Two Different Bartenders
Just to be perfectly clear, I like bartenders. And not in the insipidly chummed-up way that you're supposed to like bartenders. You know how it goes. Bartenders (and especially the male ones) are the demigods, the capos, the high men, of a lot of restaurants. They get to lean back and take it in and talk their rough talk and fire their burnished Zippos when the stung-lipped minxes lean in for lights. The bartender has a mighty power. You'd best respect it.
And I do. Given that I eat out alone all the time, I'm on a constant quest for restaurants with bars, which means I'm required to deal with bartenders. A fact of life. It's a fundamental criterion in choosing where I eat. Does the joint have a bar? Does the joint care that some of us simply will not sit in solitude at a table with our little book and try to look as if we're not bedraggled and sad, miserable, isolated, skirting the ragged edge of embarrassment? A fundamental criterion. I mean it. This is one of the main reasons I like Gramercy Tavern, that I like Union Square Cafe. Babbo. Cafe Luxembourg, the Grange Hall. Bars. Welcoming, beckoning, bustling, satisfying. Bars.
And bar service is, in my experience, usually good, often even grand, at restaurants with reputations to uphold. Once the bartender learns that you intend to eat, the protocol is to set you up like a real patron: water, bread, utensils, perhaps even a napkin folded gracefully into a shining white triangular place mat. A minimal sort of attention?versus what you'd get from a waiter or waitress?but a tacit acknowledgment that you rate. That you've ventured out alone in search of a meal, and that the decision, the risk, represents a certain undauntable nobility and optimism. A quiet bond forms between you and your bartender. It's okay, pal. It's okay. A quiet bond. Applied dignity, and you need it. Because that's what eating at a bar implies: A desire for temporary well-being, permission to be isolated but also included.
I know the code, they know the code. Make no mistake: there is a code.
But at Blue Ribbon, the Soho stalwart, the last week, the code was ignored, dispensed with. Can I recall a time when I was so shabbily treated at a bar? I can't. So what was the problem? The problem was this: The bartender wasn't a bartender?he was a pissant deity in his private empire of cool. I fucking hate guys like this, and always have. And you find them, often enough, either eating or working at places like Blue Ribbon, a restaurant I usually enjoy in spite of its sometimes off-putting demographics. Let me tell you about this guy's mojo. Then you can make up your own mind.
He razors his hair close to his skull and keeps his skin pulled tight around his hard body. He favors a tough look, a thug look. His threat, however, is not flagrantly announced; it's held in austere reserve, making it more menacing. Earring. Tattoo, perhaps. Perhaps a few. He says: I'm a thug, but not really. I'm your buddy. But don't fuck with me, because I'm a thug.
Language is nothing to him; neither are manners. Words are puny.
He likes tall women who are mesmerized by his false thuggery. They tremble in his beady gaze.
He could be a soldier. He's willing to inflict pain.
He could do runway work. He could be a boxer. He possesses a hard allure. He's made a cult of his physicality.
He wears a snug dark shirt and nylon pants and his dive watch is held to his thick wrist by a black strap. He rides a motorcycle, I'm guessing. In summertime, he renounces sleeves. Each night that he works at the bar, his court parades before him, all lesser men, softer men with softer jobs and softer clothes and soft hair and eyeglasses and Japanese girlfriends and 401(k)s, men in their late 20s and early 30s, educated men who nonetheless fawn before this false thug and his huge sexuality. A twisted ritual, but there it is: the feeble departing effort to be loved by this bartender, this man of coiled, laconic prowess and unshaven mystery. Stretched-out handshakes, skin-slapping, a grunting masculine courtship. They are all prey, these soft professionals, these lesser men, and they know it. This bartender is the lion, the king, and he knows it. What looks like respect is, like so many other things in this life, simply fear.
But this is not the fucking African Veld and I'm not some sort of lesser mammal, cowering far down on the testosterone food chain and darting between my evolutionary betters, scavenging for forgotten scraps and neglected morsels. I'm a patron, and this is a restaurant. It's a restaurant that invites you to eat at its bar. It's a restaurant that invites you to eat its bar, but that employs this mannerless thug to supply the service. I'd like to emphasize that concept: Service. In theory, a thing restaurants are interested in.
The first problem I have with the bartender and his dismissive attitude toward service involves the wine. "What do you have tonight?" I ask, innocuously enough. He recites the list. Two appeal: a Rhone and a sangiovese. I press on. He's annoyed. Really, all I want to know is if the sangiovese is domestic or Italian, hardly an insulting request at the bar of a restaurant owned by a pair of brothers (the Brombergs) who are rumored to take some pride in their wine lists. Already I'm weak and irritating, a jittery little thing to be tolerated.
I get over it and turn to the menu. He goes sullenly back to his cigarette and his tabloid. The music pounds, the festive holiday crowd revels. The oyster-shucking guy shucks oysters. I choose an entree (sweetbreads, which wind up being delicious). I wait. And I wait some more. Meanwhile, no bread, no water. No setup. I'm about to drop $25 or so on dinner, and I've already spent an outrageous $10 on the wine. Another guy comes in, sits at the bar to eat. Again, no setup. Same shabby treatment.
Soft boys strut past him, genuflect. I fume, rage and scribble frantic, hateful sentiments in my notebook.
My entree arrives and sits on the bar while he finishes reading a sentence in his paper. Takes a drag on his cigarette. When he's good and ready, I'm served. As I eat, my anger blossoms. Finally, I ask for some bread. Then I ask for some water. Then I ask for the check and lay down my credit card. He goes to work.
He adds the check wrong. I'm all set to let it slide, to let Blue Ribbon figure it out later. But there's the code, still, to be upheld: the eating-at-the-bar code. A brief, internal debate. A choice. I point out the error. All of a sudden, I'm no longer a sniveling solitary runt, not prey, but the guy's buddy, an ephemeral equal. Because there it is: a shared weakness. My anger fades, humanity returns to my mood. What would this guy do without scrawny little worms like me? A superior needs inferiors. It's a cold night outside, windows rattle with the chill wind. The code may have been broken, but the law of the world, as we all know it so often must be, has been affirmed.
Blue Ribbon, 97 Sullivan St. (betw. Prince and Spring Sts.), 274-0404.
Contrast the above experience with the pleasure, the professionalism, the massive respect, the effort, the class, the flat-out gratuitous generosity I enjoyed at Lupa right before hopping the Metroliner to go on down to the Maryland countryside to visit my brother and my mother and my brother's wife and my brother's dog. I'd been trying to eat at Lupa, Mario Batali's much-ballyhooed new place on Thompson St. in lower Greenwich Village, for about a week and a half. But I kept dropping by around 5:30 or 6 in the evening, right after the restaurant opened for dinner. It was packed to the brick-walled and honey-lit gunwales (this is the definitive lush-casual restaurant of the moment) every single time I meandered over to press my nose to the windows. I was getting concerned. I needed to revise my plan.
Lunch. Of course: lunch.
And as I've already suggested, there's a code of bar dining, but I'll admit that it can?must, even?be modified for lunch. I mean, lunch?it's a looser meal. Not hectic. It can sprawl. It can consume an afternoon. And Lupa is a busy place right now, so what I expected was reasonable but possibly distracted service from the bar guy. I assumed Batali would have the staff skittering around, getting ready for another big night, because these days, every night's a big night for Mario.
I walk in at noon, and within about five seconds am completely set up. Have been asked if I want tap water or something snazzier. The bartender?another in Batali's platoon of absolute pros who nonetheless come off like the guy who cracked Buds for me at Nick's in Clemson, SC, when I was in school?walks me through the caraffina wine service, which is just a slightly downgraded version of the quartino service at Babbo: a glass and a half of whatever wines they're pouring, decanted into a carafe (everything under $15). I opt for a '98 Vitiano Falesco?an Umbrian red blended from thirds of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese?over what I suspect would be a fruitier but less hefty '97 Salento Rosso from Puglia. I want heft because I intend to play along with Mario and eat me some meat. I intend to eat what was once the noble pig, shredded and stuffed into casings, hung out to age and dry or whatever, and then sliced up by members of Mario's crew on one of the pair of gleaming slicers that purr beneath a smirking photo of?you guessed it?a pig. The votive likeness of a sainted, sacrificial porker.
Like Batali's menus at Po and Babbo, the one at Lupa requires a modicum of explanation, and my bartender, once I get back from a quick jaunt outside to fetch a paper, is happy to oblige. He's greeted my return with a plate of superb, spongy focaccia speckled with rock salt and tinged with rosemary. There's olive oil for dipping, and while I do that, and sip my wine, he delivers the dope on the $13 Affetati Misti, a selection of eight different sliced meats (it's like Oscar Mayer raised to the nth degree). Together?and I'm not making this up, the whole lunch was a genuine collaboration between me and Mario's bar guy?we decide that I should start with the zuppa di giorno, a rustic squash soup, pureed sort of smooth but garnished with hunks of roasted eggplant and cauliflower?then move on to the affetati and finish up with a $7 selection of three cheeses.
He picks the cheese. You can't go wrong at any of Batali's restaurants asking the staff to choose for you. If they make mistakes, they're ones you can live with. Ones you wouldn't even really consider bringing up.
The soup: achingly robust, ideal for a bright cold afternoon in mid-December?the sun a small and distant thing, the city bundled, white plumes of exhaust curling from the tailpipes of delivery trucks. The bar itself is a sturdy oaken affair, the barstools simple and high. In the front room, where reservations are not required, fellow lunchers begin to arrive: a sleek black-haired woman in a red shawl, a pair of men in sturdy wintertime shirts. The staff wears white butchers' smocks. Wreaths and garlands of olive and orange decorate the mellow walls, arch bountifully above the curved mirrors behind the bar.
A redheaded waiter spies my Times, the "Dining" section of which features a photograph of Sicilian desserts. "We make something like that," he says, pointing to a creamy round item. "But I don't know what the green part is." The creamy round item is encircled by a celadon ring. (Pistachio?) "I'll let you know if I find out," I say. He smiles. I smile back.
Here's what I get on the affetati board, sliced and folded atop a sheet of wax paper: some sopressata, some mortadella and the best prosciutto I've ever had anywhere, ever?ever in my life. Velvet protein, veined with fat. The bartender keeps the focaccia coming, as fast as I can eat it. I make little sandwiches, White Castle sandwiches. I chew my head-cheese.
An amazing foodstuff, head-cheese. Multitextured, delicate, firm and sort of bony, all in the same mouthful, and so greasy that it refuses to remain folded and skewered on the tines of my fork. Head-cheese. It has a life of its own, is not a dead thing. The forgotten or neglected parts of the pig. Snouts and shit. Scrumptious, and like eating tripe: thinking about it either ruins the experience or enriches it. A measure of suspended revulsion is required, and rewarded.
An endless supply of focaccia. The cheese, small crumbly sharp bits taking the edge off the fatty meats. The wine cuts through everything, clarifies and intensifies the many discrete flavors. In slow motion I get full, not as I would on a helping of Lupa's righteous pasta (you can bet on it, Batali makes eating pasta in a restaurant worthwhile), but over the gradual progress of a gentle hour. Waking dreams, spurred by a gustatory narcosis, take shape in my head. My wayward Cartesian twins are re-entwined.
And all the while, I'm diligently attended. When it's all over, when I'm ready to walk or nap or do whatever it is I'll need to do to counteract the mild though not unpleasant torpor, the Yeatsian sleepfulness, that has settled over me, a final, handsome touch arrives. "Here's the wine you were thinking about before," the bartender says, swapping my glass and pouring me a finger, a taste, of the Salento.
Mario Batali is a godsend. Mario Batali and his partners run the only restaurant in town where, I can say without qualm or guilt, the food will make you a better person, and the staff will wipe your ravages away, as if they were nothing more than misty ghosts on wintertime glass.
Lupa, 170 Thompson St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.), 982-5089.