“I used to be ‘with it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you…” –Abe Simpson
I have long considered myself to be a garden variety food snob. I enjoy voicing my disdain for chain restaurants that misuse the word ‘artisan’ and fast food joints that seem to spend more time marketing to kids than they do making good product. I know holding such an opinion is not exactly earth-shattering stuff. I suspect that anyone that routinely visits a gastropub or a restaurant where the Executive Chef looks like the owner of a motorcycle repair shop feels the same way.
I’ve also come to terms with the fact that sometimes, I can be a bit of a jerk when it comes to food and restaurants in a way that goes beyond the low-hanging fruit. The biggest example of this: I have developed some sort of weird sense of schadenfraude whenever a restaurant that defined high-end dining through white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters, and anachronistic cuisine bites the dust. Whenever an old-school joint closes down, I tend to arrogantly chalk it up as a victory for those of us who “understand” modern food. You know our type– we’re the kind of diner that worships at the Church of Bourdain and will drone incessantly about how a minimally arranged pile of bones filled with rivers of gelatinous, unctuous marrow can blow our minds. I also have developed a habit of assuming that the only thing these shuttered vintage joints needed to do to survive was to put the flaming tableside steaks aside and cater to the contemporary diner’s sensibilities – for diners like me. It’s total jerk stuff, and I will not-so-begrudgingly cop to it.
I did not, however, peg myself as a culinary existentialist.
Then I met Dan.
My encounter with Dan takes place on a Friday afternoon at the bar at Charlie Palmer’s, the eponymous now-defunct Orange County restaurant concept overseen by the James Beard-award winning guy behind New York’s acclaimed Aureole. I’m there for reasons of journalistic integrity (read: I’m taste testing libations on a Friday afternoon for a story on cocktails). The bartender and I are comparing and contrasting the bartending scenes of Orange County and San Diego when Dan slowly ambles up to the bar and takes a swivel chair near me, leaving an empty spot between us as a buffer zone. The slight blush bursting out in flourishes behind the age spots on his cheeks and bald head as he smiles toward the barkeep indicates that he might have made his slow saunter here before. The bartender disengages mid-sentence, gives Dan a shout-out, and immediately starts prepping Dan’s drink before he can reciprocate the greeting, confirming what his ruddy complexion hinted.
“Do you know Rich?” the bartender asks as he whirls toward his customer, martini fully brandished.
“I do not,” Dan replies as he extends his hand to lock with my already outstretched one.
I pick up some context as Dan’s conversation starts to fluctuate between me and the bartender. He’s probably in his 80s, originally from the East Coast, came this way due to a stint in the military around World War II, and stayed after the enemy was defeated. His effusive charm convinces me that he’s the kind of guy that is loaded with stories that may come out on occasion; I start silently hoping that I caught him on a day that he is willing to share.
I get my wish as Dan begins spinning snippets about restaurants of Orange County’s past. He smiles warmly as he recalls taking his wife to an elegant place called The Hurley Bell. He botches the name of a long-vanished French place named Chez something or other, where he and his business associates would meet for drinks (at least, he may have botched the name – my beverage may have impaired my hearing). He brings up a place called Omar’s in the beachfront city of San Clemente “where they used to let you bet on the ponies off-track,” he says with the kind of one-note guffaw that indicates that he cleaned up at Omar’s a couple of times. All of this is great stuff. He’s throwing out names of restaurants that I never knew existed here; venues whose footprint is buried under the avalanche of time and poorly archived historic record. I’m hanging on every word, partially because I feel like I should. I realize his tales are really the main thing that is keeping the memory of these long-dead restaurants alive. When he and his contemporaries are gone, these places may cease to exist. That’s how time works. It’s in cahoots with death, especially when it comes to shuttered business ventures.
The bartender stops Dan mid-anecdote. “Do you know that Rich is a food writer?” he asks.
The green in Dan’s eyes seems to get a little more emerald. “No, I did not,” he replies as he slightly shifts in his chair to face me even straighter. The lurch in my own back disappears in anticipation of something important.
“Let me ask you something,” he says.
“Have you heard of El Bulli?”
My mind slightly melts over the fact that an octogenarian just dropped the name of Ferran Adria’s legendary Spanish eatery; the one that served as home for his pioneering molecular gastronomic voodoo.
“Yes!” I eagerly reply. “Yes I have!”
“I’m glad that place closed down,” he snaps. “What the hell was that? That wasn’t food! The guy’s not a chef – he should have been a chemistry teacher!”
I don’t dare admit to thinking that Adria’s an epicurean genius. It is not because I lack confidence in my own opinion. It’s because I sense the conversation is about to give me the clearest example of the gastronomic divide that separates modern dining snobs like myself and old-school types that I have not seen in, well, possibly ever. I don’t want that to slip through my fingers because I end up defending Adria’s post-modern take on cuisine. I’m in no mood to be perceived as a young punk who looks like he knows eff-all about food in this guy’s eyes. I am, however, in the mood to see how far down the rabbit hole I can get him to burrow.
I ask him what his favorite restaurant is in Southern California. “Musso and Frank, up in Los Angeles,” he quickly replies. “They haven’t changed the menu in 100 years. I know what I’m going to get every time I walk in there, and I like that. They don’t mess around with anything new.”
“See, that’s where you and I differ,” I reply cautiously, hoping my words from my mouth don’t double as a tip of my hand. “I’m on the lookout for different places to eat. I always appreciate going to a new place and having a new experience.”
“Experience,” Dan half-mutters. “If I wanted an experience, I’d hire a hooker.” We both laugh for what I can only assume are wildly different reasons.
I counter his call-girl barb by asking if he thinks if a dinner could be ruined if he had bad service, or if the atmosphere stunk, or if some other non-food part of the meal suffered severely. “Not if the food is good,” he replies almost urgently. “If the food is good, then it doesn’t matter if the service or anything else is crap. I’ve waited in long lines to get into a restaurant before, and I didn’t do that because I was excited about the service.” Well, then.
Eventually, the conversation drifts over to New York, as these types of discussions are wont to do. I placate him somewhat by making sure the “Peter Luger’s vs. Keens Steakhouse” debate rears its old, doddering head by mentioning that I wanted to hit the latter venue on my next New York trip. “Well, Peter Luger is in Brooklyn,” he replies through a demure smile. “Why the hell would anyone go over to Brooklyn to eat?” I smile politely as my brain works overtime to prevent the names of the three-dozen or so white-hot eateries that have flooded the trendy borough in the last decade from spilling out of my mouth.
The banter peters out as we resume our initial intended purposes. I finish my final beverage and thank Dan for his conversation as I get up to leave. I’m brimming with excitement on the way home. I have talked to the only type of person left to prevent culinary dinosaurs from meeting their inevitable fate as epicurean oil deposits, and I know it. All of the other aspects of his persona – member of the Greatest Generation; World War II vet; local culinary historian – all sink into a blob of aspic because he dug the selfsame routine of Musso & Frank and didn’t get Ferran Adria. I go home and eventually annoy my wife with a gleeful recap of our conversation. I hear my voice’s mocking tone; I know I’m being a snobby food jerk. I also know I somehow don’t care all that much, because the guy intoned that Brooklyn was a culinary graveyard.
I don’t really treat Dan’s sentiments as nothing more than comic fodder until sometime later that evening, after the kids have been tucked into bed and my wife calls it a night. The quiet of my patio directs my brain to start really pondering his statements and the conditions that may have caused them. I recall the names of the Hurley Bell and that may-or-may-not-have-been-mispronounced French restaurant he mentioned. I conjure up what they may have looked like back in the day. That I cannot shake the contrast of white tablecloths set against a deep red interior and vaguely foreign accented gentlemen behind flaming gueridon stations doesn’t exactly shock me – based on Dan’s love of things that stay stagnant, it’s the expected imagery. Yet I also imagine Dan in these restaurants – a younger version of the man; at least, a rough on-the-fly representation of what he may have looked like five decades ago. This iteration of Dan is a badass, almost as if he had just stepped out of the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners. His retro pseudo presence forces me to ponder the inconvenient truth that he is not some doddering curmudgeon that doesn’t get modern food as much as he and those of his age range are merely keeping hold of what was the culinary apex back when they were hip. And going back four or five decades, the pinnacle of dining was represented in much simpler terms than they are now. Nobody knew all that much about whatever they were eating back except what animal it was sliced from and what the names of the sides were. But nobody cared, either, because unlike now, nobody knew that they were supposed to care about such things. The only thing that people like Dan possibly took stock in was that going to these places dramatically increased the chances of getting laid.
I filter Dan’s opinion of Ferran Adria and his ignorance of the Brooklyn scene through this light. Doing so leaves me glaring at a philosophical quandary. The unapologetically old-school restaurants that people like Dan likes – the ones that seemingly refuse to change with the times – tend to fossilize when enough of their loyal patrons die (at least, that has always been the default reason we wiseacres tend to ascribe to such closures). But as I think of what Dan may have been like some forty years ago, I’m left to wonder if the reason these shuttered places choose to stand pat instead of tweaking things to placate the modern diner is at least partially borne from a desire to stick around as long as possible for the Dans of the dining scene, so they can enjoy a form of dining that was the absolute bee’s knees back in the day before they call it a life. I’m still not sure one way or the other, but the mere fact that this even pops into my head makes me feel like a horrible for insisting that changing to my tastes was the only move they should have made – even more so than what I freely acknowledge.
This act of pondering morphs into a paradox I imagine myself in the comfortable loafers that Dan was wearing during our chance encounter at Charlie Palmer’s, where I am sitting at a bar sitting next to some young punk-ass that is trying very hard not to laugh at me, even as he is engaging what may appear to be a meaningful conversation. Frankly, it terrifies the hell out of me. There are a lot of things to the culinary landscape that have yet to be formed; different concepts, unique flavor combos that nobody’s tried yet, cocktails that taste splendiferous despite their alien hues. Will I be ready to make that transition into these as yet to be foreseen trends? Or will I turn tail, make some derisive comment involving a reference to prostitution, and try to find one of the few places in my region that still serves, say, bone marrow with an oxtail marmalade before it gets shut down to make way for a new, hip eatery with a menu that I don’t get? On a bigger scale, at what point will my opinions rooted in modern food snobbery switch into the ramblings of an out-of-touch epicurean? Will it ever get to that point, and if so, will I even give a damn? Will my future consist of me discovering that the local Denny’s or IHOP has figured out how to make a decent shortib dish and I’ll end up with a Cialis-aided boner for the Early Bird special? Since life can only be understood backwards but demand that its events must run forward, I honestly don’t know. But in the wake of meeting Dan and dealing with all of this epicurean existentialism, I know that I’m not a fan of the unknown.
However, I have somehow managed to provide myself with a slight glimmer of hope to carry with me into this uncertain future. A few days after our encounter, I hop over Musso & Frank’s website, just so I can peruse the archaic nature of a menu that hasn’t changed in decades. The musty earmarks are present all over the site: the Art Deco font; the relentless callbacks to its near 100 year-old history; photos of older waiters decked out in red jackets and bowties. I start scrolling the menu, Dan’s comment about the menu not being changed for decades tucked into my brain. I come across an entrée of calf’s sweetbreads right after I see a plate of grilled lamb kidneys and bacon (“Charlie Chaplin’s favorite” according to the menu). Both entrees are listed in the menu’s “classics” section, and the latter plate’s Tinsletown clue implies it’s probably been around since the place opened its doors in 1919. These offal-centric plates have become the kind of stuff that adventurous food snobs – read: buttholes like me – would not only actively seek out at a gastropub, but would also heap praise on such a hip eatery for having the stones to serve them. And yet here they are, being served at Dan’s favorite restaurant, just like they did when they were the coolest restaurant in town – back when a guy like Dan was the coolest dining patron around.
Maybe turning into a guy like Dan forty odd years down the road isn’t that scary after all.