Magazine October 20, 2014, Issue

Setting the Table

Because I eat in a handful of restaurants I have come to know the various owners. Seeing them in their little kingdoms gives me a view of their ways and concerns: why menus change (always for the worse, but that is the curmudgeon’s view); internal kitchen politics (bad as donkeys vs. elephants); dealing with the public (worse than donkeys vs. elephants); internal kitchen sex politics (just keep it from becoming an epidemic, like Ebola). Every restaurant has its regulars, from faithful clients to faithful nuisances. I try to be a faithful listener.

One thing I hear about is economics. The city is full of restaurants. Young residents, raised on grazing and portable info-screens, don’t know how to cook; small kitchens make it irksome even for those who do. So restaurants — rent-a-cooks with seating — proliferate. Yet the failure rate is sky-high.

For decades Mickey made money hand over fist. His alien roots — France-Israel — gave him an accent mellowed by three continents. His food was always interesting (Franco, thank heaven, not Israeli). His eye made an interior that was both exotic and homey. Though he could fight with his staff, for he was temperamental, he was more often warm. As a result his staff was warm too. He kept people a long time, and after they left they often came back. He was the perfect host, the star of his own floor show, always on, always hospitable. His place was where my wife went when I was having abdominal surgery for cancer. As a reward for his labors he acquired a Spider Veloce, apartments here and in Florida, a mid-century ranch house in the Hamptons.

His bane unfolded in two acts. The first act was his impatience with his landlord. He had opened in a nondescript mid-block of little old buildings in the then-unfashionable East Village. Then the centurion mayor began the great cleansing, and the downtown university, founded by one of Jefferson’s cabinet secretaries and plugging along dutifully ever since, became ambitious, then hot. Neighbors went out and about more; foreigners — i.e., those who lived above 14th Street — came to visit; kids swarmed into tenements to invent dotcoms and taste la vie bohème. The new traffic sought, and was stimulated by, an array of quirky businesses, of which Mickey’s was a standout. But, as in every boom, everyone wanted a piece, and his landlord looked to raise his rent.

It was never clear whether the landlord wanted more money, or wanted to empty his little buildings to sell them to some megalandlord who would tear them down and build an apartmentsaurus over their footprints. Since the rebuilding never happened, I suspect that the landlord was dickering about money and that Mickey, had he shown a better poker face, could have made a deal. Temperament took over, however, and he moved his whole show into a new space, which was on a well-established avenue and almost twice as large. The food, the look, the staff, the charm were all there, but the monthly nut had become nutsaurus. He poured his savings into the fray, like Napoleon ordering the Old Guard to charge at Waterloo. It didn’t work for Mickey either. His restaurant went dark four years ago.

Mickey’s explanation for his story is ethnic. “I had two landlords, both Iranians. One was a Jew and one was a Moslem; they were both terrorists.” But the real explanation is the peril of the restaurant business, in which even such a high flyer can crash with one missed wingbeat. He has no plans to reopen anywhere anytime soon, but he keeps his hand in by working as a waiter on Long Island in the summer. His manner has not deserted him; wherever he works, customers imagine he must be the owner.

I also know a trio of models, who opened a place on the square. It was a pretty funky square back then — a dead department store, an old bank, cheap offices populated by photographers and artists. (The famous New Yorker artist had a studio there, and drew the denizens — winos with mouths like grillwork; hookers with booty, boots, and cat heads.) The models bought a coffee shop, changed it from Gotham Greek to Brazil North, and staffed it with young, lightly dressed women. The menu was pleasant, the place was fun, they too made money hand over fist. The square turned from an urban armpit into a little jewel. The city watered the grass, replanted the bushes, took care of the stately trees. The transformation was sealed by tragedy. After 9/11 the square, far enough from the attack not to be sealed off, close enough to smell it, became the scene of talk, mourning, collective urban psychoanalysis.

Now the old artist — he died years ago — would have to work hard to make the square grotesque. It is populated by nannies with strollers, shoppers at the farmers’ market, guys offering to play chess, white collars on lunch break, foreigners — i.e., people from foreign countries — studying guidebooks. The odd runaway or Hare Krishna seems like a condiment. This summer the new thing was young men at dusk selling little lighted twirlies that you shot up into the air and watched descend like happy drones.

And naturally it is time for these landlords to reap their reward. The models got a lease with a raise of 50 percent. Who can pay that money? I asked. Chains, willing to take a loss in order to have a spot on the new omphalos. The models say they are sticking it out, at least for a while. If they don’t I will starve.

But still, people strive and dream. The models’ maître d’ is a young Dominican, for whom slim fit was made. He told me recently he and his girlfriend were thinking of opening a pizzeria. Really? They were making dough the other night, they had the best tomatoes, it was so good . . .

Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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