Empty, silent; hanging on, if at all, with delivery and takeout: the city’s restaurants, its nodes of gathering, eating, and talk. For those that are long gone, for those that may be gone for good, a roll call. Names, please.
There was a time when Lutèce was the best restaurant in the city, one of the best in the country. The mere speculation, quoted in a New Yorker article by John McPhee, that they used frozen turbot was enough to cause a journalistic and culinary scandal. We went there a few times for birthdays. Once we brought my mother-in-law (b. 1912) for one of hers — her 70th? The garçon said, when my wife told him, “Ah don’t believe zat — you are sisters. Non, you are sisters.” A lie that was meant to be recognized and appreciated as a noble one: politesse.
Luchow’s, an old ethnic tourist trap, with an actual strolling oom-pah band. The food was pretty awful, except for the venison and the goose, which were excellent. It was there that I had my first Berliner Weisse. Hint to freshmen (I had to be told): Don’t drink it till they add the fruit syrup.
The Four Seasons: that cool cube, with a marble pool and the metal beaded curtains. High Modernism, which, as it aged, became the Modernism of the past. We were regulars; when the string quartet finished their last rondo at the Metropolitan Museum, we would rush to Fifth Avenue and a cab and close it down. We went during the last week it was open. At the next table sat a girl, maybe eight, with her grandmother. She, I thought, will be the last person to remember it.
Danal, East Village domain of its Franco-Israeli owner. He and his partner were opening a high-end stuff shop when his aunt said, Why don’t you serve tea? The model was Mariage Frères in the Marais. Tea became meals, and crowded out the stuff. Their coltish waitress, Jamie Comer, was so charming she was actually named in a New York Times restaurant review. It closed after fights with landlords at two locations. “My landlords were Iranians,” lamented the owner. “One was a Muslim, one was a Jew; zey were both terrorists.”
The menu of Chinatown Brasserie represented a cuisine that usually sends me running the other way: Chinese with tweaks. What’s the matter with Chinese untweaked? But a lot of their dishes were good; they served Dark and Stormys, also good; and the staff was a delight. The décor was Hollywood orientalist: circular leather upholstered booths, Chinese lanterns hanging from a high ceiling. When my wife was in the hospital with leukemia and I was spending two days every day, one in real world the other in hospital world, they sent me a dinner and comped it. We went on a summer vacation one year and came back, ready for dumplings, to find that it had closed.
I have praised and mourned the Coffee Shop. I have praised its excellent maître d’, Carlos Sosa, who on the night of 9/11 walked three miles from Union Square down to Ground Zero in the hope, vain as it turned out, that he might somehow be of help. The place was often jammed, but membership had its privileges. I was meeting my agent there once for lunch and found him on the corner, outside, trying to summon me on his smartphone. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “It’s a half-hour wait,” he said. “Let’s see,” I suggested. In we went, and were given a booth, in the back, away from the censorious eyes of the unseated. “You have juice!” my agent exclaimed. They employed a large waitstaff, of lovely young men and women. Rising rents, plus the prospect of the $15 minimum wage, finally shuttered it. Now there is a bank (thank God, the nearest was an entire block away).
Speaking of juice, National Review had a special relationship to Paone’s on 34th Street, around the corner from our old offices. What is to food as seductive is to sex? Whatever it is, that was the tone of Mr. Paone describing his specials. WFB once showed Mr. Paone his favorite gadget (Bill always had a new one): a bread-baking crock-pot. You put the dough in overnight, and in the morning, presto! fresh bread. Mr. Paone, who was clearly revolted to the depth of his soul, listened politely, deferentially; WFB was a customer, an amico, an uomo di rispetto. Besides, he probably knew from long experience that this enthusiasm too would pass. After Paone’s closed, the building stood a long time shuttered, unchanged. I noticed recently that it had finally been torn down.
There was a restaurant whose name I forget in Grand Central Terminal, at the top of the stairs on the Vanderbilt Avenue side. You could look down at the delicate little golden clock in mid floor, like a tea service; at the hurrying commuters; at the vast windows and up at the ceiling mural of constellations. There I made Terry Teachout laugh the hardest I have ever seen him (he laughs well, so this was special). I cannot repeat the remark, which was both slanderous and vulgar, except to say that one element of the punchline was Mick Jagger. The current occupant of the space is a Cipriani bar.
Around the corner from my apartment is a coffeehouse serving cookies, eggs, and sandwiches, unimaginatively named 71 Irving after its address; at its first address it was 52 Irving. I went there just before the virus hit hard; the only other patrons were a family of tourists.
We want these places for meeting friends; we want them for seeing strangers. We want them in order to be respected; we want them in order to be anonymous. Poets and prophets imagine heaven. Here is my version: an immense restaurant, compounded of all of them, with all the people I have ever known. You can meet and eat and it will never close.
This article appears as “Remembrance of Meals Past” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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