Cafe Society

Same Old, Same Old

For a restaurant, looks aren't everything. Pretty is nice, no doubt. Pretty will get you places, but on its own, pretty ain't enough. The business is tough and getting tougher. A lot of sharp young chefs and blooded, veteran operators out there are hungry for what little cash is flowing into the business, so it's no longer enough to look the part. You have to feel it. You have to have something under the skin, something tra le gambe. You have to have guts, and when the plates hit the table, those guts have to show. Cooking must be an expression of pure love or pure obsession (or a little of both), because otherwise, it's just dinner. Boilerplate. Nothing special. And no diner wants that.

In Hollywood, sometimes looking the part is enough. Sometimes being pretty really is everything. Hell, sometimes it's more than everything. Sometimes looks (and a whole lotta money) will buy you the world. Consider Paris Hilton: If ever there was a vacuous, sucking, black hole of uselessness strolling Beverly Hills, she's it. She's famous simply because she was born into money and has one of those freakish, million-to-one geometries of eyebrows to cheekbones to tits, hips and legs that the modern male eye finds irresistible.

But Denver isn't Hollywood. And West 44th Avenue ain't Rodeo Drive. And Three Sons, you're not the Paris Hilton of the restaurant world.

But you know that. You've been in the business since 1951, so you're no kid. You've weathered decades of ups and downs and in-betweens with grace, so you're a survivor. Frankly, though, you've got the legs to do better. You're a long-distance runner in a business that loves its sprinters, its one-trick ponies.

If looks were enough in the restaurant business, you'd be doing fine. You've got the look dead-bang solid. The white Ionic columns, all those rich reds and blues and purples in the upholstery, the espresso-dark wood in the lounge and that great bar with the bartender who looks like he's been standing there pouring sidecars and nips of Frangelico since Moses had a tab -- that's beautiful. What's more, it's classically beautiful. It's old-school, East Coast-trattoria chic, and it works because there's nothing false about it. It's not like those dining theme parks thrown up across the country by some snot-nosed punk who thinks he can recapture Venice or Napoli with a couple of Campari posters and a zinc longbar. No, you're better than that. You've got an honest, blue-collar night out in Brooklyn/Camden/Levittown vibe going, and that's pure gold. That's money. Like Frank says, you're doing it your way, and your way works. All of the servers are in tuxes and bows. They walk around with white napkins over their arms like they don't care if it's the 21st century outside; they know the menu like it was their religion; they move through the dining room like black and white swans -- gracefully, as if this were their own house and every table filled with relatives. Fuck the Olive Garden: You've got that "When you're here, you're family" routine down.

And that's all good. But it's not enough. It's a long way from everything.

Good looks are a start, though, and for a Right Coast industry brat like me, sitting down in the dining room was like coming home. There was the familiar warm bread with cold pats of foil-wrapped butter; a glass of Lambrusco off a list leaning heavily toward the cheap, the sweet and the red; real Italian accents, with waiters who pronounced manicotti as "maneegott," accent on the "gott," not "man-i-catty" like some dialogue-coached, movie-of-the-week phony. I was digging the whole scene and already writing a love letter in my head. Had the soup been anything other than a kitchen-sink minestrone -- packed with chunks of veggies, wilted greens, garbanzo beans, bits of meat and a little of anything else that might have been lying near the soup pot -- I would have been disappointed. And, yeah, the salad was standard-issue iceberg and house Italian (with some cuke, tommie and sliced pepperoni for color and a little international zing), but microgreens and endive would have been out of character. Besides, I'd also ordered a massive caprese salad with thick slices of buffalo mozzarella, fresh garlic, shredded basil and fat whacks of plum tomato so sweet and full that they bled out on the plate when I cut them.

So good food, a glass of cheap wine, the Chairman of the Board exercising his pipes on the Muzak, and I was loving it. This was one of those times that just seemed to hum, where everything came together so well that the room took on a misty, shimmering glow -- like right at the end of a nice dream, or in the middle of the best acid trip ever. Since I wanted to save room for the fabulous dinner that was sure to follow, I ate only half of the caprese. I took baby bites, nibbled a few rounds of crostini, ran my finger through the oil. I was chaste, is what I'm saying. I was saving myself.