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.