The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, August 17, 2002

At a party tonight, Levi posed a crucial challenge: "I'm not someone who eats out a lot. What is it about your restaurant that makes me want to come back once a week?"

And this is what I told him: "Levi, we will be the kind of place you can go to alone with a book on a Tuesday night. We won't hassle you for staying long after your food is done. In fact, our waitresses will be not only foxy but smart, too, and one of them will, without prompting, drop an extra candle at your table so you have more light."

Then someone put a lampshade on their head or something and I wasn't able to continue, but this is what I had to add:

"We'll be the kind of place that lets you stay even after everyone has left and our busboy has started stacking chairs atop tables in order to mop. Around 11:30, you'll still be there, with every candle we own sitting on your table, casting an inferno of reading light that flickers across the room.

"Just as you finish a chapter, our chef will emerge from the kitchen, pause at the doorway and slowly walk to the front window. He'll flip the 'open' sign to 'closed' and stand there a minute. He will sigh. He'll wring his hands in his apron. Finally he will return to the kitchen but quickly come back out with a half-full bottle of cheap red wine. He will grab two Ball fruit jars and walk over to your table. Without asking for permission, he'll pull down a chair, fill the jars with wine and sit next to you.

"He will lift your book to see what you're reading. He'll take a deep breath, and already he will have forgotten the title. 'Uff da,' he will say. 'I've got to get out of this business.' He'll proceed to tell you about his day -- troubles with the vegetable stock, troubles with the city, troubles with his dumb, homely waitresses -- and you will tell him about yours.

"He will grunt, shake the now-empty bottle, study it as a scientist might study an erlenmeyer flask, and grunt again. He will go through the kitchen to the office, where he'll fetch from the safe an unopened bottle of $200 chianti (the last to remain from a mix-up with the liquor distributor). He'll return and refill the jars, and the two of you will spend four more hours discussing, among other things, homeland security, romanticism (he'll spit at the mention of Lord Byron) and Tommy John surgery.

"Before either of you know it, it will be 4 a.m. 'That clock is either four hours fast or it's four hours past my bedtime,' you will say. 'I ought to get home.'

"'I ought to go, too,' he'll say, except he won't be going home. He'll be off to the Fulton Street Market to get the next day's produce. He'll offer you a ride, but you'll have come on your bike and will decline.

"'Oh,' he'll say. 'Well, come again, I guess.'

"'I'll be back next week.'"

And that is how Levi will come to be a regular at our restaurant -- sometimes to eat, sometimes to read, sometimes to cook his own groceries on our range, but always to have a word with our chef, every Tuesday night.

Friday, August 16, 2002

We spent a good part of yesterday evening on Tango Sur's sidewalk patio, devouring their delectable Argentine meat like it was going out of fashion. Luke orderd the mixed grill for one, a dish with enough meat to feed one, one's mother, and enough left over to feed one's dog. Most of the meats were obvious, but one kept us guessing -- something called sweetbread. We guessed the worst, testicles or maybe brain, not that it stopped us from devouring its buttery goodness. But some research today revealed the truth: Sweetbread is actually "the savory pancreas and thymus glands," mostly from steer and calves. Ah ha, no wonder they prefer to stick to a euphemism.

It was on this search for the definition of sweetbread that I came across a quiz called "Are You a Foodie?" Even though I knew the answer to the question, I took the quiz anyway. My score: 23 out of 38, casting me as a Debonair Diner:

"The debonair diner loves to eat and is too busy enjoying the fruits of chef's labors to be bogged down with every last kitchen detail. You are likely to think the best culinary experiences are about sitting around a table enjoying great foods with equally special friends, which you do with frequency and fervor."

Sounds about right. I'm the kind of guy that can't be bothered with "every last kitchen detail," like knowing exactly what part of the cow I'm being served. Better to eat first and ask questions later, I say.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

I'm listening to an "Eight Forty-Eight" story right now about getting the most out of a dining experience. A major theme is that patrons shouldn't be afraid to politely raise grievances with a waiter or management. Good restaurateurs embrace criticism.

One of the guests runs Grabbing a Bite, which includes such sections as "Complaining made easy and profitable." He says that diners should always make eye contact with their waiter. Treating a waiter like an honest-to-God human being, he says, is an excellent way to ensure good service.
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Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Adam Gropnik writes about hanging out with cooks: "I ... enjoy the company of cooks because I have always wanted to be one. A surprising number of writers I know, apart from the bitter ones who dream about being publishers, share this fantasy. Words and food are bound together in some inexplicable way, a peculiar communion that lends grace and mystery to what otherwise would seem to be a simple exchange of gluttony for publicity."

Speaking of writers and cooking, I've added Calvin Trillan's food anthology to my wish list. I was won over by this excerpt: "I know the problem of asking someone in a strange city for the best restaurant in town and being led to some purple palace that serves 'Continental cuisine' and has as its chief creative employee a menu-writer rather than a chef. I have sat in those places, an innocent wayfarer, reading a three-paragraph description of what the trout is wrapped in, how long it has been sauteed, what province its sauce comes from, and what it is likely to sound like sizzling on my platter."

Still speaking of writers and cooking, fuckcorporategroceries.net has an amusing yet terrifying exchange that details the collision between a hipster with salty language, her grandma and two sensitive candymakers.




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