Doing almost no exercise at all (still awaiting clearance post-arthritis flare-up) I see a difference in two weeks: pants are much looser. So (weeps the sweetie) is my bra.
Carrying the right amounts of prescribed food (a measured bag of almonds, a 2-ounce piece of cheese) with you helps when you are so hungry you are ready to eat your arm.
Whining about the rigors of this regime has its benefits — people have been kind and supportive and offered me tips and special low-calorie, low-carb foods I didn’t know about. I now have the name of a friend’s smart, kind nutritionist. She’s in California but you learn to value expertise where you can find it.
Cups of very good tea or a creamy (skim milk) cappuccino are satisfying. They are not a martini or cheesecake, sorry to say, but they are both safely soothing and familiar.
Imagine a television show on a major American network in which AIDS victims were paraded in front of the cameras and hectored by ultra-conservative evangelical ministers. The ministers inform the victims that they are being punished for their “decadence” and “hedonism.” Or perhaps a different program – one centered on people dying an agonizing death from lung cancer. They’d have cameras shoved in their faces as anti-smoking campaigners told them that if they wanted sympathy, well, tough. After all, they should never have smoked in the first place! Or, best of all, how about a show concerned with fat people. A chef from a foreign country would come stateside and lecture the citizens of America’s “most obese city” about how their unhealthy eating habits are going to consign them and their children to an early grave. This infantalizing message would be accompanied by lots and lots of camera shots lingering on the fatties’ rolls of flesh.
This week, kicking and screaming like a three-year-old who really needed a nap, I went to see a dietitian who put me on a severely restricted diet, on doctor’s orders. I don’t look obsese to most people. Curvy, yes. Definitely a candidate to shed some weight. I’ve gone into surgery more eagerly.
As Jamie Oliver is learning with his ABC television show, getting anyone to change what they eat — size, portions, taste, fat, salt, sugar — is a task far more complex than it appears. Set aside his show and the drama of battling school bureaucrats. Our emotional relationship to food and drink is like some tenacious desert plant, its wiry, tough roots buried deep in our psyches.
We eat what we eat, whether sipping, swallowing or gulping, for many many reasons, some unconscious.
Here’s what happened today at lunch. I ordered a small Caesar salad with grilled no-sauce chicken and a Diet Coke. I’m allowed, for that meal, two cups of salad and 2 tablespoons of oil and vinegar and 6 ounces of lean protein. No starches. I brought (hidden beside me, I ate alone) a measuring cup and set of measuring spoons. Waiters stared. I didn’t care.
The small salad, in our local Greek restaurant, was four cups of lettuce. It also had croutons that looked fried. A huge plate of fresh pita bread — I love warm pita! — dropped onto the table. A thick dish of creamy sauce. I had both taken away.
Were I my usual weary, distracted self, reading a newspaper or magazine or deep in conversation with a friend, I could easily have eaten both, inhaling a delicious 500 extra calories, all while eating “healthy” food. In only one meal.
My diet, for now, is about 1700 calories a day. Sounds like a lot to me. Hah! Hunger is now a constant companion. It’s like a little dog gnawing on my ankles, day and night. I’d like to drop-kick it across the room, (not a dog, the discomfort), and have two more weeks to go.
Millions of people today would be desperately thrilled to have access to half these calories.
We need to acknowledge to ourselves — our kids, our doctors, our mirrors, our fridges and grocery carts — that food is not simply fuel. We cling to it, and savor it and gobble it and gorge on it, for many reasons:
Culture: For many people, certain foods mean “home”, whether the fat-marbled smoked meat sandwiches Montreal is famous for; the creamy hummus of the Middle East; the flaky delight of a burek or baklava or croissant. It brings us, with every bite, closer to our country or culture of origin, in a nation of immigrants, no small thing.
Family: Feeding your family is the most primal act we commit, from the moment the baby latches onto the breast to deathbed purees.
Love: There are few easier, quicker, more affordable ways to show your love for someone than to cook them a meal, whether chicken soup or a birthday cake. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” women are told. And it is.
Memory: For my friend Dalina, it’s her Nana’s spaghetti sauce. For others, their mother’s pie or uncle’s barbecue. For my partner, who grew up in the Southwest, his late Mom’s posole. My Dad always adds fresh apple to his salads so when I do it I think of him. (I also do it when I sip a great glass of Scotch.)
Pleasure: In a time of terrible financial difficulty for millions of Americans, food and drink remain, for the fortunate, a ready and cheap source of refuge and comfort. If the fridge or cupboards are full, so, too will be our belly, if not our gas tank or bank account. The salty crunch of a fresh potato chip or the creamy smoothness of a rice pudding — bad for you!!! –– carry tremendous allure when everything else is simply too damn expensive right now.
For low-income families, “right now” can be a lifetime.
Yes, I know and I agree — everyone needs to make wise(r) choices, eat small(er) portions, stop choosing to consume fried crap crammed with chemicals and color and sugar and salt. Have you tried to buy a loaf of commercially made bread withno added sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Good luck!
The United States — unlike France, Germany, Canada, Japan — was founded by Puritans. People not, perhaps, wild about the sensual pleasures of the flesh. Consider this in the finger-wagging culture that mistakenly and punitively conflates the size of your ass with the value of your soul.
I am now doing physical therapy for my arthritic hip at an upscale health club. The parking lot, at 9:00 a.m, is so packed I can hardly find a space, jammed with Range Rovers and Mercedes and BMWs as dozens of lean, ropy women head inside for yoga or a class or a workout. They are not, clearly, distracted from their goals by a long commute or a job. It’s a lot easier to be skinny and nauseated by fatties when you’ve got hours to burn off every calorie that goes into your mouth.
The cheap easy rush — sort of an addictive sugar high, really — of loathing fat people needs to be moderated by compassion.
Some fat people have no money. Some work three jobs and have little time to find and cook fresh foods with the lowest calories. Their local stores or bodegas may not stock the right foods and drinks. They work weird hours and/or it may be dark, cold or too dangerous in their neighborhood before or after work to even go out for a healthy, vigorous walk. A gym or health club can cost a shocking amount; our small, crowded, worn suburban Y charges more than $80/month for a family membership. That’s not cheap.
And who will watch your kids?
Too many people are forced to gulp (!) meals at their desks, shoveling food into their faces as fast as possible to avoid looking slack or weak — someone who can be fired. Many are constrained by physical pain or injury — I haven’t been able to exercise since January. To the ignorant and judgmental observer, I’m PiggyGirl — clearly someone with zero awareness of how she eats, obviously overweight from (not), snarfing Twinkies and double cheeseburgers.
When some of us can’t even cross a room without agony, and 46 million Americans suffer from some form of athritis, (only aggravated by obesity), it’s time for the skinnies to lay down their self-righteous whips.
The next time you feel like sneering at a fat person, whether their flesh is jammed up against yours on a bus or airplane, or on TV or at the gym, ask yourself why.
Today’s New York Times’ Dining section has a fun piece about where New Yorkers are going on dates these days, especially those deal-making, or breaking, first dates. The trend is toward casual, fun, paper-napkins, sit-at-the-bar bistros where you know the tab won’t make you feel crummy if, by the appetizers, you know this is also probably also going to be the last date.
My sweetie (10 years so far) took me to Le Madeleine, a now-closed, beloved (sob) French restaurant on West 44th., then not far from his newspaper workplace. I remember the room and the waiter and what my guy wore. I don’t remember the food, but the ambiance was perfect: quiet, a lovely room, tables far enough apart for privacy. Our subsequent restaurant dates were almost always French bistros, which suited me fine as a Francophile who prefers elegance to paper napkins. Since then, we’ve eaten everything from road food in New Mexico to goulash at our favorite Toronto spot, Prague. Yes, we do love to eat.
Where your would-be lover takes you for a first (or subsequent) date can set the tone for many more shared meals — or wreck it for good. Maybe she’s nasty to the waiter or he cheaps out on the tip. Maybe they chew with their mouth open or yammer on their cellphone. Maybe a $35 steak seems too ostentatious, while a hot dog in the stands (yes, one of my dates extended himself only that far) looks just mingy.
Where do you take your dates? What makes those restaurants or bars work for you?
Do you care if your burger is gulped down in a cool-looking space?
Burger King is re-vamping its restaurants to look edgier and more industrial. Designed! While only one-third of its customers now eat sitting down (versus take-out or drive-through), those who’ve made the upgrades are seeing a 15 to 30 percent jump in sales as a result. For those of us who care about design, this is great news.
As someone much happier handing my cash to those who actually offer me attractive spaces in which to spend my hard-earned dough — Anthropologie, yes, Wal-Mart, no — I think this idea is way overdue. Why does consuming even a quick, cheap meal need to be done in an ugly-but-easy-to-clean dump? Starbucks, for all their risible “individuality” offer the trifecta, for me, of comfortable seating, low lighting, art on the walls — and affordable, quick meals.