AS a pious reader of the New York restaurant column — the whereto-eat feature—I have often wondered at its purpose. I assume that the street address of the restaurant is given correctly by the columnist, but in other respects the column seems to represent a somewhat private relationship of mutual esteem on the part of the columnist and the places where he eats.
What handbook values are transmitted to the general public in consequence of these reports I do not know, but the situation might be worth a bit of adjustment.
No restaurant columnist, for instance, ever has reason to say a cross word about what befalls him in the places he covers. Complaints would be rank ingratitude and, worse, unjustified.
No one in all Manhattan — or in any other metropolitan area—feeds so well and so inexpensively as a restaurant columnist; no Grand Duke deigning to breakfast at Frédéric’s Tour d’Argent in its great days was accorded greater deference or more lavish victuals than the columnist commands. This is because the columnist rarely makes a meal impromptu, and never without identifying himself. A letterhead with thick overtones of publicity, putting mine host on notice about three weeks in advance of the columnist’s specimen meal, takes care of everything.
Thus apprised, the restaurant begins marketing and organizing and making ready for the feast. It may even send out for a couple of bottles of fairly good wine of which the columnist will eventually write, conscientiously: “Few wines deserve to be called ‘great,’ but no other term would do justice to the —— (date) ——(label) which genial M. ——
produced for me from his renowned cellars.” (This sentence is kept standing in type at the columnist’s paper, and all he has to do is fill in the blanks.)
The columnist’s arrival at the restaurant is attended by much ceremony; short of an escort of Hussars from Squadron A, nothing is omitted. The habitual scowl of M. Henri (né Enrico Garbanzo) becomes an abject simper. His trusted lieutenant, M. Emile (Emil Hauffenbolster), is next in the receiving line, gesturing the bus boys and indeed the other customers from the columnist’s path. A buzzer system alerts the kitchen; apéritifs in huge assortment arc trundled to the columnist’s table.
At ihe end of the meal the columnist nobly calls for the reckoning, thereby reducing M. Henri to tears of anguish. Please, Mossoo — so valued a friend of the house — privilege to serve — accept our hospitality — pleasure —
On the strength of all this, the column’s readers will be advised somewhat as follows; —
“A favorite dining place of mine is Le Cafard d’Or. Its prices are reasonable, its cuisine impeccable. I dropped in at this justly celebrated house recently and found it fully up to the standard I reported to you six months ago.
“ My old friend M. Henri gave [sic] me a superb Pâté de Rossignol by way of an appetizer, along with a Tartelette au Caviar à la Russe, Saumon Froid à la Royale, and many other pleasant things. Grenadin de Bœuf Grand Veneur—and very tasty too — fresh fruits au Kirsch, and a Cafß Brûlot comprised the rest of a delicious meal, served with all the finesse for which Le Cafard is famous.
“Few wines deserve to be called ‘great,’ but no other term would do justice to . . .”
What would happen if the columnist’s identity was a secret, if he walked into a strange place cold, ordered a big meal, and paid for it in real money? I suspect that developments of considerably more direct meaning to the average reader would ensue. Would Henri himself or Luigi himself or Herr Schmalz himself take quite so much trouble and be quite so solicitous?
The columnist ought to be a mousy little man, nondescript in dress, timid in manner. His wife would drape over the back of her chair an inexpensive fur-collared cloth coat in such a way that the label “Burdock’s — Nirvana — Ohio” would be plain to all. Mark you, they would be perfectly decent-looking citizens, these experimenters, these test pilots, but flagrantly in the Doakes tradition — just plain nobodies.
What the public needs to know is how Henri and Luigi and Herr Schmalz play up to these harmless strangers, people who come quietly into a supposedly good restaurant, looking for a fine dinner and willing to pay for it. I have a feeling that an accurate report would resemble the follow ing: -
“Dined last night at one of my favorite haunts, Le Dindon de Plaline. It took us two hours to get stools at the bar, but by eleven o’clock everybody else had left and we were given a table just outside the men’s room.
“Herr Schmalz himself, with his usual Old World manner, paid no attention to us, but he found tables for a lot of people who came in after we did. Unfortunately, the s pecialties of the house were all gone, but we were able to get some bouillon, assorted cold meats, and one portion of the renowned ‘Dindon,’ this last arriving at precisely room temperature. It was hard to tell it from the stewed chicken which Luigi dispenses to the cognoscenti just across the street at Le Perdreau d’Ormolu. Macaroons and lukewarm coffee completed another memorable evening at the Dindon de Platine. Our check, including a bottle of cheap California wine hastily ducked into a bucket of ice water, came to just $34.50.
“I’ll hope to report to you next week on the regular dinner there if they’ll let me into the place.”