Category: FOOD & DRINK

Insatiable criticism

In New York, it’s often said that “everyone’s a critic.” The phrase may have had its origins in the theater world but these days is best applied to the city’s thriving restaurant industry. Every New Yorker seems to have a favorite neighborhood dining spot or an opinion on the hottest new place in town. So imagine the chance to try dozens of restaurants in one evening, all in the same location! Last night my wife and I attended “Best of the West”, the fifth annual edition of a culinary tasting event showcasing the finest restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The event’s honoree was a real critic, and an insatiable one at that, former New York magazine restaurant reviewer Gael Greene (who, if in attendance, kept her wide-brimmed hat pulled down all evening). This is the kind of organized fun that ordinarily I would not be seen dead partaking in, but we had accepted two tickets generously offered to us by a friend. I say “generously” because I believe the offer was a gesture of genuine kindness, though having now successfully survived the evening I am beginning to wonder if the tickets were not offloaded onto our unsuspecting selves by someone who knew what they were otherwise in for.

I worked in the food and wine industry for several years, and when I finally left my feelings could be summed up in one word: relief. That may seem excessive, but last night those feelings came flooding back. I’d seen these kinds of events before, so to an extent I knew the drill. However my initial skepticism had been softened by my optimistic wife who insisted we’d have a good time, or at the very least a free dinner. I reluctantly obliged, but my fears appeared to have been justified when we arrived to find a line of people snaking halfway down 77th Street. Strips of reinforced fluorescent paper were slapped on our wrists and we sheepishly joined the back of the queue. Judging by the size of the line and the ages of the eager people in front of us I presumed that a Duran Duran reunion tour was also kicking off inside the jumbo wedding tent that had been erected for the occasion in a school playground on Columbus Avenue.

That we were clearly among the youngest attendees was no surprise since tickets for the event started at a staggering $125 per person. Surely others had also been given free passes. How else to explain the crowd of people apparently content to drop that kind of cash in order to sample dozens of two-bite portions, when a proper meal at a nice restaurant could be enjoyed sitting at a table for considerably less? I soon realized the event was the perfect marriage of big city salaries and suburban tastes (or at least where the two come to mingle). The New Taste of the Upper West Side website offers the following advice: “For those who would like one-on-one encounters with the star-chefs before the evening revs up, we recommend VIP tickets.” Those go for two-hundred bucks a pop, but I’m not sure what the extra seventy-five buys you. Just what exactly does a “one-on-one encounter” with a star-chef entail? Does he take you back to his kitchen and show you his utensil drawer?

As we were herded into the vast feeding pen (as my wife so accurately described it), stewards took wine glasses equipped with blue lanyards and placed them around our necks, presumably so we could practice the sophisticated art of hands-free drinking. From the other side of the playground’s chain-link fence I watched ordinary people going about their business in the warm May evening, on their way home from the park, or on their way out to dinner. I longed to escape and join them, but the line of cops to my left prevented me from making any sudden moves. I lowered my shades and tentatively entered the arena.

“Arena” is the most appropriate word for the venue, for this was not a restaurant, nor even a party, but rather a barbaric spectacle worthy of Ancient Rome’s notorious appetite for food and flesh. The object of the game is to sample every one of the forty-odd dishes being frantically prepared by the overworked sous-chefs hunched over fold-out tables. Faced with this incohesive smorgasboard, my wife and I took one look at each other and decided to bend the rules slightly, heading straight for the wine and liquor stand. Even at this early stage it seemed excessive alcohol intake was our only hope of salvaging the evening.

I was on my third Aperol Spritz by the time I managed to get near any food. Pushing through a pack of salivating young women in heels I was able eventually to scrounge a small plate containing two sushi rolls, which we considered a satisfactory appetizer. The next two restaurants were both serving ravioli, or as the heavyset man standing two inches behind me called them, “ravioles”. I had initially planned to plot my consumption strategically, so as to replicate as closely as possible a true dining experience. Clearly this would be an impossible task, and my plan was hastily discarded as it became evident I’d be better off taking whatever I could get. Every stand was occupied by a clamoring mob of plastic-fork wielders or an impatiently indulgent queue matched in length only by the line for the portable toilets (that’s what you get for $125). Any chance of deriving any pleasure whatsoever from what dishes I was able to sample was rendered an impossibility by the entirely unpleasant setting. I don’t care which celebrity chef made it, nothing tastes good when served on a plastic saucer and eaten while standing next to a large recycling bin.

The generally hellish atmosphere was made worse by the repulsive Europop din that pulsated incessantly from all corners of the giant marquee. When we had arrived, Joe Bataglia & The New York Big Band were midway through a cheery set of standards, but they’d swiftly taken a break, possibly due to general nausea. When I got to their end of the room I leaned over towards a saxophone player and implored him to begin their second set. Slumped in his chair, the aging musician gently lifted his hands as if to speak, then lowered them again and stared at the floor. I think he’d lost the will to live.

By now the music had been blocked out anyway by the licking of fingers and loosening of belts, as unsated customers gorged themselves in a vain attempt to ensure they were getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, I was bombarded by inane chatter at every turn: “Omigod, this is like the best lobster roll ever!” or “Have you tried the meatballs? They’re a-mmayyyyy-zing!” The event’s website had promised “a multitude of tastings to tantalize, stimulate and motivate discerning palates.” I was motivated alright – but only to get the hell out of there. Unfortunately discerning palates rarely remain such once the term “all you can eat” has been released into an air of bloodthirstiness. I have no doubt more food was wasted than consumed last night amidst the bacchanalia.

To my bitter disappointment I didn’t spot one celebrity chef. How a celebrity chef differs from a regular chef I do not know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the size of his hat. That such a category of stardom could exist is utterly ridiculous to me, but wholly indicative of America’s twisted and complicated relationship with food. Such is this country’s insistence on equating taste and eating habits with class and education that ordinary food, the kind the rest of the world prepares and enjoys on a daily basis without any song and dance, has been elevated to something that only a television personality or top chef can possibly create. Consequently all food is expected to fall into one of two categories: “Ewwww…Gross!” or the aforementioned “A-mmayyyyy-zing!” Good food is not art nor rocket science — if it were either it is unlikely the human race would have advanced far beyond the Neolithic Era. Nor is it supposed to be a substitute for sexual satisfaction (although my wife remains convinced that none of these so-called gourmands could have been getting much action elsewhere).

Grabbing a handful of mini-pastries from the dessert zone we made our escape by heading for a side exit, just as the band returned to play “Copacabana”. The fading daylight caught me by surprise, piercing my weary eyes. We’d been inside the tent for a total of forty-five minutes: two had involved eating, the remaining forty-three were spent being shoved in the back. Having failed to find a (possibly non-existent) coffee stand we walked a few blocks down Columbus and bought our own, still reacclimatizing to the civilization we’d abandoned less than an hour earlier. We then sat in the park and sipped it as the night grew dark, still in a state of culture shock, horrified and bewildered by the grotesque scenes just witnessed. As I wrestled to remove my fluorescent wristband, my stomach began to feel like it was digesting a lead weight, even though I barely recalled eating anything besides a greasy tuna-fish slider. For the next hour the pastries sat untouched on the bench beside us, and remained wrapped for the duration of the seventy-block walk home. Frankly, I’d lost my appetite.
 
 
 
Frans Snyders, “Still Life with Fruit, Dead Game, Vegetables, a Live Monkey, Squirrel and Cat” (before 1657).

Peel slowly and see

When I was a child I used to sometimes watch an after-school cartoon series on the BBC called Bananaman. The absurdist premise of this superhero parody concerned Eric, an ordinary schoolboy who, for reasons unknown, would transform into the titular character each time he ate a banana. I mention this because recently I too have undergone an unexpected transformation of the musa acuminata variety. Yes, I’ve started eating bananas.

I know what you’re thinking: big deal. Perhaps, but not for someone who had hitherto enjoyed his entire life banana-free. For the last thirty-two years I have steadfastly shunned this popular hand-fruit and onetime comedic prop with a vehemence matched only for my distaste for that vile grey fungus otherwise known as the mushroom. Indifferent to the banana’s mild flavor and wary of its unpredictably mushy texture, I had always preferred to play things safe in the fruit department, invariably reaching for a crisp Golden Delicious, or, when in season, a juicy clementine.

Now that I think about it, bananas were pretty big in the eighties. In addition to Bananaman there was also the chart-topping girl group Bananarama, while inflatable bananas were a popular accessory among British soccer fans. But none of this was enough for me to start eating them. My father and I share many common tastes, though when I was young bananas weren’t one of them. I used to watch him slice a banana onto his muesli in the morning, or add them to peanut butter and toast as a late-night snack. When he offered me some I would turn my nose up in staunch refusal. Parents are often reluctant to accept that their child might not like a certain food, and mine still persist in trying to feed me things they’ve never seen me eat. Now I know why.

I can’t pinpoint with any certainty the moment my attitudes towards bananas changed, but it must have been sometime last summer. Thanks to her experience in Cuba, my wife had already introduced me to the undeniable pleasures of fried plantains (the banana’s feisty Caribbean cousin), and I’d enjoyed eating amarillas in San Juan and tostones at Casa Adela on Avenue C. When I worked at MoMA, my penchant for banana bread from Remi To Go had earned me mockery from colleagues. I’d also opted for banana flavored post-workout protein shakes. Meanwhile, in an attempt to save money on wildly overpriced cereal I’d begun purchasing oats, flakes, nuts and dried fruit in bulk from the health food store on West 13th Street and mixing them at home. My customized muesli was an instant hit (I also drew both internal satisfaction and amusement from the fact that I’d awoken my long dormant inner bohemian).

One bright morning I was preparing my breakfast when I saw a bunch of bananas sitting in the fruit bowl, at which point something must have come over me. It was almost like I was no longer in control of my own body, because before I knew it I’d taken a banana from the bunch, peeled and sliced the whole thing into my cereal bowl. I then ate the entire contents without trepidation. A sense of rare achievement washed over me. The next thing I knew I was buying Chiquitas by the bunch at the supermarket. At first I cut them into narrow slices, so as not to risk eating too much at once, but soon this irrationality subsided, and I began chopping at the flesh haphazardly with one hand while the other tended to the simmering coffee pot.

This routine continued for a couple of weeks until one morning, half out the door, I became compelled to take a snack to work. I scanned the kitchen and immediately went for a yellow banana. Once outside, I broke the skin (with some difficulty at first), peeled it back slowly and took a bite. That strange unique texture that had repelled me as a child was no longer unpleasant to my grown-up tongue. I took another bite. Then another. I reached the end of the block and saw I was holding an empty banana skin. Tossing it into the trash can I bounded down the street with new purpose. Suddenly anything seemed possible.

Almost overnight, bananas became my snack of choice. I even called my dad to tell him the exciting news. I began eating them more often than any other fruit, in the mid-morning with coffee, or as an instant potassium boost before hitting the gym. Bananas have superficial qualities too: they make a great desk accessory and I honestly believe you automatically look cooler when eating one. Thanks to my meandering walks home from work I have memorized the locations of a dozen fruit stands, where a dollar buys you between three and five bananas depending on the day (or maybe on the weather). I have discovered that even by fruit’s lousy standards bananas have a spectacularly short shelf-life. Personally I like to let them ripen until they’re on the cusp of collapsing into your mouth.

My only regret is that it didn’t happen sooner. So why now? It’s perhaps no surprise that my new-found love for bananas coincided with a long period of severe professional frustration and personal depression, which left me seeking new experiences in places I’d often overlooked. I was like George Costanza in “The Opposite”, consciously ignoring every instinct I’d ever had in a desperate attempt to better my life and improve my situation. And it really worked.

As adults, there often comes a point where we develop a tendency to accept that we are a certain way, and of a type or mind from which we cannot deviate. It’s a common mechanism for dismissing the unknown from our experience, but with it we risk sliding into predictability. The feel-good moral to this story (besides the one about parents always being right) is that it’s never too late to change who we are or who we want to become. And there’s perhaps no sensation more terrifying or thrilling than the realization that we don’t know ourselves half as well as we think we do. I still don’t like mushrooms though.

Livin’ la dolce vita

About five years ago, while spending a weekend at my parents’ house in England, I was flicking channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon when I came across a cooking programme called David Rocco’s Dolce Vita. The show was set in Florence, and followed the culinary exploits of a certain David Rocco, a good-looking young Canadian-Italian living the so-called “sweet life.” We’d see Rocco strolling through the piazza, picking up some ingredients at the local market before whipping up something tasty for his pals back at his apartment. I too was living in Florence at the time, and so I kept watching for the novelty aspect more than anything, although these scenes appeared so familiar to me that they almost felt too close to home.

A couple of days after returning to Florence I was invited by a friend to visit her new apartment near Piazza Santa Croce. When I arrived I was greeted with a tour of the flat, which soon enough led me to the kitchen. Upon entering I was immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu. I stopped and stood there for several moments trying to understand when I could have possibly been in this apartment before, despite being unable to recall having ever even walked down this particular street. Then it hit me: I was standing in David Rocco’s kitchen! It turned out the apartment belonged to David’s sister Maria, who also happened to be my friend’s boss. They simply used the apartment one month out of the year to tape the series. Until a few days earlier I’d never even heard of David Rocco, but my friend’s roommate was Canadian and explained that he was a former model and something of a household name in that country.

Over the ensuing months the Dolce Vita apartment became a gathering point for all the characters in our own lives, just like the principal set of any classic sitcom. My friend had a few promo DVDs from the series, which we sometimes watched to further enhance the surreal experience (imagine watching an episode of Seinfeld on Jerry’s couch). We enjoyed long Sunday lunches at the dinner table, and casual gatherings in the kitchen, around the marble-topped work surface upon which Rocco tosses his insalata. “Casa Rocco” – as it was soon dubbed – was also the scene of Thanksgiving dinners and memorable parties, including the evening of my 27th birthday and an ambitious Breakfast At Tiffany’s-themed night of debauchery. One night, after snooping around in the drawer which contained an impressive array of spatulas and mysterious utensils, another friend badly sprained her ankle on the kitchen floor, right where Rocco stands to drain his pasta. She had to be carried out of the apartment by paramedics on a stretcher, and spent the next month living at Casa Rocco with her leg in a plaster cast.

When Rocco and the crew arrived to shoot the new series, my friend was forced to move out for the entire month of May. One day I happened to visit the set: the apartment was crammed with lighting equipment and cables, but I missed out on meeting David. I even attended Maria Rocco’s wedding reception in the Florentine hills as my friend’s plus-one, but he wasn’t there either. Eventually, my friend moved out and the Casa Rocco era came to an abrupt end, but she did give me a watch she found abandoned on the set that I still wear to this day.

I hadn’t given David Rocco or his Dolce Vita much thought since, until I recently stumbled across an episode on the fledgling cable network Cooking Channel (751 on Time Warner Cable HD). I learned that the show is in its fifth series and has even spawned a book and a soundtrack, so it seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself.

Of course, there is something very obvious about calling a show about Italian cooking “Dolce Vita”. For the title of his 1960 film, Fellini employed the term “La Dolce Vita” with a generous dose of irony. It was meant to suggest a shallow life of excess, one which was ultimately bereft of meaning or direction — a commentary on the loss of traditional values in postwar Italy and the problems facing a new generation in the 1950s. We can forgive David Rocco for appropriating the overused phrase for his own show, and for predictably applying it in its broader cultural sense, that is, to suggest the most pleasurable aspects of Italian life. Naturally, we’re also treated to regular sweeping postcard panoramas of Renaissance architecture. But despite these corny marketing tools, the show is keen to convey a sense of Florence beyond tourism.

For the most part Rocco’s life does indeed appear exceedingly pleasureful, almost like an Italian take on a yuppie lifestyle. He drinks espresso, shops for food (and shoes), goes jogging, cooks dinner for his friends and spends weekends in Chianti with his wife, Nina, who plays herself. This apparent domestic bliss notwithstanding, the ever simpatico Rocco still seems to live the life of a carefree metrosexual bachelor. If the incessant aperitivo soundtrack is anything to go by, his is a world forever on the cusp of happy hour.

While not trained in the kitchen (“I’m not a cook – I’m Italian,” he says) Rocco certainly makes cooking look fun, and perhaps more importantly, effortless. His recipes center around the “cucina povera” or peasant food which provides the classic staples of Italian family life. Incorporating simple, fresh ingredients, our host presents many of his dishes as having been handed down by a relative (many are named after the “nonna” or “zia” who came up with them). Despite an affected habit of calling everyone he meets “Ciccio” and the mystifying employment of an electric golf cart to get about town (surely a Vespa would have been more accurate and appealing), Rocco’s own knowledge of Italian cuisine and culture is exemplary and the clichés which litter most depictions of Italian-Americans on our TV screens are here refreshingly absent.

Though hardly fellini-esque in either its scope or atmosphere, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita has more in common with the Fellini classic from whose title it borrows than is initially apparent. Episodic in nature, part reality and part fiction, for a cooking show it defies categorization. As the ad-hoc script swings back and forth between plot development and cooking demonstrations, Rocco himself regularly “breaks the fourth wall” to address the viewer directly. Meanwhile, the often improvised dialogue shuffles between Italian and English in a manner which only rarely becomes disorientating. Faced with the tricky task of often conversing with Italians for an English-speaking audience, the bilingual Canadian has been known to use both languages even in the same sentence. The cast is completed by Rocco’s own circus of eccentric “friends” who flesh out the episodes’ loose plotlines. Some play themselves, or versions of themselves, while others are entirely fictionalized characters. I find myself recognizing many of Rocco’s on-screen buddies (one of them, Max — an anglicization of his real name — was a former roommate of mine). Here we can begin to draw parallels with La Dolce Vita, for which Fellini cluttered the screen with actors and non-actors of various nationalities. The star of that film, Marcello Mastroianni, was intrigued by the multi-layered nature of cinema, and possessed an attitude to acting which began to stretch the boundaries of performance and reality. In his 1993 biography of the actor Donald Dewey describes Mastroianni’s approach as being founded upon the double fantasy role: that of the character being portrayed for the project in question and that of the actor working as a performer on the “adult playground” of the film set.

In 2005 Casa Rocco became an unlikely refuge from my own domestic frustrations and romantic melodramas. Watching David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on television now in New York – from the safety of several years and several thousand miles – is an altogether more complex sensation. I’m not particularly nostalgic about the years I spent in Florence — while I loved the city and fully basked in all of its wonders I have not forgotten the common frustrations of daily life in Italy, nor the challenges faced in attempting to pursue a more serious life there. Yet as the camera caresses the view from Piazzale Michelangelo, before focusing on Rocco as he dashes around the centro storico, I’m persistently prodded by recollections of my own experiences among Florence’s rain-soaked cobbled streets. It’s highly amusing to think back on evenings spent in Rocco’s kitchen, and even the bars and shops he frequents are those which I came to know well: Capocaccia, Chiaroscuro, Procacci, Semolina, Giubbe Rosse, Hotel Continentale and of course, the Dolce Vita bar in Piazza del Carmine are all given ample screen time. In a surprising twist on art imitating life (or is it vice-versa?), the perhaps inevitable consequence is that this Canadian cooking show has become a means of (re)living a vicarious and fictionalized version of my life in Florence. Though I’m still uncertain whether seeing your life (or a close approximation of it) on television makes it seem more, or less, real. In both his elaborate reconstruction of Rome at Cinecittà and the dreamlike fantasy sequences for which he became associated, Fellini too was inclined to suggest that reality could always be improved upon. Maybe that’s why David Rocco’s Dolce Vita somehow feels even better than the real thing.

Empire State of Mind

New York said goodbye to an icon this weekend. On May 14 the Empire Diner closed its doors for the last time — or rather, the first time, since this Chelsea landmark had until last Saturday night been serving locals and tourists, artists and cops, partygoers and insomniacs 24 hours a day since it opened in its current incarnation thirty-four years ago. In 1976, the diner lay closed and abandoned when it was purchased by three young New Yorkers — Jack Doenias, Carl Laanes, and Richard Ruskay — who transformed the Tenth Avenue eatery into the self-proclaimed “Hippest Diner on Earth.” The Empire Diner’s success was a prime example of the neighborhood’s renaissance, as galleries, hotels and restaurants began to pop up between the gas stations and auto parts stores which had until then dominated the landscape.

As a child growing up in the UK, I probably first caught glimpse of the Empire Diner during the opening shots of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Later, it also made an appearance in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, but by that time I was already all-too familiar, having gazed many times at the cover of the Tom Waits LP Asylum Years. Released in 1986, this double-album compilation featured John Baeder’s painting of the Empire Diner on its front cover. It was an appropriate choice of artwork for a Tom Waits record: the man had made a career of verbalizing bittersweet tales of urban folly to anyone who’d listen, like some down-and-out character permanently slumped at the end of the counter. Whether it was the image of the diner glistening in the Manhattan night, or Waits’ midnight rambles, I knew I had to check this place out for myself.

Years later, after moving to New York, I finally got my chance. It was a cold, November evening, and I’d arrived from the Theater District where I’d been volunteering at a contemporary dance performance. Instantly recognizable from the outside by its chrome exterior and giant “EAT” sign, inside the diner was altogether less familiar. On entering I was surprised to be greeted by a calm hush, and certainly not the usual hustle-bustle which characterizes many open-all-hours places. Instead, people spoke in soft voices and on the piano someone was playing “Song For You” by Leon Russell, making the Empire Diner the first and so far only diner I’ve ever seen with a live pianist. I sat down at the polished black counter, ordered, and gazed at the yellow cabs silently gliding up Tenth Avenue. I immediately wrote about my experience on my blog (now defunct), soon after which a certain Eileen Levinson wrote to me thanking me for my kind words. I returned with my wife the night of my twenty-ninth birthday: the overtly camp staff was hilarious and delightful. I left with a t-shirt with the “EAT” mantra emblazoned across the back. When my parents came to visit, they insisted we go to the Empire Diner for burgers.

The Empire Diner’s iconic status continued to be maintained: in March a digital image of the restaurant — drawn using an iPhone app by Portuguese artist Jorge Colombo — appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. So it was with much surprise that I learned of the imminent closure less than a month later. As soon as I heard the news I wrote to the owners, Renate Gonzalez and Mitchell Woo, expressing my shock and sadness. Renate immediately responded inviting me to the official closing party on Sunday afternoon. Arriving for the last time, I found a relaxed crowd settled on patio furniture clustered outside the restaurant, whose famous chrome glistened in the late-afternoon sun. Inside the diner, the atmosphere was decidedly more raucous, as the diner’s most flamboyant followers got down to a soundtrack of eighties club hits. There was something quite sad about seeing the last remaining survivors of a city’s much-flaunted party scene enjoying a final dance on a Sunday afternoon. This may have only been the closing of a restaurant, but what does it say about New York?

* * *

It seems not a week goes by that New York City doesn’t say goodbye to another family-run business or cherished establishment. Most of these closures go unnoticed by many, although certain blogs, such as EV Grieve and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, manage to meticulously document these aspects of the city’s transformation. While I strongly sympathize with the aforementioned bloggers common stance, I personally think nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, and I’m always cautious about extolling “the good old days”. After all, a lot of people were glad to see the back of them. As one commentator pointed out, “People who hate the new Times Square probably were never mugged in the old one in 1989.”

A city must always keep evolving, and nowhere is reinvention more possible than in New York. But what about when your favorite coffee shop is converted into a Starbucks? Or when the corner deli where you’ve been buying milk for twenty years is suddenly shuttered, only to reopen serving only something the kids are calling Fro-Yo? Or when an entire historic block is razed and an eco-indulgent glass condo is built in its place? I’m not alone in feeling that New York, once just a trendy, rebellious cousin to the conservative USA, is becoming victim to the steady encroachment of corporate America. Of course, this phenomenon exists the world over and is evident elsewhere — look at the state of popular music or sports — but what’s most alarming is the rapidity with which such changes occur in this millennium, particularly in a fast-paced commercial capital like New York.

New York is a city of immigrants, one which has always been driven by the arrival of new people. But in recent years, New York, in presenting itself as a desirable place to live, has gone out of its way to invite the wrong kind of transplant: a sort of suburban-urbanite, one who associates the city not with history or culture, or even crime, but with luxury and status. These are exactly the kind of people who not too long ago would have turned up their noses at Manhattan: too dirty, too dangerous, too cold. They’re the kind of people who don’t know what an egg cream is and aren’t about to try one. Sadly it seems the latest generation of adults has scant concept of a New York, or a world, pre-internet, pre-Carrie Bradshaw. I’ve met people not much younger than myself who didn’t know what the Twin Towers were until they watched them fall on TV on 9/11. If these people are the future of New York it’s not hard to understand why certain long-standing businesses are failing.

Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Woo, while clearly saddened to be leaving what has been their place of work for the over three decades, remain philosophical. They plan to bring the Empire experience abroad and are currently looking for a future site for the diner. It wouldn’t be the first time a landmark eatery has up and left town, silently in the dead of night. The Moondance Diner closed in 2006 and reappeared somewhere in Wyoming. Last year, the Cheyenne Diner was closed, dismantled and rebuilt down in Alabama. So look out for the Empire Diner in a town near you. As for New York, like the day they decided to plant deckchairs in the middle of Times Square, it’s just another small step towards suburbia. The hippest city on earth just got a little less hip.

Scenes from an Italian restaurant

Though I try to keep this website up-to-date with what’s going on in my New York life, there is one tale I have yet to tell. In fact, the subject matter is of such a dark and depressing nature I have had to wait until the onset of Spring to even discuss it. And after I write this, I hope to erase the entire experience from my memory. Here goes.

Around mid-January, I found myself to my surprise, still in New York, but also jobless and soon-to-be-homeless. Having exhausted all other avenues of potential employment I became desperate, and began handing out resumes in every cafe, bar or restaurant where I thought I could stand to work. With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry I was compelled to make up a phony resumé which stated I had worked at various places in Italy. I deliberately chose places where I used to hang out, the thinking being that if probed I could probably invent a believable answer. To my surprise I was granted an interview on the Upper West Side at Nice Matin, a spacious brasserie-type restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street, in the same building as the Hotel Lucerne. That afternoon on the way over there I dropped my resumé off at a small unassuming Italian ristorante a block further up and across the street. This turned out to be my first (and biggest) mistake.

I didn’t get the Nice Matin job as I wasn’t legal, but a couple of evenings later I got a call from the other restaurant, and the next morning I went to meet with the manager, a slightly tense woman (let’s call her M). She wanted someone to answer phones, make coffees, serve desserts, and whip up the occasional cocktail. It sounded like an easy and fun gig, so I started the next evening.

I thought my Italian experience would help, though I was clearly hired for this particular job as none of the current employees spoke decent English. I spent most of my time on the phone taking orders, which could often get out of control (especially when busy New Yorkers call for a delivery of “penne with butter”). My other duties included making coffees and cocktails (neither of which I was yet capable), serving desserts, operating the cash register and keeping track of delivery boys’ tips. At the end of the night I’d count the register, give the night’s takings to M and wrap a drawer amount of cash in a rubber band and place it in a tumbler in the back of the fridge. M turned out to be not only tense but also uptight: the kind of micro-managing, hands-on, control freak of boss I hope never to encounter again. She would criticize everything I did and generally treated me like a small child, permanently breathing down my neck. After a couple of weeks I realized I was in hell, but I needed the money so badly I had to stick it out. It was frustrating because I’m sure some restaurant jobs can be fun. This one wasn’t.

The place itself would get very full on weekends and quite stressful. This was the only restaurant in the western world which still uses the carbon paper check, which means to change something requires crossing out and rewriting on three separate pieces of paper, resulting in lots of scribbling and many screwed-up orders. You try mixing a flirtini, slicing a strawberry to be served atop a panna cotta, and making three decaf espressos while on the phone with an angry Central Park West resident who wants to know what happened to her side of grilled zucchini. Sometimes when the delivery boys were extra busy I’d be sent on foot to deliver food locally. This was always a thrill for three reasons: 1) it was a sudden chance to escape the hell of the restaurant and call home; 2) I’d invariably receive a handsome personal tip; 3) and more importantly, I’d be afforded a sneak peak inside the home of an affluent Upper West Sider.

M herself knew very little about Italian food or wine, believing penne alla vodka or spaghetti and meatballs (her bestselling dishes) to be the height of European sophistication. She also refused to acknowledge that someone could be more informed than her on this (or any other) subject. I got the impression she felt she was doing people a huge favour just by letting them eat in her restaurant, and I felt her general the-customer-is-always-wrong philosophy was an unfortunate attitude with which for someone in the hospitality business to be burdened. On many occasions people took issue with her petty rules and extortionate drinks prices. I ended up losing count of the people who left the restaurant abruptly saying something to the extent of “I’m never coming back.” She’d often tell busboys off with the line, “This is not a diner,” which she’d repeat, almost like a mantra, as if it were her who needed convincing.

The food actually wasn’t bad and we had a number of regulars, including author Philip Roth (who always ordered a Sprite with no ice). Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) ate there one Friday night, and former mayor Ed Koch came in once before quickly realizing he was in the wrong restaurant (this happened often). I also took several orders from the McEnroe household on Central Park West. Sadly employees weren’t treated to the same fare, but the nights were so long I’d actually look forward to my eleven o’clock bowl of over-cooked rigatoni swimming in thin watery tomato sauce washed down with a tumbler of Diet Pepsi.

A further sign of her rampant paranoia, M spied on us through a small camera connected to a computer located in an office upstairs, and when she wasn’t in the restaurant she would call to tell me not to talk to the other waiter or to ask the busboy not to stand in the window. Employees weren’t allowed to try the actual dishes we served, so when customers asked I had to say something stupid like “I wouldn’t know actually, but it sounds nice.” During the long day shifts, when the restaurant was generally empty, I wasn’t even allowed to make myself an espresso. When I decided to change the CDs in the CD changer (there’s only so much Norah Jones and k.d. lang a man can take) M scolded me for going through her private things. One day I saw actor Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Ben Stiller’s dad in real life) walk past the window. I wanted to chase after him shouting “SERENITY NOW!”

One particularly slow afternoon in March was livened up by an unexpected visit from the Health Department. Panicked, M immediately sent me upstairs to try and keep silent the cat which lives in the restaurant, but I guess she didn’t count on the inspectors finding the open can of cat food in the fridge. “You got a cat?!” one of them exclaimed. I could barely contain my laughter. M made up some lame story about the cat being there because her son was allergic, and they let it slide. That cat — whose name was Fusilli — was arguably the most ridiculous aspect of a ridiculous job. At the end of the night we’d have to take it out of its cage, feed it and then barricade it in the kitchen, where it would no doubt eliminate any vermin that tried to enter. Of course, before being tucked in for the night, Fusilli enjoyed roaming like cats do around the dining room floor and under the tables, and we were often let out several minutes late as Pedro the dishwasher chased after it with a napkin. On these occasions I’d just stand in the window and try and focus on the NBA game on the TV in the restaurant across the street.

As the weeks progressed and began to care less and less about the restaurant there were several changes in personnel. Bussers and delivery boys would rotate as often as the week’s specials, but the restaurant also went through its share of waiters. When the Nepalese head waiter suddenly quit, a series of potential replacements were brought in, none of whom lasted longer than a week. One of them was a tall American man. Around thirty minutes into his first full shift his face had already turned ashen with horror. Needless to say, he failed to show up for his next shift after his girlfriend suffered a “freak injury rolling out of bed.” M also rehired a girl from Staten Island, who had worked at the restaurant previously before leaving to perform as a dancer in Las Vegas. Now, back in New York, she had agreed to return to her old job, which was evidently much worse than she’d remembered. About two weeks later she landed a mysterious position aboard a cruise ship.

During my time at the restaurant I was working days at at a marketing agency in SoHo (another disappointing experience, but that’s another story) and nights at the restaurant, which meant leaving the house at eight in the morning and getting home after midnight, or after one on the weekends. Since I wasn’t technically a member of the waitstaff I wasn’t earning tips, but sometimes the head waiter would slip me two or three bucks which meant I got to eat a bagel or pizza slice for lunch the next day around 4:30pm before my shift started. So I was barely eating proper meals, and when I did it was sloppy pasta cooked by a tired little guy named José. I was spending more waking minutes per day hanging around on a Times Square subway platform watching the rats scurrying under the tracks than at home. And eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. In my final week at the restaurant M had just about pushed me to breaking point, criticizing my telephone manner, which she called “abrupt” (this after I’d answered the phone fifty times a night for the last three months) and even questioning my personal hygiene. So one day I called her saying there was work stuff I couldn’t get out of.

A couple of weeks passed, and I had still to receive my final check, so I went back one evening after work to ask for money. On one of my nights off, Paco, a smart former busboy who was still owed cash, had shown up on a Saturday night with the NYPD in tow — perhaps the one time I’d wished I’d been at work. I arrived alone and M, without as much as a hello, told me I couldn’t call her on her cellphone, then berated me for leaving so suddenly and accused me of having “convenienced myself.” This was the tête-a-tête I’d fantasized about. I could have said she was lucky I’d lasted two and-a-half months longer than her average employee. I could have told her that she was the most ungracious, unprofessional person I have ever come across. I could have told her keeping a live cat loose in the kitchen is a Condition IV violation of Code 4P of the New York City Food and Restaurant Services Act and that I could have her shut down with one phone call. But it really wasn’t worth the trouble — I wanted to rid myself of the whole scene, and erase the last three months which had unexpectedly managed to tarnish what was one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Manhattan. So I bit my tongue and walked out of there.

As far as I know the place is still in business, and to this day I still suffer from a slight nausea whenever I’m on the Upper West Side.

Raising the bar

The life of a young writer is a hectic and stressful existence, often involving long hours of frantic typing as a deadline fast approaches, time which could be better spent sleeping or enjoying a proper dinner. However, occasionally we must abandon the iBook (or 1960 Lettera 32 Olivetti typewriter) and venture into the real world, all in the name of “research”. This usually means checking out a new bar or club, a task which has the added incentive of perhaps getting a free drink and/or meeting some girls.

Thanks to their brief mention in Elle Decor magazine, I had recently become aware of two designer hotels, The Continentale and the Gallery Hotel Art, each styled and owned by the Salvatore Ferragamo family. Elle boldly describes these establishments as “the jewels in Florence’s hotel crown” — both hotels sit opposite each other in a tiny piazza neatly tucked behind the Ponte Vecchio called Viccolo dell’Oro (literally “Little Street of Gold”).

I wander through the sliding door of the Continentale Contemporary Pleasing Hotel (to give it its full name) and enter into a chic Hepburn-inspired ’60s fantasy world, though it’s much too tasteful for the term “swinging bachelor pad”. Resembling 007’s secret love nest, the lobby is a series of wooden logs, kitsch lamps and plush pink chairs. A smart man and woman stand poised like mannequins halfway up the steps, who then immediately spring to life, inviting me to take a look around the building’s several floors and mezzanines. I glide up a short flight of stairs where I arrive in what appears to be a mini-movie theatre, where the final rain-sodden frames of Breakfast at Tiffany’s play out on a large plasma screen. For a moment I almost wish I didn’t already live in Florence, just so I could come and stay here. When I return to the reception, the blonde woman awaits with a brochure, which takes the format of a selection of large-scale postcards slipped inside a clear plastic envelope.

I stroll across the piazza, and pull open the heavy wooden door of the Gallery Hotel Art. Inside, the staff is older but equally responsive to my polite inquiries, and once again I am encouraged to admire the lounge and restaurant. I am offered a drink at (The Fusion Bar) attached to the hotel, which from what I can gauge is a pretentious hangout for Florence’s superficial elite. The sign outside is enough to tell you that (The Fusion Bar) perhaps takes itself a little too seriously: the very name of the bar has to be contained within the safety of parentheses.

I perch on a chunky leather stool, order my usual Campari Soda, and begin to browse through the numerous design-related coffee-table volumes displayed by the bar. Several minutes later, the barman presents me with my drink. I don’t know what he did to it or why it took him so long, but it’s the best Campari Soda I’ve ever tasted. A long oblong dish of unidentifiable edibles arrives, which I prod at cautiously with an extra-long cocktail stick. As I mix my aperitivo and nibble on what I think is sushi, I turn to admire the blown-up photograph of a woman in her underwear answering the telephone on her hands and knees, which covers the back wall. “This is my kind of place,” I think.

continentale 2

It’s true that such places of luxury are often over-priced, overwrought and over-rated, but they do know how to treat you well and the staff have a habit of making you feel like the most important person in the room. After I’ve finished my drink and am about to leave, the concierge asks me if I’ve yet had the opportunity to see the roof terrace of the Continentale. I respond with an enthusiastic no, and he leads me to a trio of elegant young women who stand chatting by the potted plants on the decked entrance to the bar. The dapper little man picks out one of the group. “Stefania,” he interrupts. “Can you please show James to the roof terrace?” I’m so instantly enamoured by Stefania I forget to ask how he knows my name. “Certainly,” Stefania says, and with a swish of her raven ponytail she escorts me back to the Continentale. “Follow me.”

We return past the candy-coloured seats and split-screen Audrey prints and enter a stark white cube. Lit from all six sides and possibly deriving from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this futuristic box turns out to be the elevator. Stefania presses an invisible button and a few seconds later we step out at the top floor, where walk onto the Contintentale’s roof garden, also known as the Sky Lounge. OK, so the name sounds like one of those crappy bars at Heathrow where holiday-makers drink Budweiser at ten in the morning, but I am willing to forgive that oversight. Not five minutes ago (The Fusion Bar) had seemed to be the epitome of cool, but this place is on another level, literally. I think it’s what they call “raising the bar”.

The square wooden terrace is lined with a crisp green hedge and a pale cushioned bench, upon which lounge a dozen or so people apparently well-accustomed to this lifestyle, as not even the presence of Stefania garners a reaction. A vast canopy keeps out the low sunlight, and the tables — which are made of steel framed boxes — each have a bulb gently glowing inside. The overall look is slightly Scandinavian, but something tells me none of it’s IKEA. With a subtle wave of her slender hand, Stefania presents the stunning panorama, pointing out the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. “You can probably see my balcony from here,” I suggest, failing to impress her.

continentale sky lounge

This is such a magical setting, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Sky Lounge has witnessed over two dozen marriage proposals since its refurbishment in 2003. I am about to get down on one knee in front of Stefania when she turns and says, “I’ll leave you to enjoy yourself.” I thank her for the ride in the elevator and tell her I’ll be back on Saturday. It’s at this point I become aware of the intoxicating and sophisticated groove which seems to emanate from miniature speakers discreetly hidden within the foliage. I take in my surroundings and decide I’m not quite ready to leave just yet. Feeling slightly under-dressed but blending quite well in my faded t-shirt and retro adidas, I order another drink, which I sip in the company of skinny foreign models as the setting sun glistens on the Arno.

Twenty-four hours later I’m back at my usual bar for a routine aperitivo. My Campari has a slice of lemon instead of orange, floating between two rapidly melting lumps of ice which I poke at aimlessly with a straw. Needless to say this place does not enjoy the distinction of punctuation around its name. I’m sitting on metal garden furniture while munching on bits of mini pizza, the CD keeps skipping and there’s no sign of a roof terrace. My mind continues to drift back to the Continentale, where I can’t help but look forward to my next trip with Stefania in the white cube. But tonight I’m with my friends and don’t feel at all out of place. Still somehow I’m not satisfied. Something’s missing. It’s too late — the bar has been raised.