Magazine | July 20, 2015, Issue

The Old Order

Time is the great optometrist: It changes how we see things. It chastens fashion and stifles shock. There is no point in being up to the minute when the minute has passed, no reason to be startled by the new when it is old and worn. In mid century a mid-century aesthetic swept the city. Buildings were reduced to rectangles; skyscrapers stopped scraping the sky (they no longer had points). It was Cadillacs and Lincolns, not the buildings whose feet they purred around, that (briefly) sported fins. Everything new was to be lean and clean, crisp and straight.

A lot of these structures were just plain dull. Simple, builders realized, was also cheap, so white-brick shoeboxes stuffed with apartments sprouted up and down the East Side. Office buildings were bigger — call them steamer trunks. (People just live in those other buildings; in us, they make money.) Tom Wolfe dubbed Sixth Avenue, corporate modernism’s Stonehenge, the Rue de Regret. But time shows that sometimes everything comes right.

The entrance to the restaurant is on a midtown side street. There is a simple awning and, in inclement weather, a doorman, but it still seems small and low-down. What is this, the cat door? It opens onto a room, also small, though the walls are marble. Coats to the coat-check, then up the stairs.

Here is elbow room, though the dark wood paneling hushes it. The strategy is the opposite of Notre Dame de Chartres or the Bellagio; it says, we impress you by declining to stun you. The bar, in keeping with simple geometry, is a square. Alongside the bar is an array of tables. This is where the powerful eat, the men whose word is law. I never eat there. The restaurant has a second dining room, for the rubes and the credulous. That is where I go.

This room is a great cube. In its center is another square, a white marble pool. Once upon a time Sophia Loren fell into it and, even more important, rose, dripping, out of it. But normally nothing — neither creatures, nor sculptures — occupies it, except the water, bubbling from the sides, in a soft steady babble. Two of the walls are floor-to-ceiling windows, which produce another continuous motion. Their curtains are strands of metallic beads. The difference in temperature between inside and outside produces a slight current on the inner surface of the glass that is strong enough to make the beads ripple. Even this temple of symmetry has a shimmer.

So what is the food like? When the restaurant opened, the only high-end game in town was cuisine classique. The French, with their genius for reason and rigidity, had produced something as estimable as the alexandrine. Instead, the restaurant boldly offered its well-heeled guests local ingredients and American recipes, with a good-as-Gallic eye for detail and precision. My wife and I are easily pleased by what we decide is best. The appetizer course can be wide open — ocean-fish carpaccio, why not? Some consommé with wild mushrooms, let ’er rip. For the entrée and the dessert, we stick to what has never let us down. Farmhouse duckling is a dish for two. Serving it is a performance. Two waiters — clad in business suits — roll up a wheeled contraption, the duck surgery. There is a little flame to keep things warm until the last minute, and a tray on which Daffy gives his last bow. He is split down the breastbone, then sliced. His skin is removed and the fat beneath it scraped off, then his skin is replaced (duck lipo). Then he is sauced and served with condiments that change seasonally — wild rice, or rhubarb and strawberries. Dessert is finished only on-site — soufflés, whose flavored innards are scooped in (soufflé botox). A glass of good wine (the list is huge) — some champagne, if we’re being comped — and coffee keep hunger at bay.

When the big museum held concerts in its auditorium — they hardly do anymore, why bother when you can see Itzhak Perlman on Ed Sullivan on YouTube? — we would grab our coats while the applause still rang, bolt up the aisle, past the mummies and down the front steps, and grab a cab to midtown for a late seating at the restaurant. The crowd was thinning as we arrived, sometimes we were the last guests in the house. Not what John Winthrop or William Penn had in mind, maybe, but the Dutch who came here for the fur trade were saying, Go for it.

We went to the restaurant to please ourselves, but one night, I will confess, I was able to use my familiarity there to lord it just a bit over others. The ex-president was the star of a big-deal celebration. He spoke from a platform erected over the pool (where’s Sophia, he probably asked). I was invited by happenstance and seated in Siberia. But the business-suited waiters as they made their rounds gave me nods. I was in with the in-crowd that mattered to me.

Vulgarian has bought the building that is the restaurant’s home, and is waging war on it. He took an old modernist painting out of the hallway between the two dining rooms (it went to a historical society), then proposed changes to the layout (nixed by the lamas who oversee landmarks). Now he has said he wants the restaurant out. Vulgarian’s taste is suggested by the sculpture he has erected in the building’s plaza on the avenue side, which looks like the turds of a large dog, a malamute perhaps, only 40 feet tall.

“The old order changeth.” Tennyson’s phrase survives, if at all, as a nostalgic tag. But that’s not the end of the line: “. . . lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Was this historicism, even in the Poet Laureate? Realism? Recognizing God’s mysterious bounty? Whatever, after the lawyers and realtors have had their innings, this order, now old, will change by ending. I am happy to have tasted it.

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

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

After Obergefell

‘Just who do we think we are?” That was Chief Justice John Roberts’s plaintive query to his five colleagues — Justice Anthony Kennedy and the four liberal justices — as ...
Politics & Policy

Acceptable Jeb

The voter who passionately supports Jeb Bush’s campaign but hasn’t already written him a five-figure check is the Bigfoot of the 2016 election cycle: The species is rumored to roam ...
Politics & Policy

Hacking OPM

The year 2014 was not a great one for American security interests, from the Russian invasion of Crimea to the rise of the Islamic State and China’s creeping expansionism in ...
Politics & Policy

Take It Down

The Confederate States of America hasn’t been in operation for a century and a half. Nevertheless, after a photograph of mass murderer Dylann Roof holding a toy-sized Confederate flag flashed ...


Politics & Policy

The Long Shot

Corning, Iowa — There are 40 chairs set out in the foyer of the Corning Opera House. For the record, Corning, Iowa, does not seem like a big opera town. ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Trail of Tears

People just love Inside Out, the new Pixar entertainment, which takes place mostly inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley, after she’s uprooted and moved by her parents from ...
City Desk

The Old Order

Time is the great optometrist: It changes how we see things. It chastens fashion and stifles shock. There is no point in being up to the minute when the minute ...


Politics & Policy


Choo-choo-choosing Sides “It has now passed the point of no return. Bonds have been sold, ground has been broken. The project will go forward, and Florida will soon find out whether ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Love 1, Constitution 0. ‐ Dylann Roof killed nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, ages 26 to 87 (one was the pastor and a state senator). ...

Warning Shot

From the blog Everyday Feminism: “Everyday Feminism definitely believes in giving people a heads up about material that might provoke our reader’s trauma. However, we use the phrase ‘content warning’ ...
Politics & Policy


ORDINARY TIME Mirror of spring, the sky at morning yields Its solitudes and clouds to unseen fields As if we always knew some other place. Analysis is tricky. At six or so The light sweeps ...
Happy Warrior

Romantic Comity

For reasons that should be obvious (particularly if you’ve already read the rest of this issue of NR), this is not an ideal time to be assigned the task of ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Ten Questions for the ‘Squad’

Democratic infighting reached a fever pitch last week with bickering and personal attacks between members of the “Squad” and other House Democrats. During that period, Squad members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley mostly avoided doing interviews. However, that all ... Read More

The Rise of the Chinese-American Right

On June 13, during a nasty storm, a group of Chinese New Yorkers gathered in front of the gates of Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence on the Upper East Side, to protest. Inside, Mayor Bill de Blasio was meeting with two dozen or so representatives of the Asian-American community to discuss his ... Read More

How Beto Made Himself into White-Privilege Guy

Robert Francis O’Rourke is white. If it’s any consolation, he’s very sorry about that. “Beto” has been running from his Irish ancestry for some time now. Long before the Left fell headlong into the logical termini of its triune fascination with race, power, and privilege, O’Rourke sensed that there ... Read More
White House

The Trump Steamroller

As we settle into high summer and the period of maximum difficulty in finding anything to fill in hours of television news, especially 24/7 news television, two well-established political trends are emerging in this pre-electoral period: The president’s opponents continue to dig themselves into foxholes that ... Read More