When dining options run from faux retro bistros to sharing a distressed farmhouse table with strangers, there is something wonderfully enchanting about old restaurants that seem preserved in amber — white tablecloths, old-fashioned menus and all.
In an iconic scene at the “21” club in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” when Burt Lancaster, as the columnist J. J. Hunsecker, snaps at the waiter, complaining that his drinks are warm, the waiter tries to explain, and Hunsecker shoots back coldly, “What are you, a critic?” Even with the banquettes and checked tablecloths rendered in black and white, the mood of the place is captured: the clattering conversation, the sizzling steak, the frost on the perfectly stirred martini, the sense that something was happening that was worth being a part of.
Can you miss what you’ve never known? It’s easy to romanticize what’s past, to lament restaurants we never knew, dreaming of watching cooks make butter cakes in the foggy windows of Childs, waltzing into Le Pavillon for coq au vin or Luchow’s for sauerbraten, and taking ladies’ lunch at Mary Elizabeth’s. The remaining institutions take on a definite luster, a sort of faded chic. Part of it is, paradoxically, novelty: certain old restaurants, because they have not changed, now feel increasingly special, almost like stage sets come to life.
I understand the appeal of pulling up a stool to a communal table and learning about my wild-foraged meal from an earnest waiter. But there is something deeply comforting about knowing exactly what the expectations and boundaries of a meal are, whether that means a napkin crisply refolded when you rise from the table, a Manhattan expertly mixed with no “surprising” or “interesting” twists, or a water glass refilled so deftly your conversation doesn’t falter. Without falling into clichés about the state of the modern restaurant, there are things we miss about the old days — even if we have only seen them on screen.
In an age of studied casualness, of competitive waiting in line and chef-stalking and meal-Instagramming, of pedigreed pigs and forced intimacy with your neighbors’ elbows, it is novel to be served by a dignified career waiter in a jacket who knows his business. It is relaxing to look at a menu and (with the exception of certain démodé concoctions) know exactly what you’re getting. And most magical of all, it is astounding to be transported to a time when people not only dressed up, but also when your chair was pulled out for you and your cigarette (yes, cigarette!) was lit before it had reached your lips.
There has been a vogue for quite a while for new, sepia-toned, retro-style restaurants: Keith McNally’s carefully applied Parisian patinas; the cocktail-bar trend chock-full of youthful mixologists in mustaches and suspenders; the Torrisi boys’ series of painstaking re-creations in downtown Manhattan, from buzzy “red sauce” Carbone — complete with ironically heavy menus and thick napery — to the carefully composed ZZ’s Clam Bar. These places are fun, but they lack the charm of spots that actually are preserved in amber, that have been doing the same thing, un-self-consciously, for decades. Going to those new-wave old-school places can feel like visiting Plimoth Plantation, pretending we live in a time when eating out was glamorous and special, reserved for either the fabulous or an occasion. On any night, you can choose between a reconstituted meal from 1962 and a deconstructed chicken-and-waffle, possibly in cocktail form, and definitely locally sourced. Restaurateurs today are often great showmen and indifferent hosts — but sometimes don’t we all want to feel not like spectators or critics or pals, but like guests?
There is an undeniable charm to being cosseted in the deep banquettes and soft carpeting of La Grenouille, deep in Butterfield 8 country, where the atmosphere is quiet enough for gossip with even the most ancient companion. The social X-rays may be wheelchair-bound these days, but you can still conjure a defiant Nan Kempner striding through La Côte Basque, now closed, in just the tunic jacket of her Yves Saint Laurent suit, having removed her trousers, which were prohibited for women. Part of the appeal of the remaining Manhattan bastions is this sort of history. At La Grenouille, the anachronisms live on: damned if the waiters aren’t still ceremoniously sprinkling croutons on your split-pea soup.
The cozy, classic, golden-lit bistro atmosphere of the perennially chic, consummately Parisian Le Voltaire is a Gallic analogue. Yes, you are surrounded by the Seventh Arrondissement homes of Parisian aristocrats. Yes, that man over there is Valentino; yes, every other table in the tiny room is occupied by an elegant, monied regular. But there is a genuine patina that McNally can only dream of. London’s Gay Hussar, where generations of Labour M.P.’s have been spooning up chilled cherry soup, chicken paprikash and other once-exotic Hungarian fare in caricature-covered Soho surroundings since the 1950s, is, frankly, dowdy. But when you walk in, you’re not merely transported but instantly comforted. Even if you’ve never been there before.
All of these places will make you feel at home, appreciated and relaxed, whether that means the bustle of the Tadich Grill in San Francisco — the air filled with the cacophony of martini shakers, the menu full of lobster thermidors and crab Louies, the long wooden bar packed with a mix of gregarious businesspeople and, somehow, always someone you haven’t seen in 10 years — or the rougher environment of the old Parisian Right Bank worker’s restaurant, Bouillon Chartier, with its enormous Art Nouveau interior, where the unflappable waiters tot up the bills on the paper tablecloths of prostitutes and tourists alike and the unadorned steaks and escargots are plopped down with all the grace of a Dickensian workhouse. Antoine’s Restaurant, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, is the oldest restaurant in the country still owned by its original family, and claims the invention of oysters Rockefeller more than 100 years ago. At Galatoire’s nearby on Bourbon Street, the same families have been dining on turtle soup and bread pudding beneath the ceiling fans in the fleur-de-lis-patterned dining room for generations; many of the waiters have been working there for generations, too. When people are at ease with what they do — like any good host — it puts you at ease, too.
Now, I admit that I have been known to romanticize anything that’s still standing after a few decades. When people make the mistake of asking me to pick a restaurant, a horrible choice lies before me: name something innocuous and modern that everyone will enjoy, or go somewhere I really like, and risk depressing my guests, alienating new friends and exposing myself as an irredeemable eccentric. I have learned that while a lemon tenderly wrapped in cheesecloth, a little round of waxed paper on the butter pat and a flaming chafing dish may make my heart go pitter-pat, the reaction from others is often confusion, suspicion or dismay. “Just the words ‘El Quijote’ make me want to kill myself,” said one friend flatly, in response to my suggestion of the ancient “La Mancha”-themed lobster palace in the Chelsea Hotel.
So I eat by myself. Recently, in need of a lift, and perhaps influenced by a repeat viewing of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I put on a cocktail dress, hopped on the subway and treated myself to dinner at the “21” Club. I checked my coat and followed the waiter — a younger man whom I didn’t recognize — through the crowd of older diners to a table that, I hoped, was not too Siberian. I ordered a martini and surveyed the scene; not full, and not, perhaps, a power crowd, but still unmistakably “21.” I imagined that the smells, the sounds and — from certain angles — the view were the same my grandparents had experienced. The waiter brought me a large, heavy menu, but I already knew what I wanted, and when he returned after a decorous interval, I asked for a longtime signature dish of the place: steak Diane, flambéed tableside. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how to make it.” I felt very sad for a moment, and very nostalgic, as if it was the end of an era. And then I realized that I’d never even had the dish in real life.