Kerry Saretsky | Essays

Movable Feast

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [24]

Hmmm, interesting...but I have to say that this piece brings to mind 'Pseuds corner' from Private eye....


Now that's entertainment… délicieux.

Joe Moran

Why is this piece here? Also, what duncan said.
Brian Hutchins

sorry (above)- but I found this to be very enchanting. Thank you for sharing Kerry.
Rocco Piscatello

I agree, this is very enchanting. If the design of a restaurant can evoke this type of response from someone, then it is doing its job brilliantly.
Chris Hoke

I loved this too. As someone who waited tables all through school, I agree with the notion of eating out as a type of theater. We were always told that people don't really eat out for the food; they can cook a good meal at home.

People come for the whole package, the experience. And as designers we can be a big part of creating that experience.
millie rossman kidd

what the holy F does this have to do with design? this piece is really crap.
Lars Nyberg

Lars, for what it is worth, it might help you to read this.
Jessica Helfand

Actually, I would welcome more content without a direct link to design (the profession) here - though of course everything has some link to design if you think about it.

I also don't think that the piece is crap - it's just a little over written (pompous) for my taste.

Jessica, it is great to see items in these pages that are not specifically about graphic, or other, design. The problem with this post is that it doesn't reach the level of quality one usually finds here. That is why I asked why it was here at all. Dozens of other food or travel writers could have conveyed links between, or inspiration from, design and dining in a less enchanting and more involving way.
Brian Hutchins

To Ms. Saretsky's detractors, eat… the menu! Ha!!!

Joe Moran

Does not deserve a place in this blog. Naysayers of course will come out and say everything has its place, everything is design, etc etc the usual claptrap. But for once have the balls or courage to say, "No, this is absolute shite, this is worthless, this should be laughed at."
Maureen Dermott

This is a really beautiful evocation of design in its wider sense. I think it's such a positive development for DO to appreciate how design is applied in reality, in the social contexts where it is allowed to flourish, to reveal itself in its purpose. Wonderful writing!

To Lars, Maureen et al... This writing is beautiful. Its a pleasure to read. If this is the only response you can come up with, I'm glad you're limited to commenting on other people's writing.

Wow. Think the piece is pompous? Read some of the responses.

I'm a low-budget dive bar and street meat kinda guy, but I still got something from this piece. I also opened a pub a few years ago, and yes, to me it was definitely about design.

Maureen, your comments just make me angry. What an idiot.

What's wrong with the design communities that I've run into of late is that they refuse to be more playful in their definition of their profession. Maureen, I absolutely disagree with you that calling this article "shite" is a sign of courage. More likely, it is the opposite - a sign of fear, perhaps fear that the walls of design will come tumbling down if we give in to such "childlike" displays of fanciful daydreaming. But I think it's always the enchantment, the fanciful inspirational qualities of everyday life, that makes design worth practicing. Otherwise we might as well just be skilled technicians, plumbers and mechanics of the visual world.

Tina said "Otherwise we might as well just be skilled technicians, plumbers and mechanics of the visual world." I am not a designer. Rather, like all people, I need good design in order for my life to go well. In exactly the same way I need plumbers and mechanics. Like the author of the post, you seem to regard "fanciful inspirations" as somehow qualitatively better than the real work of actual artisans. That is simply pompous. This is the sort of attitude and practice that keeps a good many people from engaging with designers as they would with other skilled professionals.
Brian Hutchins

Agreed. I have been very aware of the trend of restaruants being more than a place to eat and socialize. Now restaurants are also focusing on the "experience," something that the guest will remember.
I recently ate at Marc Poidevin's "Switch," a restaurant inside of Encore in Las Vegas. During dinner, the walls and ceilings move several times, creating new lighting and scenery.

i dunno what you are talking about because hot dogs are probably the nastiest food you can possibly eat. especially in a city, bathing in that sweaty water.

you get sold to easy with aesthetic.

This is a very expressive piece of writing and the author "Kerry" has designed a story that goes past what a basic function of eating could be. She is creating the atmosphere and the stage. Even if it's not a visual design it's something everybody can take something away from. If we discount everything that's not graphic design then we're wearing blinders. I enjoyed reading this!
Maura Spellman

No scenery, stage, or restaurant will make a hot dog eatable. I don't believe that the design of the restaurant can change how delectable or not the food is, but the means of how it is prepared will change that. I do agree with the restaurant being a show. There are restaurants that follow a certain theme so well that I feel I am in that time and place.

Kerry Saretsky's writing style is indeed captivating. She has a way of roping your imagination, and leading your mind with her words. Her rich descriptions evoke an immediate visual in your mind. She even makes eating a NYC vendor hot dog a romantic experience. Phew... now ladies and gentlemen, that is what we call talent!
Sara B.

I have to agree with Maureen. This is a pompous and unoriginal piece of writing. I'm disappointed to see it on DO.

I agree it is about experience. The problem is what kind of experience that the restaurant or the design of the restaurant should give to the people.

Jobs | July 19