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.

And that was a goddamn shame, because when you took away half of a great salad, you replaced it with a deeply and profoundly abysmal lasagna I wouldn't feed to an enemy. A few layers of limp pasta swimming in an acid bath of red sauce that would've embarrassed Chef Boyardee, stuffed with rank ricotta and topped with some desiccated parsley dandruff -- are you kidding me? And I'm not being flowery when I say that ricotta was bad. It was turned. Curdled. It tasted like vomit -- like sour milk and eggs left in the sun too long. And if whoever sent it out of the kitchen couldn't smell the evil vapors coming off this plate, then he must have had a head cold or his fists up his nose or something, because I sure could. From two feet away.

I actually ate two bites of this nightmare -- the second only because I couldn't believe the first was as bad as I thought. But it was. If anything, it was worse. Hot curdled cheese is nasty enough. But lukewarm curdled cheese?

I've eaten some awful things in my life. This lasagna was worse than almost all of them. I've had better Italian food made by homeless people warming cans of Spaghetti-Os on the engine block of a truck, and seen more care given to a plate of noodles by wasted truck-stop hash-slingers at the bad end of a triple shift.

Out of politeness, I pushed the mess around a little on my plate, then asked to have it boxed up to go, telling the waiter I just wasn't as hungry as I'd thought I was. But after walking through the dining room -- and trying not to hold the box at arm's length, like uranium -- the minute I got outside, it went straight into the garbage. I seriously considered lighting the trash can on fire, too. The only reason I didn't was because I didn't have any matches handy. More's the pity: With the oil slick that had formed on top of the sauce by the time the lasagna had started to cool, it would have gone up like a tomato-flavored neutron bomb, and that would have been something to see.

But did I give up? No, I didn't. I came back because I am a glutton for culinary punishment and because any place -- no matter how egregious its sins -- deserves a second shot. Maybe I'd just rolled in on a phenomenally bad night. Maybe West Nile had taken down your entire kitchen staff, and you'd been trying to get by with dishwashers and busboys manning the hot line. It could've been anything, so I waited two weeks before returning.

And sonofabitch if you didn't do it to me again. Although things weren't as flat-out dangerous this time around, it still takes more than chicken broth and a can of chopped clams to make a white clam sauce. It takes heart. It takes skill. If nothing else, it takes an understanding that you can't use oiled-down linguine with a broth sauce, because nothing will stick to oiled-down linguine. You need fresh pasta -- fresh, dry pasta -- to make it work. You need to know that fresh herbs are good, dried herbs aren't, and you need to at least pretend to care about the final product. What I got was a big white bowl of clam scraps and some noodles wadded up in a weak puddle of broth. Eating it was like sucking down a tangle of wet rubber bands with a side of watery clam soup, and I know you've probably made this same dish 10,000 times over the last fifty years, but you know what? This was the first time I'd tasted it, and rather than tasting the experience and refinement that comes from 10,000 attempts at the same dish, I tasted only boredom. This was shoemaking -- assembly-line cooking -- and shoemakers have no business in a good kitchen.

The fra diavolo sauce was better: spicy, light and filled with big chunks of tomato pulp. It clung tight to the noodles and matched well with the big, tender shrimp that curled around the edge of the bowl, but it rose only to the level of good enough -- as in "Well, at least no one's actively trying to poison me this time, so that's good enough." It certainly wasn't great, but it was dinner. I can say that. No one (excepting maybe shut-ins) would remember this as one of those meals that fired their passions or made them swoon, but it filled my belly and stayed there, and I guess sometimes that's the best I can hope for.

Should I go on? No, I don't think so. When not nauseating is the highest compliment I can pay to an entree, I think I've said about all I need to.

Except this: Three Sons, you're showing your age.

Possible poisonings aside, all that's coming from your kitchen is a defeated sigh, a never-ending procession of same old thing after same old thing, and that isn't enough. You've got the look and you've got the legs, but the game is getting away from you. Your heart's not in it, and it shows. There's just too much young talent out there for you to rest on your reputation. Old-time stars and veteran favorites have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as they ever were if they just want to keep up. And it may not be fair, but it's the truth.

If I'm lucky, I've got 40,000 meals left to eat in my life. I'm sorry, but I won't waste another one on you.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan