Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dinner at L'Absinthe

New York has always had a love affair with French food and French restaurants, and that’s understandable since France produces some of the most wonderful cooking known to mankind. While the city’s top restaurants are no longer exclusively French, that country’s cooking continues to hold a solid place in New York’s restaurant scene, from the ranks of the most quotidian to those of the most rarified. Food and restaurant fads may come and go, but New York will always lay a welcome mat for the cuisine de France.  Boy and I eat French food so often that we've come up with this little joke: Q: "Do you like ethnic food?" A: "Of couse I do. I adore French cooking!"

L'Absinthe's postcard

At the upper end of the “better” French restaurants in Manhattan sits L’Absinthe, ranking well above the neighborhood bistros that litter the city, and below the vaunted chambers of the likes of Le Bernadin or La Grenouille. L’Absinthe is an haute Bourgeoisie establishment whose well-heeled clientele is largely drawn from the surrounding Upper East Side neighborhoods. Very 16th arrondissement. Not surprisingly L’Absinthe tends to be somewhat dressy for dinner during colder months, when many of the men dining there arrive wearing sport jackets (and older men often wear ties) and ladies arrive dressed, wearing jewelry. This gets notched up a few degrees when the international antiques and art shows are held at the nearby Park Avenue Armory, whose well-dressed out-of-town patrons and dealers also flock to L'Absinthe's elegant and comfortable rooms.

Jean-Michel Bergougnoux is a well-known flirt

L’Absinthe is one of my favorite restaurants in New York, and Boy and I have been regulars there since it opened over a decade ago. We are on a first name basis with its chef/owner, Jean-Michel Bergougnoux, formerly of Le Regence and Lutece, among other storied restaurants, as well as most of the staff. We always sit at the same banquette whenever we dine there, which is at least once every several weeks and sometimes more frequently. I have eaten at L’Absinthe so often over the years that I almost don’t need to look at the menu, whatever the season. And they know exactly how I like my martini: Beefeater gin, up, with olives, very cold, and very dry.

On arriving at L’Absinthe the first thing that strikes one is how authentically Parisian the restaurant appears. Decorated in high Belle Époque style, its walls are covered with large mirrors and framed cartes and posters, and the room is beautifully lighted by gorgeous, flowery Art Nouveau chandeliers and wall sconces. There are many banquettes to choose from, and it is strictly a white tablecloth establishment. Waiters are suitably dressed in traditional black and white with long white aprons tied around their waists. L’Absinthe looks sufficiently authentic that the producers of The Devil Wears Prada used it as a location for two of the film’s scenes that take place in Paris.

Like many of the brasseries I’ve eaten at in Paris, though, L’Absinthe is not entirely immune to decorating faux pas every now and then, such as a picture here and there in somewhat dubious taste or a less-than perfect arrangement of flowers. However, that doesn’t bother me a whit since I think it actually makes it seem more authentically French than some of the too-perfect imitations I’ve dined at elsewhere in Manhattan.

But where L’Absinthe truly excels is in the kitchen, which under the careful oversight of Monsieur Bergougnoux produces a bounty of delicious, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented Parisian favorites, eliciting “oohs” and “ahs” of pleasure from delighted diners.

Upon being seated for dinner every table is delivered a plate of hot gougeres to tease the palate while the lucky patrons drink aperitifs and study the menu. L’Absinthe excels in serving shellfish, and Boy and I almost always start out with a plate of briny, perfectly shucked oysters flown in from the East and West coasts. I have to force myself not to always order the restaurant’s excellent Niman Ranch steak frites or justifiably renowned roasted free-range chicken, since the menu has so many other delicious options to choose from, including a divine poached chicken in black truffle broth that is perfect for when one is counting calories. But who’s counting calories at L’Absinthe? Particularly when it is thought to serve one of the best apple tarts in town, and where the profiteroles are some of the most heavenly. Don’t forget to ask for a small dish of their velvety after-dinner chocolate bonbons to finish off your meal.

L'Absinthe's prix fixe luncheon menu

In addition to being a wonderful place to eat dinner, L’Absinthe is also a delightful place to have a weekday’s lunch, and on weekends they throw a sumptuous brunch, crowned with the ceremonial wheeling around of a cart loaded with such classic French desserts as Baba au Rhum and Ile Flottante.

L’Absinthe is a marvelous place to go when meeting up with or entertaining friends. My enchanting eldest sister, Camilla (known as “Sister”), was in town last weekend during Antiques Week visiting her dear friend Davinia, and Boy and I took the two of them to dinner at L’Absinthe to celebrate. The place was jam packed with patrons, and Jose (the maitre d') told us they had to turn away over 100 reservations that night, typical for when the big antiques shows are in town. We felt lucky indeed to slide into our customary banquette and quickly ordered a round of Manhattans (the ladies) and martinis (the men).  We started out sharing two dozen oysters, and my three companions tucked into the restaurant's marvelous pot au feu while I devoured the excellent beef and lamb burger (L'Absinthe serves one of the tastiest burgers in town) with frites. We topped off our meal with souffles for dessert.  Divine.  It was a delight to see Sister and be able to introduce her and Davinia to one of our favorite restaurants in New York, and we all had a lovely time.

And yes, they do serve Absinthe, the allegedly wicked spirit for which the restaurant is named. I’ve tried it several times there with little effect, but I understand that one must drink rather a lot of it to feel much of anything. All the more reason to go back . . .

227 East 67th Street
New York, New York 10065
(212) 794-4950

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Reggie Got His Name

I am the fourth of four children, and I come from a family where my parents were not all that involved in the more mundane, day-to-day responsibilities that raising children requires. Nor were they expected to be since it was assumed that there would be others there to take care of such responsibilities for them. Their parents hadn't been their primary caregivers, why should they be ours? Besides, my mother had several houses to run and was, frankly, more interested in reading novels and smoking cigarettes in her spare time than attending to the more tedious demands of her children. Fortunately she was able to surrender such responsibilities to others better equipped to do so, in particular a woman who came into our household back when we still lived in Grosse Pointe.

Regina lived with my family for many years, as her husband was a porter with the railroad and spent most of his time traveling the rails, away from home. She attended to my three siblings, who preceded me, a role that my parents were so grateful for that by the time I came around they named me Reginald, after her, and also named her as my godmother. Regina cared for me, she dressed and fed me, and she loved me in a way that blurred the line between caregiver and mother. I loved her in return with the devotion and intensity of a dependant child. I have more vivid memories of her as a very young child than I do of my own mother.

Regina left my parents' employment when I was five years old, when my father took a job in Washington, D.C., and we moved away. Her husband received a modest stipend from the railroad and they retired to a small house in the country. My family’s contact with Regina became increasingly irregular and ultimately was limited to the exchange of Christmas cards, before trailing off altogether. Years later I unsuccessfully tried to find her, or to find what became of her.

Over time I learned that the source of my name was rather unusual in the circles I found myself, and I regret to say that I became increasingly ambivalent of having been named after a domestic, instead of someone more expected, such as an ancestor. Up into my teens people would ask me how it was I was named Reginald, which was such an odd name in the United States at the time, and I would mumble that it was a “family” name or similar, embarrassed that I had in fact been named after a servant employed by my family, no matter how well loved. How often I wished that I had been named instead a normal name such as “Chris” or “Mark” or “John,” and after an uncle or a forebearer. But no, “Reginald” or “Reggie” was the name I bore. In addition it was particularly irksome that the only other Reggie I and my little friends knew of at the time was the black-haired nemesis of the comic book character Archie.

Once I entered my twenties, though, I came to appreciate that Reginald was a rather interesting name, and that to have been named after the woman who loved me as Regina did was something worthy of being proud of. When asked I began, at first somewhat tentatively, to tell people the story of how I came to be named Reginald. Over time I started to volunteer such information, unprompted, as a matter of pride and also because it’s not your typical story.

Almost everyone I tell these days how I came to be named Reginald responds favorably--often after a slight double take--with many saying it was swell (or something to that effect) that my parents were so “modern” to have chosen to name me after Regina when they did. I think it was swell, too. 

Here's to you, Regina.

Photos courtesy of the Detroit Free Press

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reggie's Rooms: Canon Valpy's Drawing-Room

From time to time I shall post about rooms that I have come across over the years that I find notable or inspiring, for one reason or another. These are rooms that I come back to again and again, and where there is something about them that I find particularly pleasing. Often they trigger a visceral reaction in me--an “I want that!” response. In most cases these are interiors that I would be delighted to call home, either by transporting myself back to the period when they were depicted, or today by the most subtle introduction of such modern conveniences as electric lighting or central heating.

 Canon Valpy drawing-room, 3 The Close, Winchester
Painted by B. O. Corfe, c. 1900
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I begin the series with a watercolor of the drawing-room at 3 The Close, Winchester, that belonged to Canon Valpy, a well-to-do member of the Chapter of Winchester Cathedral. Painted in 1900, this is a room where the heavy clutter one associates with High-Victoriana has largely been dispensed with, and it is furnished in an eclectic, comfortable manner presaging the “English Country House” look that Nancy Lancaster and her circle perfected a generation or two later. One sees in Canon Valpy’s drawing-room a way of arranging and decorating an interior that surely informed, if not inspired, Mrs. Lancaster’s subsequent vision.

What is it about this room that I find so compelling?
  • The proportions are pleasing. The architecture is solidly Georgian in appearance, undoubtedly built in the 18th-century, symmetrically arranged around a lovely fireplace, with large windows, classical moldings, and a chair-rail.
  • It is comfortably-furnished with a handsome collection of upholstered and incidental furnishings. The decoration is clearly inspired by the English 18th-century, but not slavishly so as it is augmented with examples from other periods and countries, including France and Morocco.
  • There is a lot to interest one’s eye: the walls are hung with stacks of gilt-framed prints and paintings, and the tables are covered with collections of china and objects of interest; there are flowers and green plants about.
  • It is redolent of time spent in scholarly, musical, and social pursuits: there are numerous stacks of books (this is clearly the room of people who enjoy reading), and a piano stands at the ready, either for one’s own enjoyment or others. The furniture can be easily moved to promote intimate conversation or for a party.
  • It is softened by the presence of attractive textiles. The upholstered seating is uniformly slipcovered with the same pretty chintz, and the floor is covered with a beautiful oriental carpet. The windows are generously hung with handsome curtains. I find the simplicity of the slipcovers and curtains pleasing, too. No dress-makers’ tassels or ribbons in sight and no swags or jabots.
  • It doesn’t look overtly-decorated, and is obviously not the work of one of the firms that delivered so many “lock-stock-and-barrel” interiors seen in many English country houses of the period. Although thoroughly furnished by today’s standards, at the time it was painted prevailing taste would have considered this to be understated.
While clearly a room of its time and place, I find Canon Valpy’s drawing-room to be particularly pleasing. It is comfortable, attractive, and – with the addition of a few table lamps – a room that I would be delighted to live in today.

Canon Valpy’s drawing room, along with many other lovely interiors, appears in Victorians At Home by Susan Lasdun, published by Viking Press in 1981

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Antiques Week Cont'd: Our Pier Show Cargo

Today (Sunday) marks the official end of Antiques Week here in New York City, with all of the shows closing except the Winter Antiques Show, which continues through the 31st. Between the two of us, Boy and I hit every show and preview held during the week. Overall we thought the top two shows, the Winter Show and the American Antiques Show, were slightly less sumptuous than in years past.  Not a whole lot, but just slightly so. While there were still plenty of offerings at these two top shows with jaw-dropping prices, I would say that the prices posted weren't so extraordinarily stratospheric this year as to defy comprehension altogether (with some notable exceptions). Also, there were more offerings at these shows at the lower end of the pricing spectrum vs. previous years.  Many of the dealers at the Winter Show and the American Antiques Show informed us without any prompting that they were willing to negotiate prices, and several volunteered without our asking that they would be happy to arrange terms and payment schedules.  We occasionally hear this from dealers we've bought from in the past, but we heard this from several dealers at both shows from whom we've never bought anything. There was, I believe, hunger in the aisles.

Boy took clients to the Winter Show, the (Other) Armory Show, and the Pier Show, and was successful in finding purchases for them at each of these shows.  We wound up buying things for ourselves at only two of the shows, the New York Ceramics Fair and the Pier Show.  We came very close to buying a painting at the Winter Show, but decided not to after debating it over a boozy dinner. I wonder, though, will I recall it in the future as one of the ones that got away?

Yesterday morning Boy and I got up bright and early and drove over to Pier 92 on the Hudson River where we met up with one of his associates and a current client to attend the first day of the Americana & Antiques Show at the Pier. We wanted to get there before it opened so that we could shop before it got picked over, which happens within an hour or two.  As I suspected, I recognized any number of people standing in line waiting to get in as dealers from the other more expensive shows.  There were also the usual cast of characters that one sees and comes to recognize. 

Once the gate opened I peeled off from Boy and his client to see what I could find on my own, since we had differing agendas.  We each did the show twice: the first time was a quick run through of the 200 dealers, searching for specific items or categories, and the second time was at a more studied pace, examining the offerings more closely.  We would compare notes when we ran into each other, and even took a quick water break and sat down at one point, but we spent the better part of the three hours we were there intensely focused on taking in everything the show had to offer.

I was happy to see that the quality of the dealers and their offerings was better at the Pier Show than I had expected, and Stella Management is to be commended for that.  There was little true junk on display, and most of the booths yielded up one or more offerings that I would be delighted to take home.  Prices were very reasonable, everything was negotiable, and the dealers were intent on moving the merchandise.

So here's what Boy and I found:

In addition to collecting early 19th-century English Staffordshire pearlware figures, Boy and I also collect somewhat later Staffordshire figures, focusing on ones that have only a modest amount of decoration on them.  I believe this figure is likely Prince Albert, and loosely based on the Winterhalter portrait of 1842.

Boy spotted this green feather-edge platter from around 1800 shortly after entering the Pier to add to his ever-expanding stash of green feather-edge creamware.  He then found six decorated creamware soup plates from the 1790s, from the same dealer who sold me a set of dinner plates and serving platters from the same service at a different show last year.

I couldn't resist buying this Yale banner and also a Vassar pennant to pin up in the small barn we use as a glorified gardening shed at Darlington. The Yale one, which the dealer said dates from the 1940-50s, says "WHEN BETTER WOMEN ARE MADE YALE MEN WILL MAKE THEM".  I'm not exactly sure what it means, but I suspect that if I were to hang it in my office at the Investment Bank I could well find myself remanded to Human Resources.

Boy and I have been collecting sandpaper pictures for as long as we've owned Darlington and are always on the lookout for interesting examples.  Boy found this charming one (the larger of the two pictures shown here) at one of our favorite dealers of sandpapers.

Here's a close up of the smaller picture, a mourning piece dated 1847 and made with human hair with this inscription on the tombstone at the head of a recently filled grave: "Triste souvenir de notre enfant!"

I've been watching for old silver frames to upgrade the ones I have for photographs of family and friends (see "Our Black Friday" December 10th posting).  I found this little velvet-backed double frame and got it for only $50, which is a deal, since the ones I come across like this usually run $150-200.  Furthermore, the velvet backing is in perfect condition, which is rarely the case.

Just as we were leaving the show, Boy grabbed these two useful finds.  The first is a vintage earthenware dog bowl for Pompey, and the second is a cast-iron turtle to add to our collection of paperweights for the screened porch.  I'll be doing a posting on our growing collection of porchiana when the weather warms up later this year.

So that wraps up my overview of what we bought at this year's Antiques Week.  We enjoyed ourselves immensely at the shows and we are satisfied with what we found.  I hope you like our cargo, too.

All photos by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farewell Chanterelle

Boy was downtown Friday afternoon and happened to pass by Chanterelle, the storied restaurant in Tribecca owned and run by the husband and wife team of David and Karen Waltuck. Chanterelle was holding a "gone out of business sale" and was selling off its remaining inventories of china, stemware, furniture, and most of everything else. Boy learned that the Waltucks had closed Chanterelle in July of last year for renovations, and then decided to close it for good in November, a victim of the city's difficult economy. At the sale Boy's companions bought some plates and champagne flutes, and Boy picked up some matchbooks and paper covered toothpicks for me as he suspected that I might be interested in writing here about Chanterelle--the restaurant that was largely responsible for revolutionizing fine dining in Manhattan.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Chanterelle, it was--in its day--the equivalent of Thomas Keller's French Laundry, one of the highest temples of culinary excellence in America. When it opened its doors in its original location in SoHo 30 years ago, Chanterelle established itself as one of the city's first real competitors to the uber-expensive classic French restaurants that then held Manhattan in a vice-like grip (see my posting on La Grenouille for more on that). Chanterelle brought to the city a fresh, even revolutionary approach to dining that New York had never seen before: superb, innovative cooking inspired by classical French dishes but infused with uniquely American ingredients and sensibilities, served in a modern (for the times) interior by a passionate wait-staff culled from the arts and foodie worlds, and overseen serenely by the gracious and very modern wife of the chef. The Waltucks took the classic, but increasingly-ossified French restaurant model, stripped it down to its barest essentials (out went the withering black-tie waiters, the operetta-ish service, and the over-decorated fussified interiors), and rebuilt it to be a thoroughly contemporary and welcoming restaurant experience producing some of the best and most innovative cooking found anywhere in America. The restaurant’s menu covers featured original art by some of the most important contemporary artists of the 20th century.

Chanterelle in happier times

I probably ate at Chanterelle a dozen and a half times over the years. The first time I ate there it was still in its original SoHo location, and I was taken there, along with my brother Frecky, for dinner by our father. The restaurant moved shortly thereafter to Tribecca to a much larger space in a cast iron-fronted industrial building with soaring ceilings. To be honest, I always found the decor at Chanterelle somewhat odd: the main dining room was severely decorated with its floors covered with gray industrial carpeting, tables surrounded by Queen Anne-style chairs, reproduction brass Dutch 18th-century style chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and walls adorned with salvaged wooden pilasters. The room was softened, though, by lovely sheer silk window shades and gorgeous arrangements of flowering branches. Although thought-provoking, I always found the juxtaposition of the plain utilitarian with the sumptuous at Chanterelle somewhat at odds.

The Chanterelle cookbook

But one didn't go to Chanterelle for the decor, one went there for the experience and the food, which was sublime. The tables were spread wide apart (part of the luxury of Chanterelle was the space) and the waiters performed a highly-ritualized dance more akin to performance art than waiting tables. They announced the restaurant's specials in excited, breathy, hushed-tones, almost as if they were reciting a love sonnet. And it was appropriate that they did so because the food was so marvelous as to inspire poetry--every mouthful a revelation of texture, taste, and flavor. One left Chanterelle feeling as though one had just dined in a temple of the culinary gods.

Over time, though, what made the Chanterelle experience unique was so relentlessly copied by countless imitators in the City and elsewhere that it became increasingly difficult to distinguish Chanterelle from the many other expensive restaurants that now also provided its fusion of haute French and new American. That Chanterelle was the inspiration of so much of what came afterwards was increasingly lost on many diners and critics. It didn't help that the overhead required to sustain the Waltuck’s vision came at a very steep price, and the cost of dining there became increasingly stratospheric. The last time I ate dinner there, over a decade ago, the bill came to more than $400 a head, a price tag only surpassed by a dinner Boy and I had at French Laundry several years later. While I had lunch at Chanterelle several times thereafter over the subsequent years, I was disinclined to return there for dinner given its lofty tariff and a restaurant scene in New York that had evolved to include many other excellent alternatives to choose from.

But it was with regret that I learned of Chanterelle's demise, and that its final days were devoted to a sidewalk sale of its contents. It seemed such a sad final rebuke to this trail-blazing legend. I'm glad that Boy picked up some matches and toothpicks for me, as they are mementos of one of this country’s greatest culinary pioneers of the latter part of the 20th century. I wish the Waltucks the best of luck in their new endeavors. Thank you for the memories.

photo of Chanterelle interior from Google images, photographer unknown

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Antiques Week At Last!

Antiques Week (or Americana Week) is the name given to the third week in January in New York City when hundreds of antiques and decorative arts dealers and thousands of collectors descend on Manhattan for an orgy of antiques shows and auctions. While no longer exclusively focused on Americana, the shows have in many cases evolved over the years to also include English, European, and Asian offerings.  Boy and I make a point of attending most of the shows and auctions held this week and we’ve been quite successful in adding to our collections at them over the years. I don’t know whether it’s like being a kid in a candy store or a drunk in a bar, but for those of us who enjoy looking at and collecting antiques, this week is heady stuff indeed.

Schedule courtesy of

Here’s a run down of the shows and auctions running through this weekend:

The Winter Antiques Show – January 22-31
This is the granddaddy of all the shows held during Antiques Week.  Held at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, the Winter Show is the most prestigious antiques show in America and has been held annually for over 50 years, benefitting the East Side House Settlement. Its opening night preview (thursday) is one of the major events of the New York social season. The Winter Show’s roster of dealers—drawn from the highest echelons in the antiques business—includes those showing American, English, European, and Asian antiques, and more recently 20th century fine and decorative arts. Everything at the Winter Show is fully-vetted for authenticity by committees of experts. Truly amazing stuff and stratospheric prices. Every year they feature a loan exhibition from a museum or collection, and this year they are showing highlights from the collections of Historic New England (formerly and better known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, or SPNEA). Go early so that you are sure to see the best of what's on show and also the gorgeous flowers from the opening night preview in all their glory. We’ve bought things at the Winter Show over the years, but—given its very lofty prices—we primarily go to the show to look and educate our eyes. We like going there after work so we can have cocktails while wandering around the aisles. Very civilized.

The American Antiques Show – January 21-24
This is a relative newcomer to Antiques Week, sponsored by the American Folk Art Museum, and held in Chelsea at the Metropolitan Pavilion. This show has 50 or so of this country's top Americana dealers displaying mostly museum-quality American folk art, furniture and decorative arts, with some native American arts thrown in. Far more focused on that market than the Winter Show, and with prices that in many cases are almost as high. Cocktails are available to help mitigate the sticker shock.

The New York Ceramics Fair – January 20-24
Also a fairly recent addition to Antiques Week, the Ceramics Fair is held at the jewel-like National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts (formerly known as the National Academy of Design) on upper Fifth Avenue. This show features more than 35 dealers drawn from America, England, and Europe showing porcelain, pottery, and glass. We enjoy this show a lot as it covers a fairly broad range of offerings and price points, and—unlike the Winter and the American Antiques shows—it is possible to find something here for only a couple hundred dollars if you look hard enough, although the average ticket price is much higher. Cocktails available.

Here's a photo of a small figure of a hunter that Boy bought on wednesday evening at the Ceramics Fair from Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc., to add to our collection of early 19th-century English pearlware figures at Darlington:

Photo by Boy Fenwick

Sotheby’s and Christie’s Americana Sales – January 22-23
These sales have been held in New York for many years, and are a cornerstone of Antiques Week. Walking through the previews at the auction houses’ New York rooms earlier this week Boy and I concluded that Christie’s outshines Sotheby’s this year (as it has increasingly in recent years) in the quality and selection of its offerings. Plus the specialists working in the rooms at Christie’s are more welcoming.  Sotheby’s did score the Elinor Gordon sale, though. Sale estimates across the board are very low this year, designed to attract potential bidders. Cocktails only during special previews.

Antiques at the (Other) Armory Show – January 22-24
This show is held at the 26th Street Armory at Lexington Avenue. No relation to the Winter Show, this is a much more affordable show featuring around 100 dealers in American, English, and European antiques and decorative arts. Definitely not vetted. Good deals abound. Don’t expect cocktails.

Americana & Antiques at the Pier – January 23-24
Held over the weekend on Pier 92 at the Hudson River, this is the largest and most affordable show (more of a bazaar, really) held during Antiques Week, with over 200 dealers showing a very broad range of American, English, European, and Asian antiques, decorative arts, and in some cases junk. Come with an open mind because who knows what you’ll find. Scores are to be found – but get there early because dealers from the other shows will be in line at the opening to snap up the best of what’s available and mark it up to sell at the more expensive shows across town. Wear comfortable shoes and bring your checkbook. Forget cocktails.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reggie’s Rules for Popular Party Guests

As the readers of this blog well know, Boy and I had the pleasure of throwing a large and festive holiday cocktail party last month. It was a marvelous gathering, well-attended, sparkling, and fun. We really enjoyed it, and our many guests did, too.

In the meantime I have been doing some thinking about what made the party successful, and what its drawbacks were. I’ve already enumerated the successes in previous posts, and so have nothing to add to them here. But I have come up with some observations that I believe my readers may be interested in as to what I believe guests can do to maximize the pleasure their hosts take in having them attend such a party. It is, after all, a two way street.

Invitation courtesy of

Following these simple rules will insure that you, Gentle Reader, are a popular and sought-after guest, and the beneficiary of numerous repeat invitations for years to come.

1. When you receive an invitation to a party that requests a response, you should do so well-in-advance of the event. Do not make your hosts chase you down.

Boy and I sent out 60 printed invitations for our cocktail party with Rsvp and our telephone number clearly printed at the base of the card (see above). We mailed the invitations at the beginning of December to provide our guests with plenty of advance notice, recognizing that many of them would have busy calendars during the holidays. Approximately half of the invitees—and kudos to them—responded within two weeks. Then dead silence. Faced with 30 un-answered invitations, a caterer asking for headcount, and other unquantifiable expenses, Boy and I then got out our telephone books and started chasing down those of the invitees who hadn’t responded. Not only was this inconvenient and time consuming for us, but it also delayed our ability to finalize plans with service providers during their busiest time of year.  Do your hosts the courtesy of responding.

2. When your host calls you to find out whether you are attending his party, do not answer “I don’t know.”

I recognize and understand that we are not always in control of our calendars at all times. However, if you are not certain of your ability to attend a party then you should decline the invitation. Failing that, but only under extraordinary circumstances, you should give your host a definitive date for when you will let them know one way or the other. The vagaries and whys and wherefores of your calendar are of little interest to your host at this point. He wants to know whether you are attending his party or not.

3. When you haven’t responded to an invitation and your host leaves you a voicemail at your home or on your mobile seeking one, you must do so immediately upon listening to the message, absent an unexpected residency in the IC unit of your local hospital.

Failure to acknowledge an invitation at this point is egregiously thoughtless and unspeakably rude and—to put it in printable words—does the exact opposite of promoting civil discourse with your putative host the next time you chance to see him in public.

4. After accepting an invitation, do not then call up your host the day of the party with a lame excuse about why you are not going to attend. And certainly not just as the party is scheduled to begin.

For large parties it is far better to be a no-show and then call the next morning with an abject apology.  As for dinner parties, just don't do it.  Period.

5. Dress appropriately for the party. Make an effort.

This is more of an issue for men than women, I find. It's fine to show up at a barbeque wearing shorts, but when the pleasure of your company is requested to a large party in a printed invitation you should assume that a certain level of dress is expected. In my house that means, at minimum, men over 40 should arrive wearing a sport jacket or blazer, and women should arrive made up and wearing something festive. In other words: dress for the party. While I didn’t expect all of our guests to arrive wearing cocktail outfits inspired by the characters in “Mad Men” (and was pleased to see that some of them did, actually), I was rather surprised that more than one of the men arrived unshaven, wearing jeans and a casual shirt. Just because this is my country house doesn’t mean that you should consider it appropriate to arrive at my party dressed like a bumpkin or a lumberjack. Consider the type of party you are attending, and dress appropriately.

6. Do not feel compelled to arrive bearing a gift.

Perhaps your mother told you that “nice people” always bring something to a party--an "hostess gift"--but in our case it is really not necessary. For us the pleasure of your company is sufficient.  I certainly won't object to receiving a small gift, but I don't expect it.

7. Circulate and introduce yourself to people you don’t know.

Don’t just stand there speaking only to your wife/spouse/significant other/best friends. Circulate among the rooms and engage new people in conversation. This is a party, not a family reunion.

8. Keep it light.

Leave your worries at home. Conversation at parties should be light-hearted, topical, or amusing.  It is not the venue for describing in detail the miseries of your gallstones ordeal.

9. Enjoy what food and drink is provided, and do not seek special treatment.

Your hosts have gone to considerable effort and care in selecting the food and drink they are offering at their party. Do not ask for red wine or hot tea when none is offered, and do not complain when there is food on the menu that you don’t care to eat. Either choose from the selection of what is being offered to you or abstain from ingesting it. You are not at a restaurant, and the caterer is not there to indulge your whims.

10. Please do not feed my dog.

While Pompey is adorable and a true professional when it comes to procuring treats, please do not feed him cheese and canapés at my party. It can have disastrous consequences, particularly when several dozen of you do it.  Do not feed the pets, no matter how cute they are.

11. Monitor you alcohol consumption.

No explanation needed (as per ~LPC).

12. Know when to leave.

This is a follow-on to the previous admonition. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stay on with the after-party set, if there is one, and sometimes it isn’t. Better to err on the side of leaving early than too late.

13. If, for whatever reason, you are a no-show at the party after having accepted the invitation, you must call the host the next day and apologize.

And the excuse better be a good one, whether made up or true, such as illness, a family emergency, or that your house burned down.

14. Within 48 hours of attending the party, you should contact your hosts and thank them.

Either by telephone, email, or mailed note. It generates good will. Your mother was right on this one.

In closing, while some of my readers may chafe at the number of outlined rules and dismiss them as the ravings of a persnickety stickler for out-moded rules of etiquette, they are, in fact, the considered result of my many years of experience and observations as both a popular guest and a generous host. Each was prompted by a specific incident or series of incidents at parties that I have either attended or thrown over the years.

Following these rules is actually quite simple and straightforward and will insure that both you—as guest—and your host will derive maximum pleasure in each others’ company at parties for many years to come.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Occasion of Emily Evans Eerdmans' Marriage

Dearest Emily,
Please accept the very best of wishes to you and your husband from those of us at Darlington House. 

The Trousseau of Princesse Mathilde of Bavaria, 1826
Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt

A question: When will you have the official viewing of your trousseau?

It's Robert Burns!

My posting yesterday of "Boy Scores A Picture" prompted the suggestion from fellow blogger the Columnist that it reminded him of Robert Burns, the beloved Scottish Bard (1759-1797).   After doing some research, I believe the Columnist is absolutely correct, and that we are, in fact, the surprised and pleased owners of a portrait in little of the famed proto-Romantic poet.

Here's how it unfolded: I read the Columnist's comment to Boy, who ran upstairs and retrieved a small glass paperweight that he bought more than 20 years ago, showing the Robert Burns Monument in Edinburgh.  As he was doing that I did a search on the Internet of various sites.

Our portrait and a period engraving; note same hair in all three likenesses

Detail of 1787 Nasmyth portrait; Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The face in our small likeness was done after the famous portrait of Robert Burns painted by Alexander Nasmyth (Naysmith) in 1787 from life when the poet was 28 years old.  The painting hangs today in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and has been the subject of countless copies and engravings.  It is more likely that our portrait was based on an engraving of the Nasmyth painting.  The crossed-arms pose in our picture is possibly based on another portrait of Burns, also by Nasmyth, that was painted in 1828, a full 32 years after the poet's death.

1828 Nasmyth portrait; Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In the background of our painting stands the Robert Burns Monument on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed by Thomas Hamilton, and built in 1831-32.  The erection of the monument was highly publicized, and its dedication was widely reported in the media at the time.  It was, and remains to this day, a popular tourist destination.

Boy's paperweight; photo by Boy Fenwick

1840 engraving by W. Mossman

The monument today; photo courtesy South Ayrshire News

Given when the monument was built, and that the supplier of the board on which our picture was painted moved to its premises at 51 Rathbone Lane in London in 1832, Boy and I are convinced that our little painting was without doubt done in the 1830s, most likely dashed off as a souvenir for a visitor to the Burns Monument or to Edinburgh.

I cannot thank the Columnist enough for pointing me in the right direction, and I am indebted to him for helping me discover that our little painting is most definitely a likeness of Robert Burns.  His most enlightening blog, the Corinthian Column, can be found at

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Boy Scores a Picture

Yesterday afternoon Boy decided to go into the nearby town and visit the antiques and other shops it is generally known for, as we have a number of social obligations in the next week that require us to arrive bearing gifts. I stayed at Darlington to tend to the more mundane projects that frequently occupy one’s time on a Saturday afternoon.

The antiques stores in our nearby town range from ones selling the basest of junk to those that cater to high-end decorators and collectors from Manhattan and beyond, along with everything in between. Lots of new objects cycle through the shops every week, so you never know what you are going to find. Regular visits can, at times, yield unexpected treasures.

I happened to be standing near a window when Boy drove up, and saw that he had apparently either bought something in town or had it with him on approval. At first it appeared to me that Boy was carrying a wood box, but I soon realized that he was carrying a painting in a frame, and that I was seeing its backside.

“Look what I have!” Boy said when I met him downstairs, and turned the picture around so that I could see it. What met my gaze was a charming, early-19th century portrait in little (10" by 12") of a young Englishman wearing Regency clothing, standing in a pastoral landscape with a classical rotunda in the background. Boy found it in a shop in town owned by a family of “pickers” whose quirky selection of well-priced, often early-19th century objects generally yields up one or two purchases for us each time we visit. The painting Boy had in his hands had only just arrived in the shop that day, and he immediately bought it as it was not only charming, but very well-priced. Unfortunately the frame it was offered in, while probably original, was too busted up to be worth restoring so Boy left it with the dealers. He then headed up the street to another shop that specializes in selling antique picture frames and mirrors--coincidentally owned by another member of the same family--and found a period one (also very well-priced) that was not only perfect for the painting, but fits it as well. While the frame needs restoration (it is missing bits and has an unfortunate coat of gold paint), all the portrait needs is a cleaning and re-varnishing.

The back of the painting bears a period label for G. Rowney & Co., an artists' supplier located at 51 Rathbone Place in London.  Basic Internet research revealed that George Rowney & Co. was formed in 1832, which confirmed our view that the painting was likely done in the 1830s. The company survives today as Daler-Rowney, Ltd., which it was renamed in the 1980s when G. Rowney & Co. merged with the Daler Board Company.

We have temporarily hung the little portrait in our dining room at Darlington where it looks marvelous hanging among the room’s other early-19th century paintings and mahogany furniture. When restored I am sure that our young Englishman will be worth many multiples of what Boy paid for him. However, we are in no hurry to send the painting and its frame out for restoration just yet, as we are enjoying its present somewhat crusty condition.

Have you found any “scores” lately?

Photos by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Urns of Darlington: Winter

A well-appointed property includes garden furnishings that help establish and augment the natural beauty and architecture of its grounds. At Darlington we have accumulated a collection of such furnishings that we place around the property with pleasing effect. This includes metal and wooden chairs and benches, sundials, and birdbaths. It also includes a number of large metal urns that we plant with a rotating display of seasonal flora.

The urns on our terrace planted for the winter

We bought our urns from dealers that specialize in selling interesting, large-scale outdoor furnishings and containers. Ours are not old, but rather are recent reproductions from China (or was it India?), made from scrap metal. They look convincing but require additional maintenance and care because they are prone to rusting quickly. That means regular painting.

A number of years ago we decided to paint all of the metal furnishings on our property in the same color paint, and selected Farrow & Ball’s "Off-Black” No. 57. The results are very satisfying but it was quite the task indeed as it included stripping, priming, and painting the seating, birdbath, and four urns and their stands.  It took Boy and me more than a month of weekends devoted to this project to complete it.

We change the contents of our urns every season to display plants that embody the season. In the spring we fill them with masses of violas; in summers we plant blowsy grasses, large succulents, or coleus; in the autumn we usually fill them with chrysanthemums, and one year we crowned the largest ones with enormous pumpkins; in the winter we plant them with evergreens. Every season is different, and we rarely repeat the same planting or color combinations from year to year.

Boy takes charge of selecting what the urns will feature each season, and does the actual planting. This year we bought the winter’s contents from a nursery that we like and that was having a 50%-off end-of-season sale of shrubs, perennials, and trees.

We planted the two large urns on our property with junipers, and the two urns leading up to the door with conical firs. Not exactly heirloom varieties, but handsome nonetheless. Boy was able to plant them ahead of the first of the winter's snow, and they look marvelous when crowned with white caps. 

Here is Reggie’s advice for successful planting of urns:
  • Wait until the end-of-season sale at your local nursery to buy shrubs to plant in your urns for the winter, and be sure to plant them before the soil in the urns freezes for the duration; otherwise you'll find yourself chopping out frozen dirt to make way for the shrubs;
  • When planting annuals in the spring or summer buy more than you think you’ll need and stuff them in. They’re only going to be in there for the season, so make the most of it;
  • Regardless of season, limit the varieties you plant in each urn; plant no more than one or two types of plants in a limited color palette; keep it simple;
And that's how we do it at Darlington. 

What did you plant in your urns this winter?

Photos by Reggie Darling

Friday, January 15, 2010

I've Gone Shopping for Shoelaces

After my mother died I and my siblings went through one of life’s most invested rituals, of going through her possessions and dividing them up amongst ourselves.  One of the things that I came across at the time was a small cardboard box containing several items that were identified as having at one time belonged to me as a boy.  Among the toys and childish ephemera was a pair of small brown leather shoes that had originally been worn by my older brother Frecky, and then handed down to me.

I grew up in such a time, world, and family that “hand-me-downs” were expected to form the nucleus of my wardrobe as the youngest of four children.  It wasn’t until I went away to boarding school in my mid-teens that the majority of my clothes were actually bought for me new from a store.  Up until then almost everything I wore--except for socks, underwear, and shoes--was either handed down to me from my older brother, acquired at the Junior League “Nearly New Shoppe” where my mother used to volunteer, or bought at the annual jumble sale at the country day school that I and my brother attended.  Why buy a new pair of Brooks Brothers khakis for Reggie when perfectly good, sturdy ones that Frecky (or others) had outgrown were sitting on a shelf, unused?

I recently came across the little shoes again when rifling through a drawer in the secretary-bookcase in our Snuggery at Darlington, and pulled them out to examine them.  Unlike the crude children’s shoes made today with plastic soles and Velcro-closings, the shoes I had worn as a child are a marvel of construction, beautifully made and sewn with tiny stitches, miniature versions of expensive, bench-made grown-up shoes.  I wish more of the shoes I own today were as well made!  However, my little shoes were a bit forlorn-looking, having lost their laces long ago.

My poor little unloved shoes

I decided that I would rectify this and place them on top of the chest of drawers I use in our bedroom where I would enjoy seeing them.  But that was more easily plotted than executed.  I brought the shoes back to the City with me and one day during lunchtime went to find a pair of laces for them.  My first stop was a shoe repair shop near my office that had nothing so diminutive as to fit my little shoes, and I returned to my office with my mission unaccomplished.  My next stop several days later was a carriage trade children’s shoe shop on the Upper East Side, but they didn’t even stock extra laces, much to my surprise.  However, they referred me to a shoe repair shop in the neighborhood as a possible source, but cautioned me that it was unlikely that I would find laces for my shoes anywhere because “they don’t make them like that anymore.”  Fortunately the proprietors of the shoe repair shop had a shoebox of discontinued sets of laces under the counter, and I found a pair among them that fit my little shoes perfectly.  They thought it was a stitch that the shoes were mine.

So much better, thank you

Don’t you think my little shoes look quite spiffy in their new laces?

Photos by Boy Fenwick

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Theatuh, the Theatuh, What's Happened to the Theatuh?"*

Or, an Open Letter to the Producers of “A Little Night Music” and the Management of the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation

* With apologies to Mr. Irving Berlin

Last week Boy and I had the pleasure of attending a Broadway show for the first time in many months. I say “pleasure” because the recently-opened revival of A Little Night Music we saw was really quite good, with strong performances by most of its cast, most notably and somewhat to my surprise by Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, while the show was a pleasure, the experience of attending the theater was not.

I’ll tell you why . . .

Strike One: The Tickets Were Exorbitantly Expensive

Getting good seats these days to an early-stage run of a hit Broadway show is virtually impossible for mere mortals without going through a ticket broker, and the cost of procuring such seats can be astronomical. I pre-bought our tickets through American Express before the show opened and paid a whopping $277 per seat for our center orchestra seating, or $554 for the two of us. I was surprised to see, however, that this did not include a huge scalping fee as a full $267 of the per-seat cost actually went to the theater, with Amex and Telecharge between them taking only $10 in handling fees per ticket. On the rare occasions that Boy and I attend the theater we are usually willing to spring for seats in the orchestra, preferring to forego the experience altogether if it means being relegated to seats in a nose-bleed balcony or ones with obstructed views. While I recognize that one pays a premium price to sit in the center orchestra, I think having to fork over more than $500 to the house for two seats is exorbitant.

That's right, $277 a seat!

…Particularly when it is obvious that the producers have scrimped on the expenses of mounting the show, which was most definitely the case here.

But we didn’t know that when I ordered the tickets as a Christmas present to us, and–even though expensive–I was more than willing to pay such a price for us to see this show. That's because neither of us had seen it before in other revivals, we both enjoy listening to the original cast recording from time-to-time, and we thought it would be one of our last chances to see Angela Lansbury on stage.

Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, Catherine Zeta-Jones as her daughter Desiree,
and Keaton Whittaker as her grandaughter Frederika (photo: Joan Marcus)

So we decided to make an evening of it, starting with dinner at “21”. I am going to be posting shortly about having dinner there so I’m not going to say much about that part of our evening for now, except that we both enjoyed it.

Strike Two: The Theater Was Woefully Understaffed

A Little Night Music is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, a confection of a hall built in 1921 and one of the most intimate theaters on Broadway, seating only 975 patrons. We arrived there approximately ten minutes before curtain to find a scene of utter mayhem outside with people jostling and pushing to get into the sole door that was being used to admit patrons. That was the first thing about the evening that struck me as “off.” In my view, there should have been someone there from the theater to direct the crowd, several more of the six available entry doors should have been opened to admit the crowd, and there should have been more than the two harried ticket takers on hand to process the nearly one thousand people entering the theater. But that would have meant paying wages to such staff, I suppose.

Photo: Playbill

Strike Three: There Were Almost No Ushers

After we made it through the door we then found ourselves in the midst of absolute chaos. There were virtually no ushers to direct ticketholders to their seats or hand out programs (I had to pick mine up from the floor where someone had dropped it), and the aisles were jammed with people bumbling about. There were plenty of theater employees on hand, though, but all of them were busy hawking souvenirs and tee shirts, or pushing their way through the crowd with trays filled with snacks and bottled water for sale. Given how aggressive they were I suspect they are paid on commission, now that I think of it.

Strike Four: No Coat Check!

After vainly searching for the coat check to leave my briefcase, overcoat, and hat before taking my seat I learned from an exasperated theater employee–annoyed because I had interrupted a transaction–that the Walter Kerr doesn’t have one. This struck me as particularly odd. Not only is it my understanding that having a coat check is a standard offering at most theaters, the absence of one is a decided inconvenience for the Walter Kerr’s patrons–particularly during the winter. I suppose that the bean counters at the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation decided that dispensing with a coat check altogether would help them maximize the theater’s revenue-per-square-inch calculation, since it opened up valuable real estate for more concession opportunities. Furthermore, they no longer have to pay salaries to the benighted lackeys forced to work checking coats. With this running through my mind, and annoyed by the prospect of having to sit buried under a pile of outer garments for the duration of the show, I then started to make my way to my seat.

Boy and I were eventually able to push our way through the hordes of people clogging the aisles and found the row that our seats were in. I was pleased to see that our seats were as billed, right in the center facing the stage, four rows back. All other seats in the row were already occupied so we had to "excuse me" our way past the seated patrons, none of whom bothered to stand up to let us by (as I would have done) despite the fact that the space between rows at the Walter Kerr is extremely tight at best, and far narrower than the stadium-sized seating found in most of the movie cineplexes the audience was likely more accustomed to. Much to my dismay I found that when I arrived at my seat it was next to one occupied by a Jabba the Hutt whose overly ample frame not only engulfed the arm-rest between our seats but also extended into my space, where it remained for the duration of the evening. I was not happy that I had to squeeze my way down into the seat while balling up my overcoat and putting it on my lap with my hat sitting on top of it.

Strike Five: The Patrons Were Under-Dressed, Ill-Mannered Boors

Once I had collected myself somewhat from this unpleasant experience, though, I was further dismayed when I turned and looked around the theater, taking in the rest of the audience. With few apparent exceptions the vast majority were dressed like slobs, wearing clothes more appropriate for an afternoon spent cleaning out the garage than for attending an evening's performance on the Great White Way. I felt like a decided fish out of water in my suit and tie and a throw-back to a different (and in my view better) era. Does anyone make an effort anymore?

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Not surprisingly once the show started the peanut gallery of the audience commenced a steady stream of comments, coughing, and gurgles, at least that is when their mouths weren't occupied with swilling water from plastic bottles that annoyingly captured the stage lights every time they took a swig. In retrospect I'm surprised I didn't hear someone loudly speaking on a cellphone during the performance giving a blow-by-blow description of what was taking place on stage.

Strike Six: As Little As Possible Was Spent on the Production

Fortunately I was able to block most of this out and enjoy the show, and the first act was quite good. But despite solid, and at times quite wonderful performances, both Boy and I were struck at how stripped down the production was, a view shared by many reviewers. The New York Times noted that there were barely enough musicians hired to constitute a pit orchestra. In my view "orchestra" is a complete misnomer as in reality there were barely enough musicians to constitute a combo, and what few there were were relegated to a mezzanine level on stage left as the pit had long-ago been dispensed with to make room for more lucrative seating.

In addition to an understaffed group of musicians the stage was barely decorated with a virtually nonexistent set, and there was little in the way of scenery changes between acts. Finally, as far as I could tell there was only one full change of costumes for the cast during the entire show. Not even the leading lady got more than two gowns to wear that evening. In some of the articles that I've read the producers apparently claimed that they were aiming to create a concert-like, Chekhovian mood in this production, but I rather think that was merely an excuse for why they invested what appeared to me to be the absolute bare minimum in the show's production.  Forgive me for what I'm missing here, but what do Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim have to do with Anton Chekhov?

Photo: Charles Sykes/AP

After an intermission that saw the reemergence of the army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and tee shirts at every turn we settled (well, in my case squeezed) back into our seats for the second act. It was quite enjoyable, and the highlight was when Ms. Zeta-Jones sang a nuanced "Send In the Clowns," a song that I have heard mutilated by so many bad performers over the years (including Boy's worst nightmare of Bonnie Franklin holding a sheaf of balloons) that I usually start to cringe at the first few notes of its intro. Ms. Zeta-Jones' performance actually brought tears to my eyes (contrary to what my readers may think I am a sentimental fool), and it was the only time during the evening that the audience really quieted down. In my view Angela Lansbury pretty much mailed in her performance that evening as Madame Armfeldt, but I don't begrudge her that since it isn't exactly a toothsome role to begin with, and as far as I'm concerned she has the right to rest on her laurels at this point in her remarkable career.  A letter from Ms. Lansbury is still a treat indeed.

Strike Seven: The Huckstering Never Let Up

Even as we left the theater we were continued to be assaulted by vendors desperately trying to unload more souvenirs, snacks, and memorabilia. Management had even set up another stand outside with a barker urging everyone not to miss their last opportunity to sign up for a pre-sale of the as-yet-to-be-released cast recording. I couldn't wait to get away.

In our apartment Boy and I sat for an hour or so talking about the evening. Although we were both genuinely happy to have seen the show, and enjoyed it, we were both highly irritated by how unpleasant the experience of attending the Walter Kerr Theater had been. We laid most of the blame on the producers and the theater's management, who appeared to us to have done everything in their power to extract as much as possible from the audience while giving as little as possible in return. In the end I do not believe I got anywhere near my "money's worth" for the more than $500 I spent on our tickets--if I had to put a number on it I'd probably appraise the evening's true worth at no more than about half that.

Given our less-than-enjoyable experience in attending A Little Night Music, Boy and I agreed that we won’t be in any hurry to return to the theater to see a Broadway show, and particularly one with the misfortune to be staged at the Walter Kerr. As far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather stay at home and spend my money on something else that would give me lasting pleasure, such as the original cast recording of A Little Night Music--the one with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold.  And since I already own it I would have $554 more in my checking account than I do today.

Monday, January 11, 2010

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

...To report on our experience this evening of stopping in at Gino's Restaurant in Manhattan for a drink on our way home from work.  For those of you who may not be familiar with Gino's, it is an old-style red sauce and spaghetti Italian joint up the street from Bloomingdales on Lexington Avenue.  Located in the same spot "since 1945", Gino's is an institution in New York, and is one of the last remaining restaurants of its type on the Upper East Side, if not Manhattan.  Widely reported in the media as closing at the end of this month, Gino's is beloved among New Yorkers of "a certain age" as a dependable spot for stiff drinks and reasonably-priced, basic, old-school Southern Italian fare.  Justifiably famous for its interior decorated with cherry-red wallpaper covered with black and white zebras (and not much else), Gino's is a welcome throwback to a decidedly different era.

Postcard of Gino in 1991 (photo by Frederick Charles)

The first and only time I dined at Gino's was in my twenties, when I was taken there for dinner by a friend of my parents who lived nearby, and who had a charge account at the restaurant since they didn't take credit cards in those days.  My host was a single woman in her late 50s, a friend of my mother's from boarding school, and I recall she wore a black cocktail suit that evening with a diamond brooch and her hair in the classic "Vassar cut" that she had likely sported since the 1950s.  Very Mary McCarthy.  I don't recall all that much about the evening except that it was well-fueled with copious amounts of cocktails and wine, and dinner was basically a blur.  While I enjoyed myself I wasn’t in a hurry to return as I was quite a bit younger at the time than its more "mature” habitués.

So when I read recently that Gino's was set to close later this month, supposedly a victim of the recession, I decided that I would drop in to pay my respects before its doors shut for the last time.  Fortunately, a business meeting that I had in midtown this afternoon ended early enough that I could pick up Boy at his office a few minutes before 5 pm, and we headed over to Gino's to see what was what.

We arrived there to find a cluster of hard-drinking 10021 regulars at the bar.  Settling in to the remaining empty barstools we ordered a round of martinis and surveyed the joint.  Since it was only shortly after 5 pm it was not surprising that only a few of its many tables were occupied by diners. I was assured by the friendly barman that it would soon be full of regulars tucking in to Gino’s vast selection of easy-on-the-wallet, traditional Italian favorites.  The zebra wallpaper really is quite marvelous (and has, I believe, been recently re-issued by Scalamandre), but doesn't entirely mitigate the fact that the room is largely otherwise devoid of charm with a dropped ceiling of acoustical tile and fluorescent tube lighting.  Nonetheless Gino really is quite appealing in a retro way, what with its staff of late middle-aged waiters sporting short burgundy jackets and black bowties, and the room decorated with the remnants of a dime-store Christmas right out of a 1950s photograph.

Boy and I spent a pleasant half hour speaking with the other patrons at the bar and learned that reports of Gino's imminent death may be somewhat premature.  Apparently the place has been packed every night since it was published that it will be closing at the end of this month, and there may be a reprieve in its future.  I'm happy to learn that may be the case, as I think it would be a shame to send this old zebra to the glue factory any time soon.

780 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York 10021
(212) 758-4466
no website
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