Photo by iMorpheus
The show begins when I walk into a restaurant. The rise of the stage; the thunder of the spotlight. The music; the lights, the color, the darkness or the bright; the crowd, or the emptiness — and I haven’t even glanced at the menu yet. Acting is reacting, and immediately, the curtain is up. My costume, of course, matches the scenery. I walk up to the hostess, still behind the drape of her podium. And then, as I stroll through the corridors between the tables, I can feel the lights and the looks. Faces stare up — the audience; I return the gaze. It is acting at its finest; how often is the actor at one with the character, as when she is playing herself? All the world may be a stage, but in our apartments, with our bowls of pasta and our couches and TV screens, there is no audience: so what is the point of performing? No — city dwellers need a show. Since the show must go on, we cast ourselves as performers, and each day as we walk the streets, we observe the scene as we create it. The New York restaurant, claimed by locals to be the best in the world, is the concentration of that performance, the Shakespearean pinnacle of urban drama. They say you eat with your eyes first. But when — and where — does the feast begin?
The designers who create the ambiance of a restaurant set the scene for the most common of human rituals. They frame the direction, and we act accordingly. Why do we go out to eat? The writer Christine Muhlke claims it's because restaurants are better looking than her apartment. I would add that we look better in restaurants than we do in our apartments. We don what is necessary to make ourselves worthy of the feast; be it a dress, or an attitude to match. We make ourselves a part of the feast — the part that is eaten first, the part that is seen by others.
And to think of all the restaurants that have been my stage: La Closerie de Lilas, in Paris, where I remember I ordered celeriac remoulade. But more vividly even than this, I remember the bathroom — gold, like the inside of a pirate’s chest — and a very refined and convivial pirate, at that. As I stared in the mirror, I imagined the flanking reflections staring back at me. And there, on the boards of history, I straightened the 1930s Hollywood turban on my head. Behind me laughed the hysterical chuckle of Zelda Fitzgerald; perhaps she and Hadley Hemingway had a tête à tête in this WC. Who will I be when I am upstairs? Dangerous. How will I sit? Straight. How will I act? Sly.
Or Freud's, a cocktail lounge in Oxford. Here, a scene of debauchery takes place each night in a structure that was once upon a time a church. Through the whitewash that veils the frescoes, the painted saints stare with disapproving, disappointed, eyes. As I order yet another fruity concoction doused in rum and the vapors fly with bats’ wings from my mouth to my head, pumping with my heart through my blood to the aligning beat of the bass — I feel devilish. The whites of the eyes of my fellow revelers, and the white-veiled eyes of the whitewashed saints combine, in the comparative dark, in a kind of audience of expectation. I lean back headily against the cold marble column, happy to play the part.
Of course, not every stage is set to make me the star. Back home in Manhattan, at the wood-paneled Waverly Inn, squashed like a sardine between Georgina Chapman, long and lean as a poplar, and Graydon Carter, the sturdy and presiding oak, I feel little more significant than the pile of weeds that have turned up dressed on my salad plate. I, an equally unimportant weed, am also dressed and my face and my silk shift are part of the set, the visual feast, against which the Georginas and Graydons of the world are set to shine. As the flock of the famous rise and flit amongst each other’s tables, their conversation fills the air with sparrow chatter, and I feel, with the burning blush in my cheeks, that all the wood in the place is blazing, and I can not wait to be out.
I stop my big yellow taxi alongside the real woods uptown — Central Park, for a true feast. The Waverly Inn may have looked good enough to eat, but I scarcely swallowed a bite. Next to the hot dog stand, gleaming metallic under the luminescence from the signature Victorian lanterns that line the dark and hazy tree-lined paths, my silk shift takes on new luster — more radiant, perhaps, than it had looked downtown, outshone by limelight, not gleaming in moonlight. As the man twists mustard inside the bun, he smiles at me, and I smile broadly back. A New York hotdog may not be an extravagance, but it is every bit a feast. Decadent, and a bit naughty, wrapped in the sweet, soft sponginess of that golden white bun, a blanket so comforting and nostalgic it is no wonder the hotdog chose it as its final resting place. And the dog itself, more like us than we know, hard and seemingly impenetrable from without, but after the first snap, steaming and yielding and addictive within.
I lick the spicy golden mustard from the corner of my mouth, and look around, from golden mustard, to a golden mile. More beautiful than any restaurant interior, here is the stately classicism of Fifth Avenue, marble and concrete tempered by the soft green of installed nature across the street, illuminated like peek-a-boo by the gleam of headlights and street lamps. The mica from the sidewalk dazzles; the wet pavement mirrors. Here, against the mundane but iconic, on the hexagonal cement I have hopped along since childhood, shadowed only by the oaks of New York nature and not the oaks of fortune, those Victorian lanterns cast on me the spotlight. And as I walk home, against the backdrop of the city-gray night sky and the just-lighter city-gray cement, the stars are drowned out by the city lights, pointed at me, and I, a star in my own right, give them a run for their money.
Restaurants and hot dog stands are so alluring, so magnetic, so romantic because they force us to share, and to expose, our humanity. We all must eat; we all must drink. Together, these form the two most basic requisites of our existence. The restaurant is the watering-hole, the center point, the necessity. And yet restaurants do not just serve dinner; if you read between the lines on the menu, you’ll find they offer dinner and a show. As I sit, elbows on the white tablecloth, heavy silver at my right and left hands inspiring in me a regal calm, I nod across the table, but I keep my left ear open. What was that? Yes I heard correctly. Adultery, with a side of sly smiles, which will be consummated, no doubt, with a very sinful late-night dessert. My cool smile across the table beams beatific at my companion. I laugh silently into my pudding.
Men cannot live on bread alone. (Not even on Balthazar bread alone.) We thrive also on each other, on our relationships, on our emotions that are as shared as our hunger and our thirst. I feed more than my stomach when I dine out, for in the romance at the next table, I can feel the desire, the pain, the danger that are as known to me as the taste of sweet butter on fresh bread. I may not be able to reach across the space between our tables and snag a bite of my neighbor's filet au poivre, but we did, after all, come here to share. And that is why I, New York born and raised, a city mouse through and through, eat out every night, even if it’s just a bowl of soup at the corner diner. Restaurants are the stage, the infinite and changing table for our sometimes opulent and decadent and regal, sometimes generous and irreverent and convivial, but always most basic and most common and most human, moveable feast.