22 March 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distant Restaurant Reviewer

I dropped by Bonnie Slotnick's wonderful used cookbook store on W. 10th Street the other night and picked up the 1976 paperback edition of "The New York Times Guide to Dining Out in New York," just because I thought it would be fun to see what was thought of some of Gotham's most famous restaurants 30 years ago. Only five chow houses were then given the fabled four stars: Christ Cella, La Caravelle, Le Cynge, Maxwell's Plum and Parioli Romanissimo. Not one of 'em is open today. In fact, I could only find a dozen or so eateries in the volume that were still around. I may be missing a couple, but here are the survivors:

El Parador
Four Seasons
Joe Allen
John's of 12th Street
La Bonne Soupe
Le Cirque
Le Perigord
Le Veau d'Or
One If by Land, One If by Sea
Oyster Bar
Palm and Palm Too
P.J. Clarke's
Russian Tea Room

(There are, of course, other long-haulers left in New York, but they weren't mentioned in the '76 Times guide.)

The book was compiled by John Canaday, a man better known as an art critic who had a brief career at a Times restaurant reviewer, and he makes for rather crotchety guide through the Manhattan food world. Canaday was nearly 70 when the book was published and it shows. He complains constantly about excessive dining-room noise, drafts and being rushed through his meal. (I'm guessing John was the kind of guy to spend 45 minutes over his soup.)

But more than anything, Canaday comes off as a lonely man with a king-sized, Timesian chip on his shoulder about not having been invited to the Big Party. About a place called Joe and Rose, he says "The trouble is you don't feel really welcome unless you're one of the gang." Of La Cote Basque, he carps "Our only reservation about this nearly perfect restaurant is that it is notorious for playing favorites." La Grenouille "operates on a caste system." Le Perigord "has occasional lapses into snootiness." Everybody at Pietro's "seems to know the people at several other tables." And exclusive "21" gets a total drubbing: "Unless they know you at `21' there's not much point in trying to get in, and there's not much point in getting in if you're not already known once you're inside." He docks the club two whole stars for not treating every Joe (or John) like a king.

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