02/12/2013 07:13 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Restaurant Stories (EXCERPT)

Excerpted from AN ENLARGED HEART by Cynthia Zarin. Copyright © 2013 by Cynthia Zarin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Some restaurant stories are tales of the lost world. On the corner of 116th Street and Broadway, now, is a Chinese restaurant called Ollie's to which one of my daughters, since she was very small, has gone to so often with her father that the proprietor, a blade- thin man whose high cheekbones are two half-moons in his worried face, brings her scallion pancakes as soon as she sits down. She is seventeen now; she has eaten there, conservatively, thirty times a year since she was two. For a very long time it was the only place she went out to eat: it's her proto-restaurant. But to me Ollie's is on the corner where an old Chock full o'Nuts used to be. The other day I was headed down into the subway on that corner when my phone rang-- it was an old friend who was born in Manhattan, twenty blocks away, but who has lived in the country for years (in New York, anything beyond a commuter rail is the country, but he lives in real country, roads with nothing on them but trees) and when he calls he always asks where I am: the city is still, for him, the grid of his heart, and I said I was by the old Chock full o'Nuts. Or I could have said, where T---- used to live. Ollie's means nothing to him.

Like most New York restaurants, Ollie's is on the ground floor of an apartment house-- twenty- five years ago, he lived for a time in that building on the fifth floor. It was a borrowed apartment (borrowed from T---- ); in those days, apartments were sublet and borrowed more casually: they were mainly rented, not owned, and at least in that neighborhood, near Columbia, they passed from hand to hand. All I can remember of the interior is a black leather sofa and a red dressing gown hanging on the hook in the bathroom. T---- ended up marrying the girl I once found, unexpectedly, on that sofa. Once in a while we bought coffee at the Chock full o'Nuts, and whenever I see Edward Hopper's picture Nighthawks, I think of that coffee shop. Even during the day, it had that brooding, hopeless quality, of conversations not started because, even if she said something, there was nothing to say. Very early in the morning, the harsh smell of the coffee coiled itself into that apartment and slowly browned the old copies of Newsweek and the Asia Times.

In those days I never ate at home. We certainly never cooked at T----'s. We went to the Knickerbocker, down on University Place, or a restaurant whose name I've forgotten at One Fifth Avenue, or to the Blue Bar at the Algonquin, where we pretended it was 1945. There was a restaurant we liked on Seventy-second Street above a flower stall where we always ordered the butterflied pan-roasted chicken breast, something I've never eaten or made since, and a French restaurant on Broadway which has had a dozen incarnations since then: it's one of those haunted New York corners where restaurants cannot flourish, a culinary Bermuda Triangle, and any ship that pulls up there capsizes, with no survivors. Sometimes we went to the Indian restaurants down on Sixth Street that my daughter has recently discovered; they're still there, just a little more expensive, the smell of cumin and curry wafting up through the grates. One of those restaurants was supposedly better than the others, but the joke was that it was all the same kitchen, smoking down under First Avenue in a cul-de-sac of the subway, that subterranean landscape where any kind of enterprise flourished. You could get your shoes shined and buy a bunch of roses, and you still can.

The first great restaurant-going epoch of my life was in 1963, when I ate once a week with my parents in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan near the 125th Street IRT overpass. I was about four. Because soon after that my sister and brother were born, we moved out of the city and became a family that almost never ate out (the economics of this were opaque to me then), that cramped restaurant, in its halo of fragrant steam, the Day-Glo ducks hanging in the window, remained with me. Eating out was in its way more private than eating at home, where even the chairs knew you. That it was the last moment I had my parents' attention to myself is a thought that has only recently occurred to me. I always ordered the same thing: ten different ingredient soup. Tiny shrimp, slivers of chicken, and shreds of orange pork floated in the magic broth, along with tiny white squares of-- what? It was more than a decade before I saw it again, floating in a particularly gruesome meal at the college co-op, where good cooking meant tossing every bit of refuse into a stockpot that simmered endlessly on the stove: tofu. After that, it was like looking up a word in the dictionary-- bean curd, at least in Cambridge in the seventies, turned up everywhere. But there was a Spanish restaurant, on Boylston Street, where I was taught how to eat black squid in ink sauce, and prawns . . . That restaurant is closed too, and the street has another name.