Not that I was ever a foodie, but back in the day my husband and I did a lot of eating out, and a lot of that eating out was done at high-end restaurants. In our later dining out years, we settled into being regulars at a couple of locals, venturing out occasionally to try something new. But we pretty much knocked off of our lists any place where you even vaguely had to dress up.
Not that Paul Freedman’s new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, is all given over to foodie places – hey, HoJo’s is on the list!. But the review I read of it in The New Yorker got me thinking about some of the fine – and not so fine – dining Jim and I did over the years, and I found that I’d actually been to six of the places on the list. Not bad, especially when you take into account that one of them (Delmonico’s) went out of business in 1923, and another (Le Pavillon) closed when I was in high school.
Knowing little about the points that Freedman is actually making in his book, let’s start with Le Pavillon, in NYC.
While Le Pavillon was before our time, my husband and I used to go to NYC fairly regularly, and in the early days, we used to make sure that we had at least one meal at Caravelle, Lutece, or La Côte Basque.
La Côte Basque, which was founded by Henri Soulé - founder of Le Pavillon, so I’m only one degree of separation - was pretty much our favorite. I blogged about our adventures there a couple of months back. La Côte – I can still picture the wonderful murals on the walls – had fabulous food, and you could often spot a quasi-celeb there. One time it was some cast members of the soap All My Children, another time, some big executive who was much in the news at the time we spotted him, as someone had just done a tell-all book on the shenanigans at his company.
After La Côte closed, we tried The Four Seasons and absolutely hated it. Beautiful, in a retro Mad Man kind of way, but completely uninspired. I remember my veal chop was okay, but my dijon shrimp appetizer – shrimp with a plop of mustard – was pretty blah. When the waiter asked whether I liked it, I told him I thought it was somewhat boring. He reported back to the kitchen and someone wearing a toque blanche came out and stood in the door and glowered at me.
For a couple of years, Jim and I alternated trips to NYC with trips to California. In San Francisco, we ate a bunch of the biggies (L’Orangerie, Ernies…), but the one that made the Freedman list was the Mandarin.
I remember thinking that the food was overrated – I liked Shun Lee in NYC better – but my purest recall was reaching under the table for some unbeknownst reason and finding it rimmed with a bunch of wads of chewing gum. Completely disgusting, and put me off my feed. So maybe the food really was great, but I just could get by the chewing gum.
Jim and I ventured out of SF a couple of times, to Berkeley and Napa. But I don’t think we ever ate at Chez Panisse. The one Berkeley meal I remember was at a not-so-good Thai place. We over-ordered and didn’t like the food, but were embarrassed to tell the waiter we didn’t want doggy bags. We gave it to a homeless guy. Hope he enjoyed it more than we did.
In Napa, we ate at a couple of places that I believe were sort of Chez Panisse-y. (The Mustard Grill?)
The final restaurant on the “Changed America” list where I ate with Jim was Howard Johnson.
I’d eaten at them before – hey, I’m a New Englander – but my most memorable time was when Jim and I went winter camping in the Catoctin Mountains with a couple of his friends. After a couple of nights nearly freezing to death, we took a break to stay at a HoJo’s in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where, after taking much-needed showers, and taking much-needed naps in a much-needed warm bed, we ate in the restaurant. Nothing has ever tasted better to me than that grilled hot dog.
A couple of places on Freedman’s list I made it to without Jim.
Somewhere along the line, I ate at a Schrafft’s, although I mostly know them from being a candy company in Boston, and for their building, which still stands, in the Charlestown section.
On my second trip to NYC, as a college student, I ate at Mama Leone’s. Loud, hectic, and not especially good, unless you like watery ravioli. But, hey, we were college kids – not to mention tourists – and what did we know. At one point, Mama Leone’s opened an outpost in Boston, and I ate there once on something of a lark with a couple of friends. As a free appetizer, they put out a plate of olives. I chose a large one, and, when I went to bite into it, my teeth hit bite marks. Fine dining at its best.
In 1972, my college roommate and I drove cross country, and our one fancy, dress up meal, was at Antoine’s. I even remember what I wore – a purple jersey mini-dress – and what I ate – Oysters Rockefeller and Pompano en Papillote. And I remember that the service was very solicitous. Touristy, hell yes, but, when in tourist-ville. Fast forward a decade or so, and Jim and I spent a long weekend in New Orleans. I think we took a pass on Antoine’s. But we did eat bread pudding every day.
Sylvia’s, despite all of our New York trips, was not a place that Jim and I ever ventured to. Maybe next time I’ll do the Harlem Shuffle on up there!
Meanwhile, the book sure looks interesting. With my waitressing past – including stints at two of the oldest restaurants in America, Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House – I’m quite sure I’ll find it interesting.