1950's Select-O-Matic 100 Diner Booth Jukebox
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The Ultimate Odd Couple: Chocolate and Switzerland by Denise Harrigan
NEW YORK CORNER: HQ by John Mariani
For those who remember sitting at the counter at Howard Johnson’s or Woolworth’s back in the 1950s and paying 15 cents for ice cream and 25 cents for a burger, or maybe grabbing a counter seat at New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar and ordering a mess of bivalves and a bowl of steaming chowder, the idea that in 2004 you will pay $350 (plus wine, tax and 18% service charge!) to claim one of the twelve stools at the counter of the Japanese sushi restaurant Masa (10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-9800; click here) in NYC’s Time-Warner Center may come as an astonishment. Somehow, I think something has been lost in translation.
The first Howard Johnson's, opened in Wollaston, Massachusetts, in 1925
Lunch counters have been part of American history ever since they began competing with the huge, raucous eating houses and saloons in the late Nineteenth century. The first roadside eatery was the horsedrawn Pioneer Lunch Wagon in
Lunch counters seem ubiquitous in American literature, from Steinbeck to Kerouac, and especially in Hemingway's short story “The Killers,” at a place called Henry’s lunchroom, made into a movie with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in 1964.
In the 1960s and ‘70s lunch counters were flash points of the Civil Rights Movement, after a “sit-in” of four black protesters occurred at a Woolworth’s counter in
By then fast food restaurants like McDonald's, without counters, encroached upon the business of the lunch counters, which set a slower pace and were always places a person could nurse a sorrow or celebrate a joy over a cup of coffee. Short order cooks often worked in full view of the customer, and waitresses took on a sassy, sexy image indelible to this day. The California-style coffee shop thrived, however, in vast structures with space age designs, and by the 1970s diners were large run by Greek-Americans, who transformed the old streamlined look into Hellenic motifs.
Diners had become icons, some nostalgic as blue collar symbols, as in the TV show "Alice," while the lunch counter at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern (430 N. Michigan Avenue; 312-222-1525; click) became a tourist attraction after its replication in a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch (left) where all they served was “cheezborger-Pepsi.” The Billy Goat opened several outlets as a result. Another famous set was the backdrop for the coming-of-age film “Diner” (1982), shot on location at the Bendix Diner, built in 1947, in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ (below).
Lunch counters and diners are not going away, thank God. Indeed, under the supervision of top chefs and restaurateurs, they have in many cases gone upscale. Their menus are a far cry from the days of franks and beans, tomato soup and Saltines, grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles, and chocolate sundaes served up by teenage soda jerks and short order cooks in paper hats. These days the counter may well be where the real action is at a new restaurant, not just a holding area or quick fix alternative but as a full-scale option where the same menu and wine list applies. These new counter bars appeal to people who don’t necessarily want a three-course feast or don’t have the time for one, but want to eat very very well before or after the theater or movies.
One of the first NYC restaurants in the post-Chock full o' Nuts period to sublimate the idea of eating at a counter was Gramercy Tavern (below; 42 East 20th Street; 212-477-0777; click here), which offers delectables like rabbit rillettes with olive tapenade and onion focaccia; grilled scallops with roasted beets and red wine vinegar; smoked paprika-scented quail with polenta and a raisin-mustard sauce; and striped bass with farro, peas and mushrooms, with most items around $16. The exec chef, Tom Colicchio, then went on to open Craft, a sit-down upscale steak and fish house, and its dauntingly popular next-door Craftbar (900 Broadway; 212-461-4300), a small, no-reservations eatery that epitomizes the new counter style of good eats. Here the daily menu lists just six main courses—two meat, two fish, and two pastas—along with an array of appetizers like melted pecorino cheese, hazelnuts and peperoncini with acacia honey, and the now-signature ricotta meatballs. Mains include spaghetti alla carbonara, grilled trout, braised rabbit, and sausage and beans (a contemporary turn on franks-and-beans), with cheesecake and apple fritters to finish. Here you’d be hard put to spend more than $30 for a full meal.
TV star chef Mario Batali, who runs the expensive Italian ristorante Babbo and the new Del Posto, has also opened Casa Mono (52 Irving Place; 212-253-2773), his take on a Spanish tapas bar, where you sit at a rubbed wood counter in front of a very open kitchen from which come sizzling platters of pumpkin-cheese croquettes, piquillo peppers stuffed with oxtail, quail with quince, and chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream, with a price range of $3-$15. And at the pretty corner restaurant in Greenwich Village named Alfama (551 Hudson Street; 212-645-2500; www.alfamarestaurant.com), you can sit at the counter, nosh on wonderful Portuguese food like grilled octopus with black olives and sardines with potatoes and roasted peppers, drink Portuguese wines, and on Wednesdays, hear live fado—the soul music of Lisbon.
All up and down the eastern coast the counter idea has caught on fast. In Washington, DC, one of the hottest restaurant of the moment is Zaytinya (701 Ninth Street NW; 202-638-0800; click), a huge Middle Eastern restaurant with a long, central communal table, and a counter area where you can order from an enormous array of mezes and main courses that range from babà ghannouge (purée of eggplant, tahini, lemon and garlic) and kolokothokeftedes (zucchini-cheese patties with yogurt sauce) to roast chicken with onions and walnuts in a pomegranate sauce and braised lamb with a pistachio-date pilaf. And you can do so while sipping a cocktail called “the Black Sea,” made from ouzo, Absolut vodka and Kahlua served in Turkish coffee in a martini glass.
Some of the best, most modern seafood cuisine in Beantown is now being served at Great Bay (500 Commonwealth Avenue; 617-933-5000; click), over near Fenway Park, and at its center is a counter space (left) that specializes in numerous ceviches. But you can also order anything from an extensive menu rich in possibilities like swordfish with bok choy, coriander and walnut oil; wild striped bass with grilled sweet corn and chanterelle mushrooms; roasted Scottish salmon with cipollini onions, tomato and green beans; and spicy crab tacos with mango and tomato salsas.
These new counter restaurants are not just holding areas or singles’ meeting spots, nor are they places you just grab a sandwich or drop by for a quick lunch—although you could. More than that, they are places that are expressive of a new way of fine dining without the hassle and expense, and if you meet someone interesting on the next stool over, all the better.
Lunch Counter Lingo
The slang used by lunch counter workers is a patois all its own, and has been dutifully recorded for decades by dictionary makers and etymologists. Here are some of the more interesting:
Adam and Eve on a raft: two poached eggs on toast.
Lord’s supper: Bread and water.
Bossy in a bowl: Beef stew.
Burn it and let it swim: A float, made with chocolate syrup and ice cream on the top.
Cat’s eyes: Tapioca.
Hold the hail: No ice.
On wheels: a take-out order.
Vermont: Maple syrup.
Zeppelins in a fog: Sausages in mashed potatoes.
The Ultimate Odd Couple
by Denise Harrigan
Under its kitschy canopy of plastic flowers, the overcrowded Café Schober (4 Napfgasse; 251-8060), in the Great Alcove dating to 1314, is the antithesis of
I sit down, open the lacy menu, all in German, and recite to the waiter "special-chocoladen, heiss, mit schlagrahm." It arrives in a simple white mug, sporting a cap of whipped cream that borders on butter (below). Through pursed lips, I summon the satiny liquid that lies beneath. It leaves me groping for a new language: the term "chocolate" is too generic for the deep, dusky but perfectly balanced flavor washed in by this creamy tide. It is not bitter, but I taste no sugar. The flavor lingers, long after I swallow. I feel a triumphant sense of discovery, then a sudden kinship with the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Cortez, was introduced to chocolate by the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who was reputed to drink 50 cups a day.
In fact, there is little resemblance between the gritty, bitter chocolate of pre-Columbian times and the creamy beverage I sip--five centuries later--at Café Schober. My knowledge of chocolate turns out to be sketchy, despite my dedicated consumption of the product. So I have reported to
And who better to guide my studies than the chocolate masters at the Lindt & Sprungli, whose global niche is in premium chocolate and whose "mother ship" is just outside Zurich in Kilchberg? Until this trip, I had not stopped to ponder the odd pairing of snowcapped
Still, it took centuries for the Swiss and chocolate to find each other. When Spanish explorers first brought chocolate back to the
The credit for two major chocolate milestones goes to three Swiss inventors. In 1875, Daniel Peter made the first milk chocolate with condensed milk, invented by Henri Nestlé. In 1879, Rodolfe Lindt invented the revolutionary "conching process" that heats and agitates the chocolate mass until any grit gives way to silky smoothness. Conching, though time-consuming, gives premium chocolate a melt-in-your-mouth texture. These advances have helped make the chocolate industry a cornerstone of the Swiss economy, which in turn has given Switzerland one of the world's highest standards of living and a voracious appetite for premium chocolate. So while
On the topic of averages: in the past 10 years, the average life expectancy in
NEW YORK CORNER
The brand new HQ, which takes its name from the fact that the premises were once headquarters to a Revolutionary War general, is a marvelous addition to these lovable little restaurants, in this case mid-block in Soho. Chef-owner Terrence Cave (right), formerly at
The room is cozy, unpretentious, and has wonderful antique silver-colored ceilings, along with chocolate brown banquettes, and a brushed metal bar. The French doors are sure to be open wide in warmer weather.
Cave's cooking is clearly built around the seasons and local markets, of which New York offers myriad possibilities, so if he's featuring his wonderful parsnip soup, with applewood-smoked bacon crisps, don't fail to have it. Quite in the same, though lustier, category of starters is his Niman Ranch seared pork belly, with caramelized Brussels sprouts, bacon, and applesauce; at $11a plate, order two and make a main course out of it! Foie gras comes with glazed pineapple and toast riddled with cranberries and raisins.
For entrees I highly recommend his duck breast with parsnip purée, Brussels sprouts and a tart-sweet orange sauce. There was a good deal to love about seared yellowfin tuna--certainly an overused fish these days--but here treated to a brandade with garlic toast, shellfish broth and tomato confit, with all elements in perfect harmony. Hungry for chicken? Go for the simple roast chicken with mashed potatoes and glazed baby carrots--as satisfying as can be. So, too, a simple but very delicious boneless ribeye with spinach, tangy red onion marmalade, and a mild cognac-mustard sauce, was all it should be.
Desserts are in the same homey yet refined style and also pay homage to the season's fruits. The wine list is small but carefully culled to reflect the tastes of the menu, with plenty of hearty reds and spicy whites from Provence and the Mediterranean, a good number of them well under $50, including a fine Leon Beyer 2003 Pinot Gris at $45 and a 2004 Waterbrook Mélange from Washington at $40.
I love to see restaurants like HQ thrive, though with such rampant competition among other, similar American bistros, it gets tougher to choose among them all the time, a situation that is clearly the customer's gain and one that challenges chef-owners like Terrence Cave to give his all every night.
"A powerful mania descended on me a decade ago
when I first tasted duck confit."
--Michael Ruhlman, Charcuterie (2005).
WHERE HE IMMEDIATELY ASKED THE CHIEF OF POLICE FOR THE BEST BACON, LETTUCE, AND TOMATO SANDWICH IN TOKYO
After setting fire to his own apartment, a 68-year-old unemployed Japanese walked into a convenience store in Tokyo and threatened to kill himself unless served the finest sushi meal in Japan. After an hour of eating bananas and vitamin supplements, he was taken into custody by the Tokyo police.
OUR READERS ROAR. . .
article “25 Italian
Wines That Mattered” (December 25, 2005):
* Throughout January NYC’s Brasserie 8 ½ will feature “Springtime in Paris” with a $45 tasting menu and the chance for one lucky guest to win a 5-day, 4-night springtime getaway to Paris’ Hotel Meurice, with select meals, spa visits, and partial airfare ($1,000). Call 212-829-0812 or visit www.rapatina.com.
* On Jan. 17 Chef Ed Brown of NYC's Sea Grill will host a 5-course Gala Black Truffle Dinner, at $250 pp, with wine pairings and a gift bag with black truffle salt and a truffle slicer. . . From Jan. 18-Feb 13 he will also offer a black truffle prix fixe menu for $90 pp (with wines $125). Call 212-332-7610 or visit www.rapatina.com.
* In Atlanta on Jan. 18 Executive Chefs Pano I. Karatassos of Kyma, Doug Turbush of Bluepointe, Piero Premoli of Pricci and Gary Donlick of Pano's & Paul's will celebrate Kyma’s fourth anniversary with a 5-course menu at $65, with wines +$20. Call 404-262-0702.
* On Jan. 20 The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa’s Santé will host a 5-course dinner by Chef Brown with winemaker Randall Watkins of Moon Mountain Vineyard. $99 pp. Call or visit www.fairmont.com/sonoma.
* Visitors to NYC's Chinatown
during the 2006 Lunar
New Year (Jan. 27-Feb. 14) will have an opportunity to sample a
unique dish called “yee sang,” a raw
fish salad, believed to have originated in Malaysia and Singapore,
to other Asian countries and to NYC’s Chinatown,
where it will be served at: Jaya Malaysian Restaurant,
Malaysia Restaurant, 212-964-0284;
Nyonya, 212-334-3669; Penang Restaurant, 212-431-8722; Singapore
Café, 212-964-0003. In addition, bakeries and
supermarkets will unveil other Lunar New Year specialties, like whole
fish dishes symbolizing abundant prosperity to sweet
as “xiu hou joes” or “crunchy smiley faces,” which symbolize
happiness. For more info go to www.ExploreChinatown.com.
* On Feb. 1, Tristan in Charleston, SC, will be overtaken for a tasting by the winery Mayor De Mugueloa, with vintner Juan Gutierrez. Executive Chef Ciarán Duffy will create special courses inspired by the regional foods of
* The Island Hotel Newport Beach “Romance Package” offers guests one night in luxurious accommodations, a champagne upon arrival, chilled seafood, gourmet meats with fruit, and an assortment of chocolates for those who wish to dine “in,” and complimentary valet parking. Prices start at $475 per couple, available throughout February. Call 1-888-321-4752. . . From Feb. 10-19 Executive Chef Bill Bracken offers a Valentine’s Day tasting menu at Pavilion restaurant, at $180 per couple. www.theislandhotel.com.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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