When it comes to slicing and dicing, restaurant critics seem to be better at their particular field — writing with more emotion, using more elegant phrasings — than many film critics are at panning movies. More fun to read, at least. One reason is that restaurant critics are a lot more Anthony Lane-ish than, say, Kenny Turanny or Mick LaSalle-like. The better ones put forth a mixture of effete snobbery and saying it plain and straight (like Alan Ladd‘s Shane dialogue), describing their run-ins like a good sports writer or war correspondent but with slight sprinklings of haute.
Lower Manhattan’s Ago
I was thinking this over yesterday as I read three withering reviews of the downtown Manhattan branch of Ago, which opened early last month. I read them because the West Hollywood Ago, which has been around for a good ten years or so, is only three blocks from where I live, and because I’ve eaten there two or three times and had….well, a pretty good time.
This is the place, remember, where Quentin Tarantino and Don Murphy had their celebrated lunchtime fisticuffs, or rather where Tarantino went all Mike Tyson on Murphy and Murphy (if I recall the news accounts) did a Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope.
In any event, N.Y. Times critic Frank Bruni despises the Manhattan Ago for not being “in the hospitality business [as much as] the attitude business, projecting an aloofness that permeated all of my meals there, nights of wine and poses for swingers on the make, cougars on the prowl and anyone else who values a sort of facile fabulousness over competent service or a breaded veal Milanese with any discernible meat.”
He begins by describing himself and a friend waiting at the bar from an 8:30 p.m. reservation that wasn’t ready by 8:51, “when the great wave of white wine crashed over [the bar].
“I’m talking about the Poseidon Adventure of wine spills. Shelley Winters could have done the backstroke in it. I’m not sure how the bartender set it in motion, and neither was he. He kept marveling at its fury and aftermath: my friend’s wine-splashed chin, her wine-soaked skirt, her wine-sopped entirety.”
GQ’s Alan Richman wrote last month of a meal for four at Ago, which didn’t begin until 10 pm due to the crowds. “At 11:45 p.m., having spent exactly $100 per person, tip not included, on food and a single bottle of wine, my friends sat stunned. They are both restaurateurs from the South, and they couldn’t believe dining in New York had come to this.”
Then the waiters started in on standard search-and-destroy procedures — i.e., grabbing everything they can off a table in order to scoot the customer out so they can close up. Boom! — a water glass snatched. Wham! — a candle taken away. “We took the hint and got up to leave,” Richman writes. “At that point service improved markedly. The maitre d’ ran outside to flag down a cab, anxious to see us on our way.”
In a 7.7. piece, The New Yorker‘s Lauren Collins called Ago “the most cynical Californian export since Euro Disney.” She saw it as lacking in class. She complained about its “lurid cocktails” (a blue Martini that “isn’t fit for a Smurf”) and exhibitionist patrons (i.e., “a couple [making] out with an athleticism, and a sense of privacy, more often associated with sandy beaches on desert islands”).
I can relate to this. I was once kicked out of a bar for making out with a girlfriend, so don’t tell me. Nothing destroys the allure of a presumably hot and happening restaurant more than common or crude behavior from the customers.
This lesson was impressed upon me very strongly about 25 years ago at an Italian restaurant on upper Columbus Avenue, not too far from the Museum of Natural History. It had just opened and been written about in a couple of publications, so I popped in one night for a quick one and to look at the menu. I eventually spoke to a waiter about this and that, and he pointed out that the owner was celebrating the opening of the place with a large group of friends and family. I looked over and there they were — 15 or so at a big table, raising glasses and being way too loud. They looked like New Jersey Italians.
I went downstairs to the bathroom, and as I was washing my hands one of the owner’s friends or family members — a big tall guy with a moustache — came in and went straight for the urinal and loudly belched, loudly farted and took a leak at precisely the same instant. Boom-boom-bam! And then he went “aaahhhh!” like a grizzly bear having an orgasm. And then he snorted.
Now, I’m as human as the next guy and so I try not to look down my nose at people, but this guy, I decided then and there, was a total animal. And I said to myself, if the owner has beasts in his family or among his friends, then he too must be a belching and farting peon on some level, and this will come out in different ways in the running of his business, and sooner or later the restaurant will close. Probably sooner. I decided all this less than 30 seconds after the show in the bathroom.
Four to six months later, the place had indeed closed. I’m not making this up.