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Hungry Like the Wolff

1:50 PM, Mar 12, 2013 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Perhaps by the end of the day Michael Wolff will tell us it was all a joke, like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." And that he couldn't have possibly been serious when he wrote in British GQ, "You likely wouldn't have sex with someone who took you to the wrong restaurant (or at least wouldn't be happy about it)" and "if someone takes me to, say, a grim little Japanese place for lunch, instead of a prestigious destination, I drop them." But what if he means it? (And, incidentally, if Kate Upton takes me to Sbarro's, for just this once, I'll be fine with it.)

In his essay "Table 13 or Bust," Wolff laments the "predicament" of New Yorkers—finding the right table at the right restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And if you don't care about the dining scene and the importance of being recognized (but not overly doted on), then why on earth are you even here? "For an adult in the city," he writes, "restaurants occupy about as much time in a day, and impose as many rules, and create a similar insecurity or nameless rage, as school in the life of a child. There are other similarities: going to the right restaurants is at least as important as going to the right schools.... You're a bore and rube if you haven't eaten where everybody has eaten—or at least if you're not shaking with excitement about getting there soon."

And then there's this gem:

For many years, I had a safe berth and an enviable table in the front room at Michael's, on West 55th Street, among the most hotly contested pieces of turf in Manhattan among media people. But then Michael and I had a tiff, which at the time seemed worth taking a principled stand about. The result was to cast me into a lunchtime wilderness from which, several years later, I have never really emerged.

The horror! And he doesn't even mention that Elaine's is closed!

At times, Wolff seems to get a bit muddled: "[T]he ultimate status is not to know someone, but to be known, for the restaurant to want you. This is naturally true for all celebrities, but this is also often true for people merely associated with celebrities." He follows this with "I once had a breakfast meeting at one of the new breakfast places in my neighbourhood with someone of reasonable renown, and now can no longer return because of the unctuousness and obsequiousness and close-in touching with which I am greeted." Does he want to be loved or doesn't he?

And yet there are moments of clarity: "There is a special sort of freeze for the restaurant malcontent. Your companions don't want to hear it and, invariably, even though paying huge sums to endure countless abuses, will take up class arms to defend the wait staff and floor managers who are doling out the abuse." He's right, and it's absurd—the equivalent to an office malady my colleague calls "vendor love." (Even when the quality of, say, a coffee machine is subpar, the relationship continues. This is no longer a problem, ahem, in our office!)

Wolff also observes,

As the poor are moved out, new restaurants move in—in New York, the restaurants of the poor, the mosaic of ethnic food and coffee shops, have moved along with them. The idea of the local, no matter how far-flung your neighbourhood, has become an entirely nostalgic concept. Actually, that is the concept: the local. Except it is not your local, but some highly stylised re-creation of a local, which now attracts people on an international basis, crowding you out.

Again, an honest assessment. But then he'll throw in a line like, "Restaurant reviews are like theatre reviews used to be, defining a cultural consensus." And I can't help but think of that line from When Harry Met Sally, "Restaurants are to people in the '80s what theatre was to people in the '60s." Which is why a very small part of me (albeit as small as an amuse-bouche) wonders if this isn't partly tongue-in-cheek.

Then again, restaurant snobbery has been with us for some time. I highly recommend Joseph Wechsberg's Dining at the Pavillon and Patric Kuh's The Last Days of Haute Cuisine. It's okay to have these thoughts—just don't write about them. I once landed a choice table at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain because I was in the company of Food Network celebrity Ted Allen! Of course it was 3 p.m. and the place was empty, and I might have been mistaken for Allen's boyfriend, but no matter!

Needless to say, "Table 13 or Bust" has been met by derision, so check out the comments section (where readers claim to have been converted into Marxists thanks to the piece) and enjoy.

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