For a long time the long nose and gimlet eye of a French headwaiter were among New York's most feared weapons of humiliation. Then with the opening of Danny Meyer's Union Square Café in 1985 New Yorkers discovered that delicious food and gracious hospitality could be found under the same roof, and from then on, even the stuffiest grand palaces had to learn to smile and be nice.
Sixteen years later came 9/11, and another, deeper change. New Yorkers learned that they were more profoundly together than they had realized before, and you felt it everywhere, and as the years passed the feeling persisted.
I had moved to Montana in the 1990s, where I sometimes watched a cooking show from Seattle starring a fat, red-headed, eloquent guy named Mario Batali, and wow, could he cook. So when he turned up in New York, in 1998, I thought this was going to be great.
A few years later, now living in San Francisco, I was writing a book about Alice Waters, and she and I went to Mario's pizza place in Greenwich Village. It was the worst pizza we had ever tasted, and the people weren't very nice either. On subsequent visits to New York (and frequent ones--it's still my real home town), I could never get into Mario's flagship Babbo, it was always booked solid.
This past spring I decided to try to just eat at the bar there, and I was so stunned by the bad manners of the staff I just left. Then, last week, on 9/11/2012, I'd gone to a memorial concert in Brooklyn, with lovely Bach pieces for solo violin, and afterwards walked back across the Brooklyn Bridge and went down to Ground Zero to see the towers of light blazing into the sky. Hundreds of gulls were whirling through them, eerily evocative of floating ashes. The streets were full of firefighters and cops, people laughing, people crying.
I wanted to go somewhere where a bunch of New Yorkers would be close together having fun, and I thought, well, maybe Babbo.
At the podium three members of the staff were staring into a computer screen. After what seemed rather a while, a tall man in glasses looked up and greeted me with that universal bad sign: "Yes?"
I should have known then what to do. Instead I asked if there might be a table for one. In fact, he hoped to have one in about ten minutes.
I went to a just-quitted place at the bar and asked the bartender to recommend a white wine. "I need this space," he said. "You're going to have to go and stand over there."
I got some wine and did as told.
After ten minutes I returned to the podium. "Just wanted to be sure you know where I am," I said, "when my table's ready."
"Oh, yes, oh, yes," said the guy, a different one now.
At twenty minutes I checked again. Same guy this time pointed out that there were now two free seats at the bar. I said thanks, but I would prefer a table. At thirty minutes I said, "Just so we're clear. I'm waiting for a table, right?"
"Table? We don't seat single diners at tables. That's our policy."
"So," said I, "what have I been waiting for for half an hour?"
"Well, I don't know, but it's our policy not to seat single diners."
"I was told half an hour ago that I was going to have a table in ten minutes."
"Who told you that?"
"I think it was a tall guy? in glasses?"
"Was it that one?" He pointed.
"I don't remember. Listen, why don't you just give me that table over there?"
"I can't do that. It's our policy--"
Comes a tall guy, not with glasses. "Was this the man who told you?"
"I really don't remember anymore."
Tall guy says, "Sir, I have never seen you in my life."
"Okay, maybe it wasn't you--whoever it was, he told me in ten minutes I could have a table."
"It is our policy that we do not serve single diners at tables."
"I'm looking at at least half a dozen empty tables. I'd like to sit at one of them and purchase food from your restaurant."
"But I have already told you, sir, it is our policy--"
More Beckettian dialogue ensued, until, in a sudden warm flow of reason, despair enveloped me. Like so many another New York expatriate, I had overromanticized my beloved city.
What, after all, would New York be without a few irredeemable assholes? Thanks for reminding me, Mario.
I paid my bar bill and went to Da Silvano and had a very nice dinner.
Thomas McNamee is the author of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance and Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. He lives in San Francisco.