Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Dining Out

(Sellwell/Getty Images)
Life in restaurants

I  cannot recall the first restaurant I was taken to as a child, but my best guess is that it was what was then known as a “steak house.” Chicago, city of my birth and upbringing, was then the home of the country’s largest stockyard, and so it was a very beefy city with for the most part, in those pre-cholesterol days, a beef-loving citizenry. “Miller’s Steak House,” “George Diamond’s,” “Black Angus,” “Allgauer’s” are but a few of the names of the old steak houses that stay in my memory.

A standard meal in such a restaurant might begin with a shrimp cocktail, followed by a wedge of iceberg lettuce slathered in Thousand Island dressing, a slab of prime rib with a butter- or sour-cream-soaked baked potato, with perhaps strawberry shortcake or ice cream for dessert. Wine played no part in such a meal, and concern about a healthy diet, as you will have noted, less. If this meal in those days cost more than $10 or $12, I should be surprised.

An uncle of my father’s, a heavyset, always tan, bald man named Joe Rudy, a serious bootlegger during Prohibition, a sport, a man who never greeted me when I was a kid without handing me a silver dollar, took his extended family and me with it to one such steak house, where he had reserved a private room. I, a boy of eight or nine, ordered a T-bone steak, which, when it arrived, was so large that it draped over the sides of the plate and occasioned the oohs and wows of just about everyone in the room. After that dinner, on the drive home, my mother briefly lectured me on never ordering the most expensive item on the menu when someone else is paying the bill. Dining in restaurants, I then first learned, apparently entailed not only an etiquette but an ethics.

Was it the late 1970s and early ’80s when, among the purportedly educated middle class, food and restaurants replaced movies as the main topic of conversation? Cooking, both in homes and in restaurants, became more ambitious, even exotic. One night during this time I dined at the home of the publisher of the University of Chicago Press, whose wife served small portions of sorbet between courses “to refresh our tired palates.” (A tired palate, Lord knows, can be a terrible thing.) Another night, in a restaurant in Sonoma County, the six moderately worldly people at our table could not understand four of the seven entrées on the menu. I asked our young waiter about the entrée called “alfonsino.” “Oh,” he said, “it’s a kind of snapper.” “Do you suppose,” I asked, “that ‘Alfonsino’ might have been the fish’s name?”

Restaurant dining was once viewed as an occasion. Going out for dinner relieved a woman of the duty of cooking for her family. The pleasure of eating different, and usually more interesting, food than was available at home was part of the enticement. Women wouldn’t think of going into serious restaurants in pants or shorts, men without a jacket and tie. I once took the movie director Edward Zwick to lunch at a club I belonged to in Chicago called the “Tavern Club.” He was wearing puffy, creaseless black trousers, a black silken shirt, and an unconstructed black jacket. They wouldn’t let him into the dining room unless he put on a tie from a small stock of ties kept on the premises, which he did, cheerfully enough. “When you are rich and famous in America,” my friend Hilton Kramer remarked when I recounted this to him, “you can go out in pajamas.” But you still couldn’t go into certain restaurants in those pajamas.

Dining out changed slightly when dress everywhere became more casual. The sense of quiet exultation, of occasion, departed the experience. Cassoulet, nicely underdone lamb, veal marsala don’t taste quite the same when eaten while one is wearing gym shoes.

Dining out changed again, slightly but genuinely, when waiters and waitresses turned into “servers” and the job of server became a temporary occupation for the young. The young brought an unwanted democratic tone to the task, often telling customers that what they had ordered was also their favorite dish or that they had ordered “very intelligently.”

The first waiters I can recall were émigré men who worked at a Jewish restaurant on Roosevelt Road that was favored by my parents and called “Joe Stein’s Rumanian Steak House.” The signature dish at Joe Stein’s was vast quantities of flank steak served on platters along with fried potatoes, family style. Ample plates of pickles and pickled tomatoes were set out; an ice-cream-cone-shaped scoop of chopped liver was the invariable starter. At six or seven years old I asked one of these waiters if he had pop. “Ve gots pop,” he said. When I asked what kind, he answered, “Ve gots brown and ve gots red.” Poor guy, he had no doubt escaped Hitler only to be queried about pop by a child.

Berghof’s in the Loop also had older male waiters, who lent a certain dignity to the proceedings. The restaurant, more heavily frequented at lunch than at dinner, also had a men’s-only bar. The food, a lightish variant of German cuisine, was delicious. Bar and dining room both were always packed. I went there in high anticipation and never left disappointed.

Jews and Chinese food is a story unto itself. The comedian Jackie Mason asks how come one sees so many Jews in Chinese restaurants and so few Chinese in Jewish restaurants. An old joke has it that Jewish civilization is nearly 6,000 years old, Chinese civilization nearly 4,000 years old, and so for 2,000 years the Jews went hungry. The most notable thing that Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan has said, and may ever say, was when, asked in a Senate confirmation hearing where she was one Christmas Eve, she responded, “Like all Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

In my own heavily Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park the most popular Chinese restaurant was called “Pekin House.” It served old-fashioned Cantonese-style food: chop suey, chow mein, wonton soup, egg rolls. The Chinese owner had been around Jews so long he had begun to dress and look Jewish himself. At 14 I worked for four or five weeks as a busboy at Pekin House, filling in for a friend who had gone off to summer camp. We busboys washed the vacated tables off with tepid tea. The pay was derisory, 75 cents an hour, but busboys were allowed to eat all they wished once the restaurant closed, with the exception of shrimp dishes.

Five different Jewish delicatessens were in business in my neighborhood when I was in high school. The one my friends and I favored was called “Friedman’s” and was open 24 hours every day of the week. Men would stop off for breakfast there on their way to work. My friends and I would often congregate at Friedman’s after dates or poker games, and there eat what was essentially our fourth meal of the day, often beginning with a bowl of kreplach soup. Kreplach is a meat-filled cross between a crêpe and a dumpling, and an Eastern European delicacy. “You can have too much even of kreplach,” says a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, which is one measure of the pleasure kreplach can give.

Restaurants have been the birthplace of many jokes. Of the new young people replacing traditional waiters, the joke in New York has it that if you need your server you call out “Actor,” while in Los Angeles if a young person tells you he or she is an actor, you ask, “Oh, really! At what restaurant?” Jewish-waiter jokes continue — “You wanted the matzo-ball soup, you should have ordered the mushroom-barley,” “Which of you gentlemen wanted the clean glass?” — in the absence now of actual Jewish waiters. I have always liked the story told by Goodman Ace, famous in his day as a radio writer and columnist, about the long delay he and his wife underwent awaiting their food in a pretentious French restaurant. Finally out of patience, Ace raised his hand and called out, “Gendarme.” The waiter came over and corrected him. “No, no, monsieur, you do not mean “‘gendarme,’ you mean ‘garçon.’” Ace replied, “I mean ‘gendarme.’ There’s been a hold-up in the kitchen.”

Much of what I have recounted thus far now falls under the melancholy rubric of nostalgia. Steak houses are chiefly gone, Jewish delis are on their way out, the sons and daughters of their owners forgoing the family business to become periodontists and sociologists. One wonders and worries if before long the same will not be true of the sons and daughters of family-owned Chinese restaurants. Serious waiters are a rarity. Owing to all these subtractions and alterations, the pleasures of dining out seem, somehow, less.

One nevertheless does continue to do so, often for reasons of convenience. My own preference as a gastronomic conservative is to find a few restaurants in which I am comfortable and frequent those repeatedly, usually finding a dish or two I enjoy and ordering it time and again. A favorite lunch spot for me in recent years has been a place called “Taste of Heaven” in Chicago’s largely gay neighborhood of Andersonville, also known as “Mandersonville,” denoting it is the place of choice for older gay and lesbian men and women. In a story I wrote some years ago a woman dining in Andersonville says that in an older day, when blacks or Jews moved in, people said, “There goes the neighborhood,” but when gays move in they now say, “Here comes the neighborhood.” Just so, for Andersonville is filled with good, modestly priced restaurants and interesting shops. The Taste of Heaven does rich, hearty soups and marvelous omelets, pancakes, and other breakfast food served all day long. I have come to befriend a few of the people who work there. Once a year or so the owner picks up the check for me and whomever I happen to be dining with.

I also fancy a restaurant in my own neighborhood called “Chef’s Station,” located under the tracks of a suburban train line. The food is excellent, the service provided not by servers but by older (yes) waiters never less than courteous and competent, and the place itself quiet. Quiet has itself come to be a virtue in restaurants, especially for us older players.

The noisiness is another distraction — not to say detraction — in many contemporary restaurants. Din, though, seems more and more to be the volume setting of choice. Perhaps restaurant owners and habitués feel din conveys buzz, excitement, success. I myself couldn’t eat in many of these restaurants without an ear trumpet, and cutting one’s viands while holding up the trumpet would be most difficult.

With its deep-dish pizza, ribs, Italian beef, gyros, Chicago has always been a feeder, and hence a good restaurant, town. The lower the pretension rate the better the grub, or so I have come to feel. I spoke earlier of my gastronomic conservatism, and I would add here my gastro-economic conservatism, which consists of not wanting to pay restaurant checks of $200, $300, $400, and more. This is not, please know, motivated by simple parsimony alone. The fact is, my taste buds are not worthy of such expense.

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Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

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