The Flickering Memories of Dining Out

I’ve been thinking about old restaurants a lot.  Not necessarily the fancy, Michelin-starred sort of places, necessarily, but places which have hung on for a long time.  When you stand back and look at it rationally, it’s a bit weird that we put more of an emotional investment into the occasional spending outlay of eating out, than we do into things we purchase all the time, like soap or paper towels.  So why is that?

We’ve been having a really hard time of it lately in Georgetown, the neighborhood in Washington, DC where I happen to hang my cape.  One after the other, a number of long-established local dining institutions have been shutting down, to be replaced either by new restaurants or by retail space.  Au Pied du Cochon, The Guards, and Cafe La Ruche, among others, have become historical footnotes in the history of the village.  Now we can add Chadwick’s to that list.

Businesses don’t last forever, not even favorite old haunts, and particularly not in the restaurant world.  True, some places have remarkable powers of survival.  Lhardy in Madrid for example, has been serving outstanding food near the Puerta del Sol since 1839; Scott’s in London has existed in one form or another since the 17th century, albeit not in its present location, when it began life as a tavern serving oysters brought down by coach from Scotland.

In some cases the place stays the same, but the identity changes.  Georgetown’s City Tavern Club, for example, occupies what started out as The Indian King tavern and coaching inn back in 1796, and has gone through numerous owners and name changes since then.  Other dining spots manage to hold on to both location and ownership, such as Billy Martin’s Tavern, which opened in Georgetown in 1933 and is still owned and operated by the Martin family today.  If Martin’s ever went bust, I think I would go into mourning.

Lest you think that such things only concern what we might call everyday people, the high and mighty have their own attachments to favorite dining establishments.  For example, in the British press this morning there were reports of Prince Charles having personally written a letter to Antonio Carluccio, when the chef had to close down his popular Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden.  The place where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got his start had to shutter, due to ill health stemming from the chef’s exhaustion.  That is the nature of the beast of course, when the chef both defines the place and runs the business, as it can spell the inevitable end of a great dining establishment over time.

When we lose a favorite dining spot, particularly one that we have known for awhile, it’s a bit like losing a member of the family.  We may even feel guilty about not visiting them more often, as if we owed a for-profit business some measure of sworn fealty or filial devotion.  After all, this is just commerce, and an ephemeral sort of commerce at that: we eat the food, and it is gone.

Except what really distinguishes a favorite restaurant is not the food, but the memories we make there.  A dining spot where we celebrated a significant event, for example, like a birthday or anniversary or first date, can burn bright in our memories long after we’ve forgotten what we ate.  And even when we do remember the menu, more likely than not it’s not just the food, but the company who shared that food with us, that causes us to look back fondly at the place.

Restaurants will continue to come and go as tastes change, market forces expand and contract, and chefs retire or move on to other things.  So while not turning into some sort of guilt complex, it’s important to periodically visit your favorite spots to help keep them going.  More importantly however, you want to make return visits to places you like to eat, in order to keep your old memories fresh, and continue to make new ones.  For the day will almost inevitably come when you can no longer sit down to dinner at a place like The Guards, in front of a roaring fire, eating the best cheeseburger in the village with a group of good friends in lively discussion.  And that will be quite a sorry day, when it comes.

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

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Through the Online Looking-Glass

I’m going to share a piece of information with you, which I suspect most of my readers will not care about at all, or at least not very much.  On this day back in 1642, the great Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni died, in the city of Bologna. For those of you not hugely interested in art history, this event may not seem to be of any great importance.  However it gives me the chance to do something rare these days, and that is appreciate, rather than criticize, what a great teaching tool the internet can be.

Last night after dinner I was checking up on some headlines in the art world, and came across a mention that it was the birthday of Francesco Albani, another Italian Baroque painter, who was born in Bologna in 1578.  Albani was one of the chief rivals of Guido Reni for major fresco commissions, but while Albani was very decorative, Reni was often the more sensitive painter, as his intense portrait of his mother, reproduced below, shows us.  The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works, puts me in mind of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”; falling down the internet rabbit hole began soon thereafter.

Reading more about Albani and Reni, I came across a reference to Reni’s ceiling fresco for the Basilica of St. Dominic in Bologna, the church where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The church has gone through many changes over the past 800 years, including extensive remodelling during the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1650-1730), who was himself a Dominican.  Not knowing anything about Benedict XIII, I read up on him, and learned about someone else I knew nothing about, Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-1577).

It seems this particular Pope Benedict consecrated a huge number of bishops during his pontificate, approximately 159, from all corners of the world. These bishops then went on to consecrate bishops in their respective home countries.  Tracing back the lineage of who consecrated whom gets us to Cardinal Rebiba.  Because of the huge number of bishops consecrated by Benedict XIII, the vast majority of bishops and Popes since his time are “descended” from him, including the present incumbent, Pope Francis.  Only about 5% of current bishops can trace their consecration through someone other than Cardinal Rebiba, so finding a bishop who is not in this line must feel something like a “Where’s Waldo” adventure for those who are deeply interested in episcopal matters.

Now, is any of this material of particular importance to someone who is not a researcher or historian? To be honest, it’s probably not.  And yet, if you love knowledge, this is exactly the sort of educational jumping-off point which the internet is really good at providing.

All of the preceding information came from a single, online mention of someone I did not know anything about.  I then let my brain and my fingers take me on an exploration through history, and learned a number of interesting new things as a result.  The entire process gave me immense pleasure, and fed my mind with something more significant than funny cat videos – although I freely admit that such things have their place, as well.  The curious fact that today is the anniversary of Guido Reni’s death, is something that might have passed me by had I not fed my brain the information I did last evening.  Now I find myself interested to learn about the artistic and political heritage of Bologna, during the heyday of these two painters.

What, if anything, such knowledge will lead to, I do not know.  Yet exploring your natural curiosity and building upon the knowledge you have is something that all humans should be doing, regardless of age or whether we are still in school.  I find there is always great joy to be had, pursuing new areas of knowledge about the world in which you live, and the interesting and surprising things you may not already know about it.  And whatever its faults, the wealth of information available online to do exactly that, is one of the reasons why we should be making the effort to become smarter, and more aware of our shared history and culture.

Detail of"Portrait of the Artist's Mother" by Guido Reni  (1612) Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Detail of “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Guido Reni (1612)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

 

The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris