That Old Feeling: Three Reasons to Love New York

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Manhattan is a tiny island and a big idea. A big old idea: the world’s corporate center, but where day-to-day commerce is intimate and defiantly anachronistic. A resident loves that gasp of surprise from visitors when they hear that most New Yorkers get to work by public transportation and shop at family-owned grocery stores. Think of it: we have no Wal-Mart.

Another old-fashioned idea is our town’s blend of elegance and energy. For all the honking of horns and the purported braying of the locals, poise still counts here. You can find it — at least, I did — in a restaurant critic’s prose, in the lift a Broadway show can give to Generation Z, in the legendary grace embodied by a Manhattan baby of the Golden Age.

In three short columns, I’ll be writing about people you should know, impulses worth celebrating.



A NICHE FOR BRITCHKY

Few names could be less elegant than Seymour Britchky. It should belong to the rotten smart kid in third grade, or the accountant who just smiled as he told you you were bankrupt. In fact, it IDs one of the most perceptive and cutting writers of modern American prose.

Britchky, who died last month at 73, was nominally a food critic. So far as I’m aware, he wrote no fiction, history or autobiography; yet his culinary critiques were all of the above. For 20 years, starting in 1971, he published newsletters (The Restaurant Reporter and Seymour Britchky’s Restaurant Letter) whose pieces were collected in 16 annual editions of “The Restaurants of New York.” Granted, those are museum pieces by now; most of the places he wrote about are closed or changed management. And, anyway, I hear you saying, you don’t live in New York, and you attend only those restaurants whose policies include doggy-bagging and supersizing.

I acknowledge, dear naysayers from the outlands, that you will not benefit from the utility of Britchky’s reviews. But anyone, in any city, can learn an enlightened skepticism from, for example, the last paragraph in his devastating review of the Upper East Side boite Elaine’s: “Invariably, it seems, the 8.25% sales tax is miscalculated. Not only that, you will be astonished to learn, but it is miscalculated upward. Since many innocents simply double the tax to compute the tip, this means extra money in the waiters’ pockets.... But if the enlarged tip goes to the waiters, where, you wonder, does the extra ‘tax’ go?” Britchky dares to remind you that a night out eating is an act of commerce, and the diner deserves value for money.

Non-New Yorkers will also profit from the short introductory essay, “Ten Sensible Rules About Going to, Eating in, Paying at and Departing from New York Restaurants.” Of course, they must also be willing to act like New Yorkers. “It’s a good idea to complain about something early on. People who complain are people who seem to know what they want...” “If you don’t like something you ordered, tell the waiter it tastes terrible and send it back.” When the bill comes, “Review it. It’s wrong about one time in ten; in your favor about one time in a hundred. ... Check the addition.” And finally, “Leave when you are good and ready.... Enjoy possession of a table that others are waiting in line for. Later they will.”

Britchky’s food sense was both adventurous and reliable, leading readers to good meals in a city whose middle class was just learning a devotion to food. But his real and enduring value is as a superb writer: a crafter of succulent sentences, savory asides, tart witticisms (and other easy food metaphors he would never have condescended to use). As I can recommend David Thomson’s “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” to people who don’t care much for movies but do treasure writing that consistently confounds cliché (and astutely avoids alliteration — David’s standards, too, are much sterner than mine), so I urge you to find, buy and consume any of the Britchky “Restaurants” books. Honestly, reading him beats eating.

One of Britchky’s mots appears on several quotation sites: “Some of the waiters discuss the menu with you as if they were sharing wisdom picked up in the Himalayas.” But every review strews gems before the reader’s eye. Or grenades in the restaurateur’s face. On a famous 44th Street hangout: “Sardi’s most famous dish is its cannelloni, cat food wrapped in noodle and welded to the steel ashtray in which it was reheated under its glutinous pink sauce.” Makes your mouth parch, doesn’t it?

I learned from the New York Times obit that Britchky had been an advertising executive who, at the age of 40, created a second career out of his passion for food and thought. “He used to say his main qualification as a restaurant critic was eating three meals a day,” his widow, the photographer Nancy Crampton told the Times. “He just hung out his shingle and did it.”

I first heard of Britchky through Elliott Stein, the gifted film critic and so much more. In 1975 Elliott showed my wife Mary and me Britchky’s three-star review of an unpretentious Chinatown restaurant called Phoenix Garden. (“The place looks like the inside of a refrigerator with the light on.”) Britchky awarded the restaurant three stars, and one holiday we gave it a try. It was the first time we had an entire meal without talking; the food —Pepper and Salty Shrimp, Phoenix Special Roast Squab, lemon chicken — literally left us speechless in awe and delight. We were Phoenix Garden regulars, and Britchky addicts, from then on.

A few years later, when I came to work at TIME, you could walk directly from the lobby to the United States Steakhouse Company, our house diner. Here is Britchky, circa 1982, on the restaurant’s barroom, “to which lots of the guys from upstairs in the Time-Life Building repair. They stand around the huge circular counter-height oak tables that bear giant bowls of unshelled peanuts, and they light their cigarette lighters, hoist long cold ones and crack peanuts, all without looking. They drop the peanut hulls at their feet, toss the seeds between their teeth and slowly grind them with their huge molars, their jaws rippling. After a while, they are ankle-deep in peanut shells, and by seven o’clock this place looks like the elephant house.” I can’t say I noticed that TIME staffers had huge molars, but all else is on target. Britchky’s arrow pierces the restaurant’s soul, fatally. The place must have died of shame; it closed a few years later.



A CRITICAL CRITIC

At a memorial service for the critic, a telling remark was made by Andre Soltner, the owner of Lutèce (one of two four-star restaurants in the 1986 edition) and the co-author with Britchky of “The Lutèce Cookbook.” According to New York food writer Regina Schrambling, Soltner said, “I look around and I don’t see any chefs here.” Their absence could be explained by the reviewer’s presumed adversarial relationship to his subject. The chefs might guess his favorite dish was broiled baby in Britchky bile.

He apparently could be as sardonic at a party as at P.J. Clarke’s (which serves, “spread across the bottom of dog bowls, so-called tartar steaks that are brown and dry from long, warm storage...; steaks so pallid they need salt and pepper the way a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich needs peanut butter and jelly; spinach salads that should be returned to the laundry for more starch...” — you get the idea). The one Britchky anecdote that is immortalized on the Internet has him conversing with a terrible bore at some soiree. “How are you?” the man asks. “Exactly the same,” Britchky replies.

Restaurant critics typically do their work in the company of three or more friends, so as to be able to taste a range of dishes. I know nothing of his methods, but in my mind, Britchky dined alone. (His detractors would say: he’s so mean, who would eat with him?) I imagine him reclining on a banquette, quiet as a viper, sharp-eyed and sharp-toothed, devouring not just the food on his plate but the people in his view, as a threshing machine bites off grain and spit out the chaff.

A reader consults other reviewers to find what to eat at four-star restaurants. You read Britchky for that, too, but also for acute descriptions of the decor, the posture and attitude of the staff, the plumage of the clientele. Dining, for Britchky, was not simply, perhaps not even even primarily, the exercise of filling your stomach to sweet satiety. It was a social ritual that defined the diner, the restaurant and the city they inhabited.

A bit of Britchky on my local restaurant, The Odeon, which in the 30s was a cafeteria: “Not surprisingly, Odeon is about as big as a medium-size cafeteria. On a terrazzo floor — in the old days mopped three times daily, between meals — the white-linened tables are set with inverted tumblers rather than goblets, and with water pitchers that you yourself may fill at spigots affixed to one of the pillars that rise through the height of this two-story room. That pillar also accommodates stainless-steel shelves, bottles of mustard and ketchup thereon, and a magazine rack, complete with literature, a reminder, if not a relic, of the days when a 5c. cup of coffee, a 3c. daily and a warm cafeteria were the foundations of a calm afternoon out of the weather. Perhaps you sat in one of these very chairs of pastel plastic and chrome tubing — they were high style then. Where the hot table was, the bar is now, mirrors on the wall behind it.... The place is dominated by big white globes that hang from the ceiling and shine softly. And the Odeon air is filled with period music of the twenties and thirties — “Harlem on My Mind,” “If I Had a Talking Picture of You,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made &c. ... You are attended by capable young people in white aprons, white shirts and neckties. The food they deliver is pretty nifty.”

A world, of the 30s and the 80s, alchemized in a few words. A deft picture of an institution. Decades from now, any movie production designer needing the perfect blueprint for an old restaurant’s decor — any screenwriter looking for cues to how people behaved in public in the late 20th century— will find them in Britchky’s prose.

Attend this sketch of the customers at the theater-district eatery Cafe Un Deux Trois: “A slightly out-of-place crowd stands at the bar: posing dancers who raise glasses to their lips with the kind of sweeping gesture that usually accompanies a florid toast; hysterical young women wearing frizzled hair and little else; and ordinary pathetic singles. The bartender is your basic hip cynic. When he needs both hands he sticks his cigarettes between his teeth.”

At this point Britchky must have heard, and been displeased by, the rumble of a disapproving demeanor. So he adds, as if in a melancholy reverie: “Most of the people who come here are gracious and friended... [T]hey have in common that optimistic enthusiasm you just may be able to recall.”

As I reread these essays, decades after they were written, decades after they served any practical function, I feel the customers’ enthusiasm, and Britchky’s nostalgia. I glow with admiration at the care taken to compose them, the high standards that made his jokes seem severe. Britchky loved food, words and his version of the truth. As a social observer, both serious and comic, he was Proust mated to Perelman — our Jane Austen, spiked with Celine.



TOMORROW: Broadway Babies