Restaurant Baby

It is 11 a.m. The empty bar at this hour seems about 40 feet long, curved mahogany polished to a high sheen, like the shinbone of some extinct woodland giant. The mirror behind it reflects row upon row of bottles, the popularity of their contents revealed by the level of liquid in each one. The room smells of leather, cigarettes, and last night’s perfume. My drink sits on a napkin in front of me. Down at the far end of the bar, the owner huddles with a friend over bottomless cups of coffee. On his way to refill their cups, he smiles and wordlessly plunks another maraschino cherry in my glass.

And then the door opens, letting in a thin, pale shaft of winter light and a rush of cold air. I jump off my stool to embrace Flower. She is the most exotic creature I know: false eyelashes and lots of eyeliner; a figure I will come to think of as voluptuous; ratted, brassy red hair piled high on her head; a laugh sanded by too many hours of inhaling smoke and speaking above the din. She smothers me in a hug and hustles me off to the waitresses’ changing room with the promise of a present. There, in the private jumble of coats and mirrors and makeup and satiny black uniforms, Flower hands me a paper bag. Inside is an oversize picture-book edition of Bambi.

I am absolutely convinced that this is the best place on the face of the earth.

That was Sage’s restaurant, downtown Chicago. I was nine, and the drink Gene Sage kept dropping cherries into was a Shirley Temple. His friend was my father, Ira Stabiner of the Ira China Company, a restaurant-supply business whose slogan, embossed on blue pencils, read, “Don’t settle for less – get the best – at Ira China Company.”

Whenever I was invited, I spent the weekend accompanying my father on his rounds while he sold thick Shenango or Carr china, a mysterious assortment of utensils never seen in our convenience-food home kitchen, and stockpots big enough to hide in. Sometimes our calls would overlap the restaurants’ dinner hour, and I’d get a glimpse of the clientele: glamorous women and sharp-suited men wrapped in smoke and intrigue at Sage’s; local guys in Bermuda shorts learning the fine art of flirtation from Hy at Sam & Hy’s Delicatessen; and oh, the elegant couples who held court at the Red Carpet, the only restaurant I knew that had a canopy covering the distance from door to curbside.

Restaurants were everything that our suburb, Evanston, was not: unpredictable, seductive, a sophisticated nod to at least one of the seven deadlies. They had a secret life, in the hours before they opened, and then a public one. I was the only kid I knew who was allowed backstage.

We did not travel much, so restaurants were my introduction to the outside world. They were my United Nations, full of people from somewhere else who were obsessed with creating not just a dish but a universe. I still recall one of the fancier restaurants we frequented [though I no longer remember its name), a place where “Continental cuisine” meant anything from shish kebabs to crepes suzette. It employed a Russian waiter, a man so big and heavy that the floorboards vibrated as he stomped towards your table, who had perfect a magical trick: He wielded a large silver coffee pot from shoulder level, somehow managing to refill my father’s cup from three feet up without spilling a single drop.

My father, who was exceptionally good at finding reasons to like his life, offered me these dining experiences as a writer might offer his child a treasured book. When I graduated from junior high school he took me to lunch at Chez Louis, a French restaurant, with an express purpose in mind. My coming-of-age, he felt, should involve learning how to eat raw oysters. That day is as clear to me now as if it were a movie I’d seen – the platter full of ice, the little gray blobs nestled in their half shells, the octagonal crackers, the lemon slices, the cocktail sauce. And then the luscious, briny shock of that first oyster: another successful venture into the unknown.

The restaurateurs who could not afford to pay my dad invited us back during business hours, preferring to feed their creditors for free rather than give up in favor of a more profitable line of work. Every year, we celebrated my birthday at Capri Pizza, an indebted Italian dive near the el tracks. My mom never understood why I failed to pick a more upscale spot, but I still remember the couple who owned the place. They produced what I considered at the time to be perfect lasagna, and always seemed to have a birthday cake with my name on it stashed in the kitchen.

I was never a picky eater. Simple economics demanded that I consume the meals set before me; they were the currency of much of my father’s business. But there was something else at work. We ate what was presented to us out of respect for the people who made it. I obeyed my family’s cardinal rule – you have to taste one bite, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to finish it – not because I was a particularly obedient child, but because I knew the people who put the food on my plate. The young guy at Capri who was serving me mushrooms had eaten them himself when he was my age, and now he and his wife were doing their best to transform a dimly-lit, empty room into a theater of happiness. Memory on a plate. How could I refuse? And of course, once the food got past my preconceptions and hit my palate, I was fine. My mind, now, plays a kind trick: There must have been food I did not care for, but I cannot remember a bite of it.

I know my father had customers I never met – entrepreneurs who talked about themes and concepts instead of celebrating food itself. Our outings were supposed to be fun, so he spared me the restaurateurs who were in it to be the next big success story. Which is why I still value being a regular customer far more than being the first to visit a new restaurant; a sense of belonging matters to me almost as much as the food does.

When I can, now, I take my 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, with me to restaurants – to the dining room, because I want her to enjoy the show, but more important, in the quiet hours, to the kitchen, so she can see how the place lives. I have an image of her, half her life ago, suspended over a pot of minestrone by a chef who held her in one arm and waved the steam towards her with his free hand, imploring, “Can you smell how good it is?” We could not leave until we had sampled that soup alongside yesterday’s, to see how the flavor changed.

Today she is sitting at the back of the kitchen at Valentino in Santa Monica, because I am writing a cookbook with its owner. She balances a plate of prosciutto and bread on her knees and is trying to read – but she is distracted, her eyes darting around the room. A moment later she defects to visit the pasty chef and returns clutching a vanilla bean and a sprig of mint with the same reverence I must have felt for that copy of Bambi.

I watch her; my father watched me. My friends tease me for having raised a food snob. They are right: She wants risotto with zucchini flowers – and she doesn’t want McDonald’s. But they are wrong. She isn’t out to trump anyone. She is after romance, just like her mom was.

For Saveur, 2003.
Best Food Writing of 2003 anthology.