Any Number Can Eat


Can a restaurant become absolutely first-rate, and remain that way, without being killed off by its own success? The next question, I suppose, would be to ask: first-rate at what? Convenience? Service? Prices? And not least, food?

The questions occurred to me recently when I was sampling a few restaurants in New York. They seemed to me wildly expensive, especially the poor ones, and most of them undertake to serve considerably more people than can sit down comfortably in the same place at the same time. This makes for fantastic congestion, virtual elbow-to-elbow seating among strangers, and it is some testimonial to the imperturbability of the customers that they can go quietly through a meal under conditions approximately those of the rush-hour subway jam: one waits in a crowd for a stool at the overcrowded bar, where one waits for a table in the overcrowded restaurant. The service deteriorates proportionately, and the individual order is often simply lost in the scramble. I found myself feeling sorry for the waiters in such a place, trying to thread their way, laden with too many portions, around too many obstructions. The ultimate risk, one supposes, is that bustle and hubbub will be proof of popularity, from which comes the belief that a quiet room, with tables decently spaced, is thereby a waning enterprise.

One restaurant that has grasped firmly the nettle of large numbers is La Fonda del Sol. This vast establishment at 123 West Fiftieth Street, whose capacity I could only guess to be a thousand or two at a time, is neither congested nor noisy, by reason of an architectural triumph through which one spacious area gives gracefully into the next. In their aggregate they might include about as much space as a football field, yet seated in any one of these lofty, beautiful rooms the visitor is agreeably unaware of the others. Scores of illuminated display cases are let into the walls and partitions, all worth a real scrutiny for the beauty and odd charm of their contents — a marvelous variety of Mexican artifacts, large and small.

There is music from time to time by an excellent mariachi group, briefly at one’s table and heard diminuendo on its course through the other rooms. The service is effective and mannerly even at the most crowded hours. The food at night is offered almost too abundantly in complete dinners of a generally Mexican character, the appetizers, soups, desserts, and varieties of coffee being uncommonly good; the entrées would perhaps be rated as Grade A Steam Table. La Fonda del Sol is not cheap, but in today’s New York it seemed to me worth the money, and the whole place makes for an interesting evening out.

An entirely different commitment, equally successful, is found at Cafe Chauveron, 139 East Fifty-third — small, quiet, unobtrusively elegant, with a classic French menu, very high prices, and truly superior food and service, almost everything being cooked to order. The only way in which such a restaurant can survive success, it seems to me, is to protect its identity by a flat refusal to overcrowd or enlarge its quarters, even though it might have to raise its prices still higher in order to remain unchanged.

Quite by chance, one day in Paris many years ago, my wife and I came upon the little restaurant of Prosper Montagne. The hour was late for a luncheon, almost too late, but the proprietor received us cordially and made us welcome. We three, I found, were the only persons there; our host was, for the moment, his own cook, waiter, and all else. There were perhaps a half dozen tables in the place.

All I knew at the time about Montagné was that he was a painter and a distinguished cook. He made some jocular remark about not having decided which was his vocation and which his hobby. I certainly did not realize that Montagné would come to be regarded by cooks all over the world as one of the great masters of the French cuisine, a name bracketed with Escoffier in the kitchens if not in the dining rooms, or that his basic innovations in basic French sauces would find acceptance as the established recipes.

Montagné put together for us a version of sole topped by a delicate soufflé, which I remember as much finer than even its exciting appearance led us to expect, and after our meal he invited us to sit down with him for coffee and a fine at his kitchen desk. He showed us with some pride his collection of cookbooks, most of them sumptuously bound in red leather. Beyond all this I remember Montagné as altogether unworldly, with the innocence and warmth of the true artist, and especially for the opinion he expressed so firmly when I asked if he proposed to enlarge his restaurant. It was a pity, I suggested, that more of those who would appreciate his cooking could not be accommodated. He gave me a kindly smile. For himself, he said, sixteen was the largest number for whom he could serve a proper meal.

I was genuinely surprised. “A dozen would be still better,” said Montagné. “To feed more I should need more cooks.” The cooking might continue to be very good, but it would not be the same. “It would not be mine,” he said.