There's a primal voyeurism to peering behind the ritualistic staging area of public dining. The price of being nosy, though, more often than not, is disenchantment. George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London remains the sordid pinnacle of the restaurant and resort tell-all genre. His descriptions of grubby fingers arranging prettily presented plats will inspire you to consider eating at homeˇforever.
In the wake of Anthony Bourdain's surprise best seller Kitchen Confidential, this season offers an all-you-can-eat pig-out of foodie lit. Sirio: The Story of My Life and Le Cirque (Wiley) is Sirio Maccioni's self-mythologizing chronicle, written with Peter Elliot, of his rags-to-riches apotheosis at his glitzy eatery Le Cirque. Larded with eulogies from family ("Sirio was always very good at knowing who was going to be a success," says his Aunt Luigina) and fellow celebs ("All you need to know about Sirio was that he was the hottest-looking man in New York," endorses Elaine Kaufman), the book is garnished with recipes for goodies like Lobster Salad Le Cirque and dramas with chefs and critics. The guru of seating, serving, and schmoozing the jet set seasons his food credos with expert snob-ology: "I learned the hard way, early on, that knowing these people does not make you their best friend. . . . They use you when they need you and then don't remember you when you have a problem. . . . The secret is never to talk about it . . . reveal nothing, not even what they eat." Oh, but, by the way, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor preferred "spa food"; Cary Grant and Billy Baldwin, dining together behind a big velvet curtain at the "Mystery Table," sent their waiter screaming that he'd been "touched"; and despite his guest's pleas, Sirio always refused to address Mr. Sinatra by his first name. "I was elegant," Sirio reflects, "I knew how to look at people. . . . This is the number-one pointˇto be a real diplomat."
Elaine Kaufman blurbed Sirio's book, but the diplomat doesn't appear in hers. Compiled by A.E. Hotchner, Everyone Comes to Elaine's (HarperEntertainment) is an oral history of the haut-boho Upper East Side "hot spot"ˇimmortalized in Woody Allen's Manhattanˇwhere Kaufman runs the saloon version of Gertrude Stein's salon: Like her avant-garde precursoress, the chubby Jewish culture-vulture takes her pet ink-stained male regulars under her ample wingˇoffering a tab and sympathyˇand shoos away wives, girlfriends, and "bimbos," unless they are names themselves. "If a wife or date still spoke to you after a long evening in which you were celebrated and she was ignored," Jules Feiffer fondly reminisces, "few ways remained to damage the relationship." Serving up validation (for men) and not particularly good pub food, "Elaine's strength," according to longtime scenester Anthony Haden-Guest, "is everyone's fear of the irrational mother." She even slugs people, be they cheap and defiant drink sharers, armed robbers, or Ron Galella, "that nuisance" paparazzo, who got a great shot of Kaufman trying to "bean him with a garbage can lid" one night during the Studio 54 days when Woody and Mia and Ryan and Farrah were inside.
Years of feeding the famous, amply documented, have marinated turbo-schmoozers Sirio and Elaine in bankable stardust. Ludwig Bemelmans, by contrast, shows a lost world of grand-hotel life in 1930s New York where upstairs and downstairs rarely mingled. Hotel Bemelmans (Overlook) is the Tyrolean-born bon vivant, illustrator, and Madeleine children's-book author's semifictional memoir of his years toiling at a Ritz-y establishment he calls the Hotel Splendide. Displaying the urbanity that would characterize his New Yorker covers and murals at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, he depicts the fancy-schmancy establishmentˇand its elaborate caste systemˇin a series of faux-naive fairy tales that delight in describing harsh and poignant stuff with whimsy and bemusement. His cockeyed caravan of characters includes the "highborn, virtuous lady of ruined fortunes" who managed the most brilliant debut parties; child apprentices called "piccolos" who sleep tucked away in kitchen drawers; and an African pot schlepper who aspires to be a snazzily attired doorman and eventually triumphs as a decorative element at a Palm Beach matron's lavish "Night of Granada"˝themed party. We learn every ruse, chore, and hustle required to run a class joint. Here, Bemelmans's painterly eye lingers over every detail of the ritual encounter between diner and maţtre d':
Entering the Jade Lounge they are far away from him and below him, which is to their disadvantage. . . . As these intruders stand in front of him, Victor looks them over with a slow deliberate inventory of shoes, trousers, hands. He stops at the neckties: the face he has seen below, when it came in through the door. . . . Victor . . . then leans forward a little and turns his head in a listening gesture. The guest in front of him is by now ill at ease and wishes he had not come; he is a plain, well-dressed, and respectable-looking person. . . . The techniqueˇlooking at the tie and shoes and not the face, the voice, the faraway lookˇall this Victor has taken over from his most important clients, from Society.
The Hotel Splendide captures Manhattan high life on the cusp of World War II, while up in the Jewish Alpsˇthe Catskills in upstate New Yorkˇthe Chosen People (fortunate enough to evade Nazis and pre-air-conditioned New York City) were playing Simon Sez ("Lou Goldstein gets the crowd at Grossinger's going," reads one of many hilarious captions), doing the mambo ("Very seldom would you see a shlep in Champagne Hour"), and thoroughly enjoying themselves in a manner that could be explained only by centuries of suffering. The "fountain at the entrance to the Concord's Imperial Room" identifies the sanctum sanctorum of shtick, featuring legends from Sid Caesar and Eddie Fisher to Neil Sedaka, Buddy Hackett, and Totie Fields; "Regulars prided themselves on how many acts they walked out on." Native informant Bob Melvin elaborates, "That was their mentality: to see a big star and not like him, to have a good time by not having a good timeˇthat was what they wanted to do. They challenged every star who worked there." Entertainers used to call it "the Concord syndrome."
It Happened in the Catskills (University of Wisconsin Press), first published in 1991, is an oral history of the Borscht Belt resort area from its advent in bungalow colonies with kochalyns ("cook-alone" cabins with kitchens) and family-run inns such as Grossinger Kosher Farm (1914) to its heyday in the '50s and '60s era of High Jewish Glamourˇwhen Grossinger's and the Concord had blossomed into the kosher-style Waldorf and Ritzˇto its eventual '80s eclipse, when the hotels were converted into convention centers or sold to Buddhists, New Agers, and, ironically, Hasidic Jews, for unschmaltzy retreats. It's also ironic that so many fabulously snazzy examples of midcentury design would bite the dust just a few minutes before hipster irony and genuine postmodern appreciation would probably have redeemed them. Now "no surer proof of the Catskills' demise exists," authors Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer observe in their intro to the new edition, "than the fact of its having become the subject of academic study."
Long connoting schmaltz, unlimited portions, and B-list cheesiness, the Borscht Belt sensibility has finally caught up with a mainstream culture that can appreciate its unabashed celebration of glitz, whether real or fake, and its radically unsnobby democracy of enjoyment. The chapter titled "Order Everything" sums up fine dining Ó la the Catskills as "part of the pomp and circumstance of making it in the New World. You'd order everything on the menu because you never knew what you'd like. In this way, you got your money's worth," explains veteran eater and comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, who calls the Catskills "my Hollywood": "Even more than the food itself, it was the elegance . . . of asking for doubles, even if not eating it. Even if just tasting it and saying 'nah.' That was the luxury of it all." Visiting "goyisher journalists" would "sit down to eat, and there'd be this opulent spread," recalls Irving Rudd, former Brooklyn Dodgers publicist. "Their eyes would bulgeˇlike 'How long has this been going on? . . . I tell you, . . . you Hebes really know how to live.'"
Rhonda Lieberman is a New York˝based writer.