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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Falling for Bacall

Recently some Twitter friends and I were recalling a few of our favorite old Bugs Bunny cartoons from the ’40’s and ’50’s, the kind they used to show on Saturday morning television but which, sadly, most kids today do not know.  For example there was the one where Bugs stood in for his colleague the Easter Bunny, with the bratty kid loudly and incessantly demanding, “I wanna Easter Egg, I wanna Easter Egg!”  Another classic involved Bugs playing the fiddle and calling a hoedown for two barefoot and clueless backwoods brothers intent on shooting him, with the pair ending up going off a cliff, as Bugs’ opponents often did.

And then there was the one that introduced a very young Billy Boy to the mystique of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89.

In “Slick Hare”, a cartoon short from 1947, Humphrey Bogart comes to a supper club in Los Angeles run by Elmer Fudd, and insists on being served rabbit, “or else.”  Hilarity ensures, with Bugs Bunny dashing about the restaurant avoiding capture, along the way running into a number of recognizable Hollywood stars of the era, and at one point even doing a superb Carmen Miranda impression.  At the end, when Elmer admits that the rabbit cannot be caught, Bogie relents and says, “Baby will just have to have a ham sandwich instead.”  Realizing that Lauren Bacall – a.k.a. “Baby”, Bogart’s nickname for her – was the one asking for rabbit, Bugs immediately changes his mind and offers himself up to her on a platter.

When I first saw this cartoon I must have been about 5 or 6 years old.  I had no idea who “Baby” was, only that she must have been a very beautiful woman indeed, to make Bugs act the way he did.  As I grew older and saw films like “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, and “Key Largo”, I came to understand why not only the rabbit from Brooklyn could fall head over heels for the girl from The Bronx, but so could a future President of the United States from Missouri.

There are a few famous 1945 photographs of Harry Truman playing the piano at The National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., with Lauren Bacall perched atop the piano.  It was both a publicity stunt for the new star, and something to bring Truman more into the national and international public eye, shortly after having becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth Vice President.  In the pictures, Bacall’s long legs are draped seductively over the side of the piano, with Truman smiling and looking somewhat nervous.  Understandably, when the photos came out Bess Truman was furious, but two months later FDR was dead, and the Trumans had other matters to concern them; meanwhile, men still went on falling for Lauren Bacall, wartime or not.

Because indeed, who could not fall for her?  The former model with the sharp wit created a kind of archetypal relationship with Bogart, which even today my friends talk about, longingly.  Beyond the obvious physical attraction going on, there was a snappy, clever back-and-forth between the two of them that many of us, I daresay myself included, would love to have in our own relationships.  It might not always be sweetness and light, but my goodness it would be great fun.

Despite her long career in Hollywood, compared to many of her contemporaries Bacall did not make as many films as she might have done.  She was picky about the roles she took, and made it a point to try to raise her children as best she could.  She also viewed the theatre as the natural home for the serious actor, and succeeded as much on the boards as she did on the silver screen.  As a result, there is not a huge back catalogue of Lauren Bacall films for you to study, and truthfully most of her best roles were shot many decades ago.

Yet I think that rather than any single performance, Lauren Bacall’s legacy is the epitome of a kind of sexuality which differed significantly from the “bombshell” variety, which so often leaves little to the imagination.  If one may use such a phrase in connection with a great performer, Lauren Bacall was the definition of “smoking hot”.  From the first time she slinks onscreen in “To Have and Have Not”, asks, “Anybody got a match?”, and lights a cigarette, if you were a thinking man, or even just a man with a pulse, she had you hooked.

Lauren Bacall was beautiful, she was sassy, and she had a voice like a purring lioness – a generation later she would have made a great Catwoman –  but she was also smart.  She was a woman who was not going to let you get away with anything, just because you happened to be a man and she happened to be at a loose end at the moment.  She expected you not to take her or yourself for granted, but to be the best part of yourself, knowing when to be a man and take charge, and when to hold back and give her some room.

With Bacall’s passing, there are very few actresses left from the old studio system days: Olivia de Haviland, Maureen O’Hara, and a few others are still with us, but they have not acted in years.  Bacall however, was working almost up until the end, her husky voice still possessing the ability to set men’s hearts a-flutter.  She was probably the last of the great, smoldering film seductresses from the era of our grandparents to leave us.

So henceforth it will be our duty, gentlemen, to not only show the kids things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, since no one else will, but also to explain to them that they’ll find out who “Baby” was…when they’re a little bit older.

Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944)

 

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