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Drinking, Smoking and Screwing

Panzano is at your service morning, noon and night.
Mark Manger

Drinking, smoking and screwing. That's what hotel restaurants are really for -- for doing the first two as prelude to the third.

Waiting, too. Hotel restaurants are good for waiting. And for drinking and smoking while you wait -- for a friend, a business associate, your mule or that bartender down the street to get off work. They're good for staring thoughtfully into your martini, reading fortunes in gin and olive brine, twisting your Zippo between your fingers. Check the score of the game on TV even if you don't care, flag the barman for another drink you really don't need, watch the street lamps go on in a city that isn't your own -- stranger in a strange land, pausing, however briefly or long, in this island of light and familiarity. Hotel restaurants are made for strangers, transitory characters just passing through. To be a local waiting in a hotel restaurant is a uniquely depressing experience. If you're there, you're there for a reason -- hopefully to drink, to smoke and to screw, or at least two out of the three.

I'm at Panzano in the Hotel Monaco, waiting for my wife, drinking something-and-somethings at the bar like liquor's going out of style and annoying the drunken businessman beside me, who waves his fingers at my smoke whenever it intrudes into his personal space. He's half lying on the bar, salt-and-pepper hair almost grazing its slickly polished top, asking the tender for another round and to split the check with the girl beside him. That's a sign of an evening gone wrong, unless they'd already decided to go Dutch. And the look on her face, the way she purses her lips as if to spit every time he looks at her? Definitely an evening gone wrong.

I light another and watch the revolving door at the end of the long, stone counter where Panzano's bakers work or don't, depending on the hour. There are stools for sitting (and flour-dusted cookbooks and clipboards, cooking racks and a big, upright Hobart mixer that I can't imagine is ever used because those things are loud, so why would you have one essentially in your lobby?), but no service. This seems like a strange waste of real estate when the restaurant is full and the bar close to it. The restaurant itself is just past the door, and I'm watching for Laura to come sweeping in. She won't, because I'm here for work (more or less), and she's off on the other side of town doing whatever it is she does when I'm more-or-less working, but I can't help thinking that she might.

Our relationship started in hotels, after all. And in hotel bars. It was a game. I'd put on a half-fake Irish accent and pretend to be Nigel Pennington of the BBC. She'd be a Russian spy, straight out of John Le Carré. And even if we were meeting in Ithaca or Rochester or somewhere even less cosmopolitan, it was fun. In Ithaca, in Rochester, in Philadelphia and Georgetown and Boulder -- in all the places we met long before we managed to agree on a zip code to call our own, we knew what hotel restaurants were for, and it was never eating.

Except maybe breakfast, and we'd had breakfast at Panzano a week before. The cream for my coffee was curdled, and Laura got a paper cut from the butcher's paper used to cover the tablecloth, but the orange juice was fresh-squeezed and the eggs Benedict were just fine -- poached in perfect rounds that can only be achieved with the application of springforms or PVC tube, topped with a champagne hollandaise and mounted over English muffins smeared with a very good pesto. Laura had an omelette with ham and fresh tomatoes and cheddar and drank black tea. We pretended we were in New York, sitting pressed up against the windows and watching the sunlight crawl through the narrow ravine of 17th Street and across the face of downtown skyscrapers. All the scene needed was about a thousand more cabs and it would've been complete. We were late, even for brunch, but we weren't the only table lingering, and we never felt hurried. Our server, with his shiny green vest and perfectly manicured nails, was nothing but a gentleman.

Dinner a couple days later was different -- good and bad and uncomfortable throughout. Panzano was busy, which was okay with me. The only thing more depressing than dinner in a hotel restaurant is dinner in an empty hotel restaurant. The crowd was mostly businessmen, suits, squares and perpetually pissed-off German tourists confused by everything from the seating policy to the arrangement of the menu. Our waitress treated us like trash with a history -- like we were about to make off with the silverware or order red wine with fish.

The menu was rote Italian, elevated with a little style -- but that was mostly in the form of truffle oil drizzled over every other plate. Our waitress rattled off the night's specials while staring at some distant point over our heads like she was competing in a spelling bee, apologized in patronizing tones for two or three dishes that were sold out even though she clearly could not possibly have cared less. We ordered wine, skipping the overpriced bottles in favor of overpriced glasses, then appetizers, at which point she stopped us.

"Are you going to be ordering entrees?" she asked condescendingly, humiliatingly, as if our grudging and embarrassed "No, ma'am" -- said with toes twisting in the carpet and eyes downcast -- was a foregone thing, as if she expected us to try to pay with pocket change. Bad enough that she would ask. Worse that she would do it before giving us the chance to simply order them like, you know, valued guests. I was there with friends, with my wife. It might have been someone's birthday. We might have been celebrating something. Maybe this was the one nice dinner out that we'd have all year long and we'd chosen Panzano because it seemed -- with its cloistered booths, tasteful Italian villa decor and liveried servers -- like the kind of place grownups go when they want to drop some green and have a nice meal.

I wanted to bite her. I wanted to explain to her in great detail how she should have the decency to treat every table -- every single goddamn table, every single goddamn time -- like they belonged there, like they were welcome. But I didn't. I simply smiled, said that yes, please, we would like to order dinner if that was okay, and then ordered large -- apps, entrees, booze, dessert, the whole spread. Runners brought most of our plates. When the waitress showed up at all, it was to ask if everything was okay and then walk off before we could answer. And when at one point -- after the wine had arrived but before the appetizers -- I found her on the floor and discreetly asked if she could tell me where the men's room was, she said no.

In retrospect, I kinda wish I'd just pulled out my dick and pissed right there on the carpet, but I didn't. Without even bothering to glance my way, the waitress told me to ask the hostess, who was busy dealing with a couple of German tourists who couldn't be made to understand why they couldn't have a table when there were tables open in the dining room (it was because of late-arriving parties with reservations, and to her credit, she was doing her best). When my turn finally came, the hostess very sweetly gave me complicated directions around the bakery, past the flowers, down the hallway, out into the hotel, down the stairs and around the corner, but what I really needed was a native guide, a compass and a map.

The bathrooms were nice, though. And I didn't even try to steal the toilet paper.

Our appetizers arrived at the table shortly after I returned: good baby calamari, breaded and fried golden-brown, with lemon slices and a lazy, spicy rémoulade; gamberi al arrabbiata served, oddly, in an excellent white-wine beurre blanc sprinkled with crushed red-pepper flakes and sprouting charred crostini like wings; a generous antipasti platter rolling with olives and almond-stuffed dates topped with gorgonzola, roasted garlic in the skin, meat, cheese, two pestos (basil and roasted red pepper) and more burnt crostini; then another trio of crostini, each piece topped with a different arrangement of stuff: limp mushrooms and white truffle oil on one, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and provolone on another, and a third with gorgonzola and honey that was beautiful and brilliant and actually evocative of that whole Italian-farmhouse thing that Panzano's kitchen is reaching for.

When our mains arrived, I started on the dry chicken involtini in a sweet and chunky sage-dressed red sauce redolent of more unnecessary truffle oil in the mushroom-and-parmesan stuffing, the browned and breaded breasts sliced and mounted over red-rice risotto that reached for greatness and only missed by a little. I moved on to handmade sausage-and-fennel ravioli that were good, if not exceptional, in a sauce given muscle by fat chunks of pancetta. The simple scaloppine di vitello was the night's big winner -- perfectly prepared little cutlets of pale veal set atop a squashed hillock of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and napped with a bitter, citric, ideally executed sauce punctuated but not overwhelmed by the sharp bite of a few scattered capers and the sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes. But the duck three ways was a mess, pairing excellent grilled duck sausage with a dry, tough roasted leg and a seared breast that tasted like a vegetarian hotdog, only bloody, with a wonderful sour-cherry sauce. The leg and breast came on a mound of overly sweet mashed sweet potatoes, the sausages tucked under, a dollop of goat cheese buried somewhere under a fall of greens. The dish was prepared and served with all the lethargy and lack of inspiration I've come to expect from hotel restaurants over the years. Every entree plate except the ravioli was designed vertically, with something on top of something on top of something else. And though there was obviously some talent in the kitchen -- chef Elise Wiggins took over after Jennifer Jasinski departed to open her own restaurant in Larimer Square -- some wasn't enough.

When dessert came (I'd bet everyone at the table ten bucks that our waitress wouldn't even offer dessert menus, just a bill and a sneer, but I lost), we enjoyed a fine and generous slice of airy tiramisu -- as gentle a comedown as we could've hoped for. But the abysmal chocolate-filled ravioli tasted like gritty cocoa-powder soup mashed between two saltines and was crowned by a scoop of ice cream with all the flavor of snow.

As a final gesture, I shorted the waitress on my usual 20-something percent tip. Since she'd been expecting it all night, it seemed only appropriate to finally fulfill her low opinion of us. Besides, I'd already had my drinks, and I'd ducked into the bar during dinner for a smoke. So to complete the night, I figured someone ought to get screwed -- even if it wasn't going to be me.

Panzano is, in all ways, a hotel restaurant. For drinking, smoking and what-have-you, though, I truly like the bar. It's an anonymous place, comfortable, perfect for that trinity of human indulgences, perfect for avoiding the dining room at all costs. I watch while a party of a dozen rolls in off the street, guests at the hotel, and the drunken businessman sags closer and closer to the polished bar, waiting for his split check, pawing for his wallet. I play the part of the spurned lover or businessman who missed the message about the canceled meeting. I watch the door and I wait until all the light is gone, then roll out to someplace else for dinner. I learned my lesson about hotel restaurants long ago, and Panzano has done nothing to change my opinion.

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