The Trencherman

Love, Longing, and Lunch on Restaurant Row

by

If you fold up Manhattan like an old receipt kept in your pocket, the block of 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues known as Restaurant Row is right in the middle crease. Thus designated in 1973 by Mayor John Lindsay, Restaurant Row is a little filthy, a much overlooked, worn-out, and grit-gilded stretch of sagging apartment buildings and saturnine dining rooms. It certainly is no longer what Lindsay intimated it was — if it ever was that — when he asked rhetorically, “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” 

By then, the area around it was already on the decline, but the Row itself, once owned by the Astor family, was a beacon off Broadway, a strip of class that acted as the Maginot Line against the strip clubs and titty bars of Times Square. It served the tony theater crowd, and though a few blocks east the rough trade of the Deuce went down, in the dining rooms of Restaurant Row Broadway stars and politicos supped in style. Alas, of the sixteen original restaurants, many have since shuttered. Not even the most charitable of critics could call the survivors best at anything but their own survival.

Restaurant Row isn’t exactly failing, nor is it thriving. It seems to have achieved a diminished equilibrium. There are a fair number of empty storefronts, especially on the south side of the street, and a steady incursion of well-respected, well-run, but ahistorical Japanese restaurants — including Sushi of Gari, Sushi Seki, and Ikinari Steak. There’s now a nail salon, a few crumb-bum bars — not scuzz enough to be angel-headed; not class enough to be swank — and the disconcerting arrival of fast casual concepts including Bareburger and Pure Ktchn, which is, apparently, too pure for vowels. But to a remarkable and, to me, surprising extent, Restaurant Row has maintained its charms. Plural because, as I am to find out during this extended stay there, lunch charm is different from dinner charm, which is different from night charm.

The allure of diurnal eating is the mostly empty dining room: Being this alone in New York is a rarity and a pleasure. It’s like an instant day hike to Harriman. Take Le Rivage, a French warhorse first opened in 1984 by the family Denamiel. Like most restaurants on the row, Le Rivage has a spray of menu options displayed on the sidewalk, from lunch prix fixe, lunch à la carte, pre-theater, happy hour, etc. There are deals advertised here that rarely correspond to deals actually offered once inside. Frequently, the prix fixe menus are accompanied by more caveats than a politician’s apology.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but be charmed as soon as one steps into the dining room. “Bonjour!” says a small, gray-haired, owlish hostess, “vous êtes seul?” “More than you could ever imagine, lady,” I think to respond. Instead, I do that which I hate done: I reply in the language of the cuisine of the restaurant in question. “Oui, l’enfer c’est les autres.”  

The place itself is large and low-ceilinged. The decor is grand-mère chic. There are both white tablecloths and white carpet, a rarity in this linenphobic restaurant scene. The walls sport oil colors of French country scenes, and the menu is about as by the book as Bob Mueller. Whereas at hep downtown neo-bistros, where riffs are being composed on classics like trout amandine and moules farcies, here the classics prevail. Let the youngsters have their Coltrane. This is the Rodgers & Hammerstein version of “My Favorite Things.” From the lunch prix fixe, I order a potage aux legumes; a glossy green soup, it tastes no more and no less than what it is, liquefied potato and leeks served warm. Next is a chicken cordon bleu, a dish as old-fashioned as calling the MTA the El. Though ill-served by a broiler, this version is passable. That it still gives pleasure reflects the underlying wisdom of whosoever first combined breaded chicken, a slice of salty jambon de Paris, mushrooms, and a blanket of béchamel sauce. Re-emerging midday into the crest of the August heat wave after the meal — Salut! A bientôt! — is like waking up after a bender. The sun, the people, their inability to walk properly on a sidewalk. I make it a few steps before seeking refuge in Brazil Brazil, the restaurant next door.

My favorite song, “Águas de Março”the live version with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina in which they both start cracking up, plays on a stereo in the ghost-town room. Paintings of thatch cottages surrounded by flowers on the Côte D’Azure are replaced by those of brightly colored huts in Paraty and capoeiristas mid-kick. The only other diners are a pair of elderly Brazilians and a young Brazilian tourist family. That’s a good sign. The chef here, Antonio Werdam, lives in Astoria, home to much of New York’s Brazilian population. As Le Rivage rolled down the center of the lane, so too does Brazil Brazil. This is basic shit, Brazilian food 101.

The menu starts with salgadinhos, “small salty things,” like pasteis — fried envelopes filled with salted beef or cheese — and coxinha de frango, a dewdrop-shaped fritter of shredded chicken, the kind of food you cop at the botequim lining the beach in Rio. Of the mains courses, my favorite is the feijoada, a hearty black bean and meat stew served with a cassava flour called farofa and a molho de pimenton, a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and vinegar. One of the few well-known Brazilian dishes, feijoada often gets gussied up into some shmance deconstruction. But it’s best served on the ground level, with cuts and sausages you don’t often find except in Brazil, and in such pockets of the Brazilian diaspora that exist. Fuck virgins, when I die I want to be greeted by a caldinho de feijoada, a small pot of feijoada, with two slices of orange, a tangle of garlicky, thinly sliced collard greens, and a small mound of farofa.

Then night falls and stagehands get ready for showtime. The tenor of Restaurant Row changes. The peckish tourists clamber off on their double-decker buses and the theater crowd comes. This lot is a far cry from the mink stoles and black-tie tales of Broadway crowds bygone, and not only because it’s so hot I sweat from folds I never knew I had. But at Barbetta, at least, some elegance remains. Barbetta, old regina of the row, founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, an immigrant from Piemonte, and still owned by his daughter, Laura. It was in the garden of Barbetta that Lindsay spouted his mayoral cant, and it was in the upper rooms where John Jacob Astor III lived, and it is in the dining room tonight where tuxedoed waiters weave, the old-man unicorn spawn of Emmett Kelly and Max von Sydow. One is Eduardo Maglio, a sexagenarian maitre d’ from Argentina, who thrusts upon me a very large menu. Barbetta is so old it has left a trail of anniversaries behind it. It’s celebrating its 75th on the door, its 110th on the menu, and its 112th in reality.

A mix of vintage and contemporary-ish dishes, the menu is written in a florid if approachable J. Peterman style no longer au courant. “Oven baked Onion filled with a delicate fontina puree — Wow!” reads one entry. Elsewhere on the menu the diner is admonished to “Eat like a Pope!” Pope Francis’s favorite food is bagna cauda, an anchovy-and-olive sauce from Piemonte — according, at least, to the menu of Barbetta. But I figured, What the hell? Why not eat like the pope? Alas, the bagna cauda here isn’t exactly divine. There’s no cauldron in which to bathe the vegetables. Instead the sauce comes pooled atop little roasted red peppers like a cat’s mess on a carpet. An unappetizing appetizer aesthetically, it actually overperforms, as the anchovies — often underplayed unconscionably — are admirably and assertively administered. Much more ethereal are the gnocchi. According to Eduardo, they are the best in the world, but by my word it’s otherworldly altogether. Less sickle cell and more globule, and so light they would float up from the Piemonte cheese sauce if not for the scattered toasted pine nuts and thin ribbons of basil, exactly fourteen gnocchetti come in the $19 half-portion. That’s $1.35 per gnocchetto, slightly less than a minute of therapy but equally soothing. Worth it.

I bid Eduardo farewell, snoop around the coat room and a strange small sitting room with an ornately decorated harpsichord, open but unplayed, and a collection of porcelain dogs, and never want to leave. This is my place; emptiness is home. But leave I must.

Full, of course, but intrepid, I head to Joe Allen, one of the few spots on the block worth visiting. Allen owns not only his titular bar and restaurant but Orso, a refined Tuscan restaurant next door, and Bar Centrale next door. The vibe at Joe Allen is less historic than at Barbetta and less neglected than at Le Rivage. It’s well-populated by 8:30 p.m. I sit at the bar, reading Alan Richman’s saturnine profile of the man himself, who apparently is quite reticent, and eating a major-chord cheeseburger — nice intervals, nothing added, fulsome. I bide my time until the George Gee Swing Orchestra takes the backroom stage across the street at Swing 46, one of the slate of nightclubs on the Row. Besides the formless bars that do not warrant a mention, there’s Bottoms Up, which, unsurprisingly, is a gay bar; the Ritz, similarly gay, though less titularly so; and Don’t Tell Mama, a piano bar where I will end my night.

Swing 46 is one of those places I’ve always dismissed as a tourist trap, but as I sit at the bar alone — je suis toujours seul — I realize how wrong I was. Down with the $15 cover but not the $2 drink minimum, I’m just outside the back room, where the band plays. It’s a good enough vantage point — one can hear them rip through “Take the A Train” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” and other classics — and, as I soon find out, this is where the close-knit community of swing dancers gather to talk shop. As Tori, a third-year student at New York Law School — she wants to practice estate law — tells me, “There’s even a Facebook group called ‘Swing 46 tonight?’ ” Here, on the banquette, the dancers change from their street shoes into shiny patent leather or sparkly ones. Dancing shoes! They come to wear dancing shoes and dance with one another in the back room of a midtown jazz club. Perhaps it is that the cocktail I’m holding, a Manhattan, is large and strong, or that I’ve had a few already? I almost tear up watching the bodies sway and swing in the other room. They hold one another and twirl as the music plays; meaning, connection, joy. The musicians trade solos, but no one’s alone.

I gotta get out of here, too many FEEELINGS, not cool to cry. And anyway, next door at Don’t Tell Mama, the pianist is already onstage and I promised myself not to miss him. The piano bar is narrow and divey, more like a dorm room than a venue: a wall of mirrors and a few rickety tables. When I walk in, the tables are crowded with a few tipsy ladies with highlights in their hair, and a couple of theater queens sitting in the front in pastel polos, and a strange four-top of hipsters staring at their phones, and me, at the bar, drinking — by this point — seltzer but tipping the bartender generously. He needs it. He’s a big dude, baby-faced, named Tommy Dose. On the black-and-whites is a guy named Paddy, goes by Paddy on the Piano. When I walk in, he’s midway through Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” Paddy relies a little too heavily on bass-note flourishes, muddying the melody, but I know the words, love the song, sing along.

Tommy is doing a brisk business in watery domestics along with another bartender. Some sixty-year-old guy who looks like he wandered in from a lower-tier country club has taken it as a personal affront that Tommy has demanded a credit card to open a tab. “I’m not going to stiff you!” he says. “I know,” says Tommy, “but it’s the policy.” The man throws a twenty down angrily. “I told you I wasn’t going to fucking stiff you.” Tommy rolls his eyes, and I wonder how many of these small shitty interactions it takes to stifle the soul of a man.

And then, from the stage, Paddy calls to Tommy, and Tommy goes to Paddy. And it turns out Tommy can sing, boy can he sing. Accompanied by Paddy, he belts out that Hozier song “Take Me to Church” in a heartfelt baritone that, mostly, eschews vampy musical theater. If I almost bawled to Ellington and swing steps next door, this is certainly too much for me to process emotionally. Tommy is so big his head almost touches the ceiling, and his voice is so big it squeezes the drunks and the dicks to the margins. He fills the room with the sound and heart. It’s beautiful, one of those moments of benediction you pray for every day in this city. I should’ve known. Here in midtown, bartenders are singers and singers are bartenders and empty rooms are temples, and crowded rooms are sanctified, and the human condition, with its unyielding need to connect, is laid bare.

This is what I think: You can eat much better nearly anywhere else in New York. To answer Mayor Lindsay’s outdated question — “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” — the answer is in any of the current food courts or food halls that besmirch our city’s dining scene. But what you can’t get in a stall with a common dining room and free Wi-Fi is this depth of feeling, a complete immersion, an entire ecosystem. There is no other block like Restaurant Row, where dreams and desires, lunch and love, and the heartbreakingly tender chorus of the human heart are heard sung so clear. Not even in Paris.

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