Recently I posted a piece on my favorite (so far) restaurant of all time: the old Fuji Restaurant in New York. But there are others I remember as well.
Tom’s and my favorite French restaurant, Crepes Suzette, was on Restaurant Row, West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It was run by two French women of mature years, the more managerial of the two named Madeleine. We must have been predictable, for on one occasional when we entered we heard Madeleine mention to her companion, “Here come the two Rob Roy boys!” While the food was not the best French cooking you could get in New York at the time, it was good, reliable, and not too pricy and we could always count on a table if we dropped by. I recall most fondly the boeuf Bourguignon, the beef Wellington, the broiled scallops, and most especially their Dover sole.
Madeleine had a nephew who waited tables and who could also tend bar and greet customers if Madeleine was away. Jean-Claude was young, slim, attractive, and full of himself. He never actually flirted (especially when Madeleine was there), but he somehow let it be known that he was not averse to being admired. Once a man sitting by himself at a table next to Tom’s and mine ordered the Dover sole. When it came out it looked beautiful. The nephew set it down across from the man and did a perfect job fileting the fish and removing the bone and reassembling the fish for presentation, and I am convinced that part of his presentation was himself to us. And then he picked up the plate to present to the customer, and as he was doing so he tipped the plate just that tiny little centimeter too far and the fish slid gradually right off the plate into the man’s lap. Talk about one crestfallen waiter and one angry Madeleine! Tom and I were graceful enough not to laugh. At least not then.
Most of our forays into Italian fare were in the Village, including at La Marionette Pizzeria under Tom’s apartment (the pizzas were good, but the lasagnas were too. Terrible wine). Yep, that’s Tom’s old apartment just above the restaurant. Later Mario sold the restaurant and it was replaced by a Jamaican one called Dayo. Tom hated that every passer-by at night seemed to break out into that song.
Of course, if you wanted to have the best Chinese meal in town you hoped to be invited to a meal at the apartment of my great friend from Columbia, Sha Fagan. She did like it hot, but then so did I. She would make her own hot oil by heating a cup of peanut oil to the boiling point and then stirring in a cup of the hottest ground Thai pepper she could find before straining it therough a coffee filter. I have done this in Sawyerville, using a tin funnel and coffee filter and a tin coffee can. If you try this at home, be sure to combine the pepper and oil outsid the house. I’ll never forget the wonderful Mongolian hot pot dinner she made as a going-away party for one of our colleagues. If Sha accompanied you to the most mundane Chinese restaurant and ordered in Chinese with instruction, you could bet the food brought out would be on the high end of excellent.
I had an adventure there once. We were there with our friends Don Moyer and Margaret Shaneen, and Don started criticizind some politician, I believe Mayor Ed Koch. I made some comment like don't forget that when election time rolls around. Don said, "I don't vote. If I did I might be called for jury dukty." I exploded. "If you don't vote you have no right to cirticize!" A rouind of applause broke out at the nex table, occupied by former Attorney General Ransey Clark and party.
My greatest regret about my New York dining days was that I didn’t discover Thai food until the last couple of years of my stay. There was a wonderful Thai restaurant not far from me on Seventh Avenue about Seventeenth Street. We never went there until one day a friend from work, African bibliographer Betsy Widenmann, had a late afternoon meeting at NYU and arranged to meet us first at Tom’s apartment for drinks, something Betsy enjoyed as much as we did. Afterwards at Betsy’s suggestion we walked up to Thai Taste restaurant for dinner. It was a revelation. We took to the food and the atmosphere immediately, and the hotter the better. We went there often after that, and one of the last meals I had in New York was at Thai Taste. Just recently an excellent Thai restaurant, Ruan Thai, opened in Greensboro, Alabama, and I am trying to make up for lost time in my eating Thai.
I can’t let the food topic go without mentioned the Ethiopian restaurant slightly north of the School of International and Public Affairs building on Amsterdam Avenue, which house the Lehman Library and the new separate documents collection which I supervised. I liked sitting on the floor to dine (I’m too old dfor that now) and I liked not having knives and forks and just using the napkin-like bread to grab bites of the various foods spread out before us. Too much food for lunch, although a satisfied customer of my documents collection and my help to him did take me there one day for a two-hour feast. Once on one of my two trips back to New York after I had moved away I was staying with my friends Jim Hoover and John Aubry. Jim had a must-attend function at the Law School that involved dinner (he was in charge of the Law Library and all law school
You descended a short flight of steps to get to the door, and when you entered you would likely be greeted by Fedora Dorato herself, the grande dame of the place. She and her husband (was his name George?) lived above the restaurant, and he was the bartender. If perchance you arrived before Fedora, you got to experience her descent down those steps to grace her valued clientele. She was a delight. She loved her waiters, her boys, as she called them. Actually she would call her customers that as well. The waiters tended to be reasonably attractive in an aging boyish way, a description that might fit many of the customers. Walter Brown McCord, a friend from my hometown, had once waited tables for her, and later on he would fill in if she happened to be short-staffed. At the age of 90 she finally sold the restaurant in 2010. She died a year later: Lost City: Fedora Donato, Owner of Famed Village Restaurant, Dies (lostnewyorkcity.blogspot.com)
One got to recognize repeat customers, mostly dressed in the standard gay wear of the time with more than a smidgen of heavy-duty leather drag scattered about. Some of these I later recognized as extras in William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising. They might look scary, but I soon realized they tended to be gentle and kind. Sometimes couples from out of town would show up, some of them uncomfortable with their surroundings and some perfectly happy.
Occasionally the known face would turn up, the most memorable one for me being my idol Arthur C. Clarke. I was not surprised that he was there. I had already figured him out from reading between the lines in his science fiction works when I was a teen.
Once Tom and I were dining later than usual and the pressure was off the staff. Fedora was sitting with a couple of her waiter buddies at a nearby table. We both looked up when we overheard her speak the phrase “a man who didn’t know what a blowjob was.” Tom asked her about that man, one we thought not likely to be a patron of this particular restaurant. “No, Amanda. My granddaughter. Amanda didn’t know what a blowjob was. I overheard a conversation when she had a girlfriend from school over to spend the night. The girlfriend asked Amanda if she knew. When Amanda said she didn’t the girl began to explain it to her. I stepped in and said that Amanda didn’t really need to know. Then the girl asked me if I knew what it meant, and if I didn’t she could sort of show me how it was done. I told her I didn’t need to know either, and I got them to change the subject.”
I miss Fedora, both the restaurant and the lady. I never knew whether the restaurant was named for her or she for the restaurant. It doesn’t matter, for to me they are inseparable. From both I learned an important lesson: there is more to a restaurant than just good food.
[To be continued by Favorite Restaurants in Alabama, but not immediately.]