Politics & Policy

Palace of Flesh

Straight talk about Dining out.

Like a great many New York Times readers who cook, or not, I often scan the Wednesday Dining section for useful recipes and interesting restaurant reviews. Imagine my surprise to find that this week’s major review — on the section’s front page, no less, is of a steakhouse located in a strip club. So, right off you know that the point of the review is an exercise in humor and titillation, and not an evaluation of the quality and value of the steak or the dining experience. But wait — T&A with your bourbon and beef is just so old hat. So some clever editor must have thought it would be a whole new thing to send the Times’s very “out” gay restaurant critic, Frank Bruni to write about the meat at the Penthouse club.

Bruni and three male friends, whom he describes as “less susceptible to the scenery than other men might be, more aroused by the side dishes than the sideshow,” pay several visits to the place, the better to observe the “underdressed, overexposed women,” (to collect lascivious anecdotes to pad out the story, that is) and to ascertain how the degree of charring on the steaks compares to other steakhouses. Guess which gets more attention.

In between deciding that the steaks are very good and the sides are ordinary, (at “topless” prices, natch…) Bruni finds a way to incorporate many double entrendres where some variant of the word “meat” doubles for female flesh: “more than one kind of seductive flesh,” “the saucy spectacle accessorizing these steaks…” Instead of thinking, “rich, charred steak, yum,” the words “tired” and “puerile” come to mind.

Who is the presumed audience for this review? Men who like strip clubs don’t go for the food. Women go rarely if at all — to some extent this is probably true at traditional steakhouses where everyone is clothed, too. Steakhouse aficionados have other options — dozens, since steakhouses are very fashionable at the moment. This is not, of course, a review. It is an excuse for coy phrasing: “I gathered three friends for an initial trip. (Dare I call it a maiden voyage?)” You don’t want to tell us about your “maiden voyage” Frank, because virginity is not an asset in a professional reviewer. Nor is the embarrassed sniggering of a teenage boy an interesting tone. All of which should illustrate the folly in this gimmick of sending a gay reporter to make fun of strippers.

This piece actually makes you long for an old-fashioned shrill feminist expose of the economic conditions, or oppressive social constructs, or whatever, that entice young women to earn their living in this manner. And who has ever longed for that? Anything but this.

Indeed, forced to consider what I really think about steakhouses where men pay extra to have pretty girls flatter them with sexually suggestive banter and exposed breasts, I have concluded that I really don’t want to know the details. I wish to think better of men in general than this allows. Anyway, I know enough. At this late date, is there someone who has missed the fact that strip clubs abound? That some men will pay extra for sex, or some facsimile thereof? And if I wanted more information, which, again, I do not, a “sophisticated” men’s magazine like Esquire would be the way to go — not the food pages of the newspaper of record, and not from a reporter who needs to keep telling me that, because he is gay, he is above this sort of thing. That is just an extra layer of information I don’t want to process with my coffee.

Note to Times Editors: I don’t want to think about yucky commercial sex when I am mindlessly looking for recipes my kids would like, or deciding whether I am bored enough to read about Paula Dean’s life and mayonnaise issues, let alone someone’s twee meditation on broccoli rabe ravioli. Who do you think reads the Dining section, anyway? Lacrosse players?

The thing about Bruni is that in general he is a very good reporter. He was thoughtful and relatively fair on politics, colorful from Italy, and useful as a restaurant critic because his tastes are those of a normal New York foodie, and not pretentious or esoteric. And his writing is usually quite straightforward and unself-conscious. As a rule I believe him. Oh well…

As it happens, Bruni is in the middle of a conflict with another steakhouse owner, whose place he recently panned. The other owner, a Jeffrey Chodorow, last week took out a full page, $41,000 ad making the case that Bruni’s review was arbitrary and spurious, not merely subjective. He pointed out that, as a rule Times restaurant reviewers have no particular training about either food or the restaurant business — and yet a negative review can kill a new restaurant. That much is incontestably true. (Whether or not Chodorow’s restaurant is any good is less clear.) Restaurant reviews exist because restaurants are big business in New York — and Times critics do have that kind of power, more or less. Given that, it is harder still to fathom what motive that the Times could have for letting their review column be used for this adolescent joke, instead of for the business — or art — of criticism useful to the general restaurant going public. Forget credibility. Stunts like this go some way toward illustrating why the share prices of Times stock keep falling steadily.

Strippers are what they are, and the men who pay for their services are arguably a sadder lot still. But, at the end of this piece it is the writer who most needs to recover his dignity.

– Lisa Schiffren is a writer in New York.

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