Is there any other city in the world where a restaurant can become "hot" serving bad food?
Such a thing would be unimaginable in Italy and France, where food plays such a major role in the culture at large. Perhaps it's not even possible here any more. I sometimes flash on an image from my youth in the '50s. In grade school we subscribed to My Weekly Reader. One week the cover story was the marvel of canned and frozen foods. What made them exciting was the fact that they were available regardless of season and could be prepared immediately. The issue was convenience, not taste.
It was in the '70s that Americans discovered the pleasure of good food. Nowadays perhaps it would be impossible for the two "hot" New York restaurants I'm thinking about to achieve the status they both enjoyed for many years.
The best example is Elaine's. Some friends and I who used to go there in the '80s went to Elaine's for old time's sake a few months after Elaine herself died and shortly before the restaurant announced it would close. The food was even worse than we had remembered. The place was also empty, and without the throngs trying to catch a glimpse of the celebrities you could see what a dump it was. God only knows when it had last been painted, but its amateurish murals of Venice looked grungier than the city itself at the end of the summer.
It made you appreciate even more the achievement of Elaine Kaufman. In the early '60s the corner of 88th and Second was as remote as Fairbanks. Yet she turned it into a destination, which it remained until her death last November.
In the case of Orsini's, success was less surprising since the location -- 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth -- was, especially for a restaurant, prime real estate.
The food was not as bad as Elaine's but given that Italian cuisine in the '60s and '70s was undergoing a revolution in this country -- we had discovered that there was more to Italian cooking than tomato sauce -- the blandness of Orsini's kitchen was in its own way amazing.
Orsini's has been on my mind because its owner, the stunningly handsome Armando Orsini, died last week. He had retired decades ago but the memory of his restaurant remains far more vivid than that of many equally fashionable but better places.
Unlike Elaine's, which cultivated the aura of a dump, Orsini's was elegant. I knew it firsthand because I worked for Women's Wear Daily, which was chic, and therefore so was I. I only ate there a few times for lunch but they were all on brilliantly sunny days. The second floor had skylight windows, and when the sun came in the whole place gleamed.
Its clients in those days were society people -- is there such a thing nowadays? -- and show folk. The idea of dressing down had not yet taken hold, so the attire of the guests added significantly to the glamor of the room.
The obituary for Orsini in the Times had a very important quote from Gael Greene, the longtime food critic of New York Magazine but also a savvy social observer. The author of Blue Skies, No Candy, a roman a clef about her adventurous private life, noted that Orsini's reflected the sexual revolution raging in America in the '70s. (We discovered sex roughly around the same time we discovered food.)
Here, too, I had firsthand evidence because a good friend of mine was a regular at Orsini's. By the seventies she was already in her fifties, hardly the bloom of youth, but she had sensuous features. All her adult life she had had weight problems but at a certain point she decided not to fight it but to flaunt it. She carried herself with panache. Nature had been very generous to her. She once weighed her breasts -- they came in at 30 lbs.
One day when Orsini escorted her to her table she thanked him because she considered it "better" than the one he had given another regular customer, Jacqueline Onassis.
"In my restaurant, signora," Orsini told her, "women are seated by cup size."