I'm supposed to be anonymous in this job, and while I don't always perform with perfect super-spy cool and élan in the dining rooms and back alleys of this city (my own private Berlin, the secret agent's Valhalla), I do recognize a few hard and fast rules.
First, never do anything to draw attention to yourself. Never make reservations in your own name. Always use the names of dead character actors, characters from The Simpsons or local chefs. You can get away with almost any kind of bad behavior if the floor staff think you're, say, one of Sean Yontz's sous chefs on the tail end of a three-day tequila bender — because the waiters and waitresses and hosts will have dealt with their own kitchen overlords and will know what to expect.
And never, ever take notes. Do that, and you may as well wear a T-shirt that says ANONYMOUS RESTAURANT CRITIC in big white letters. You may as well whip out a stack of business cards and start demanding free drinks and back rubs from the owner. Taking notes (or worse, cell-phone pictures of the food) is a surefire giveaway.
Still, there are exceptions to every rule. And there are some restaurants that are exceptions to all rules. Grand Lux Cafe, for example. Waiting for my second massive flight of food to arrive on a recent Saturday evening, I felt I had to set down my initial impressions of the place before I lost them — before they were blown clean out of my head with shotgun severity by the next outrage. So there I was, hunched up against the wall, frantically scribbling on the back of an old check:
This is not a restaurant, I wrote. This is a time-warp trip back to the Rome of the Caesars...a gilt-edged and bejeweled palace filled with polished marble, fire, lacquer, iron and gold with glowing lamps and statuary and fiery angel choirs singing from atop massive pillars...
Laura had ducked out for a minute, gone clopping across the marble floor in her spike heels to check out the bakery in the lobby, the towering bar. I'd sat, walled in by the wreckage of our first course — by half-eaten double-stuffed potato spring rolls, the gnawed ends of flautas as thick around as small burritos, and mini hot dogs made (allegedly) of Kobe beef, buried in chili and cheese and mounted, like the offering in some freaky church of meat processors, atop the altars of their outsized, precariously tall buns — before I'd escaped to a corner to scribble.
Here, all the world's cuisines have collided, the place itself standing like a massive edifice against all that is good and decent in the world, a giant, marbled and sculpted Fuck You to generations of cooks and chefs and every small advance we've made.
After we sat down, our waitress had rushed her way through a rehearsed spiel with all the passion of a museum docent fifteen minutes before quitting time: "As you can see, the menu is very large..." The floor was busy and she'd already had her eyes on her next table, just being sat, as she robotically warned us that portions were big. But we didn't pay much attention, and wound up ordering enough fried starch and weirdness to amply feed a party of ten.
If there is a hell for line cooks — a place where they must go after sloughing off this mortal coil to work off their sins of the grill — then I am sure now that this is it. This is where food comes to die.
The way the story goes, Grand Lux Cafe began with a request from the owners of the Venetian Resort, Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to David Overton, founder of the Cheesecake Factory empire, to build them a new restaurant. The Venetian brain trust had decided that penny slots, a complete re-creation of a Venetian piazza (including painted-on sky and working canal system) and nineteen (count 'em) other restaurants offering everything from the transplanted genius of Thomas Keller (Bouchon) and Mario Batali (B&B Ristorante) to cheap and sleazy Mexican weren't enough to get the rubes into their joint, and what they really needed was a restaurant that, while appearing to be an ultra-luxe, super-high-end dining establishment, actually offered the kind of crap that the T-shirt-and-flip-flops crowd adores. Agreeing to this devil's bargain, Overton then hopped on a plane and headed for Europe, where he studied opulent Italian trattorias, French bistros and the pastry shops of Vienna before, apparently, being knocked on the head somewhere between the Lainzer Tiergarten and Avenue Emile Zola, forgetting everything he'd seen and, while sitting in the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle, just throwing together an over-the-top concept on a bar napkin, complete with a menu rife with transgressions against nearly every major culinary canon. The first Grand Lux Cafe opened in Vegas to wild success — no surprise. Operating 24/7 and seating 550, the place looks like a set from an abandoned production of Caligula (I've seen pictures) and serves, among other things, chilaquiles, duck pot stickers, Maryland crabcakes, Neapolitan pizzas, Carolina barbecue sandwiches, steak frites, sesame tofu, weinerschnitzel and Kentucky hot brown. The operation was so successful that Grand Lux Cafe LLC went on to open locations in nine more states, twelve restaurants altogether, including our very own version at Park Meadows.