Good Grub and the Spirit of Capitalism: Why New York food is so good.
I recently spent a week in New York City, during which I ate no bad meals. Nor did I dine at outrageous expense. My wife was with me, and we had no checks much above $100 for the two of us, and many several dollars beneath that. Even in the plushest of times, I consider all restaurant meals $250 and above immoral, and will agree to be taken to them only by people I actively dislike.
We had two meals -- a lunch and a dinner -- at our favorite Italian restaurant, Cellini, on East 54th Street, which has grown-up male waiters who aren't waiting for a call to audition for a play, and where even the water tastes good. I had lunch with an editor at Molyvos, a Greek restaurant on Seventh Avenue that was a substantial cut above the innumerable Greek restaurants in Chicago, where I live. I had an unforgettable hamburger -- and you would think it fairly easy to forget a hamburger -- at O'Neal's near Lincoln Center. A former student took my wife and me to a recently opened fantastic Belgian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. And one night, not very hungry, we stopped for soup at Europa, kitty-corner from Carnegie Hall. Here, too, simple bowls of soup were high quality. Everything, everywhere we went, tasted great.
Manhattan must have 300, perhaps 400, splendid restaurants. I estimate that Chicago has, at the outside, 30, and San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., respectively probably not more than that. Why is this? How to account for this plentitude of good restaurant food in Manhattan?
Demand has a lot to do with it. By this I don't mean demand as in the old economists' formula of supply and demand. What I mean is that New Yorkers are, and always have been, more demanding than any other Americans when it comes to what they eat. Years ago, when I worked in New York, I used occasionally to grab a quick lunch at a luncheonette, as they were then called, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. The place had no tables, only a long counter, so that one could hear other people's orders. I recall vividly the extraordinary specificity of customers' requests.
"I want a sardine sandwich, on rye, lightly toasted, with a very thin slice of onion -- last time the slice was a little too thick -- with a gentle rinse of lemon between the onion and the sardines. Pickle on a separate plate."
New Yorkers tend to order food as if they are spoiled children dining in their mothers' kitchens. They demand excellent service, which includes accommodation for their idiosyncrasies (that pickle on the separate plate). If they do not get what they want, they howl, return food, do not return to the restaurant, and verbally torch the place. If you open a restaurant in New York, you had better be good, or you will soon be gone.
In Chicago, I have known wretched restaurants that have stayed in business for 30 or more years. Stoic, tired, meek people in the city of the big shoulders tend to shrug, swallow and bear it. In my own neighborhood, a Chinese restaurant of appalling quality has been in business for more than 40 years. Its specialty -- if it may be said to have one -- is contemptuous older waiters, whose own English is indecipherable and who pretend, impatiently, not to understand yours. After steering clear of it for more than 20 years, I thought perhaps there might have been a change of ownership, and the other day walked in at lunchtime to order kung pao chicken to go. The kung had no pao, and the chicken was a disgrace to the honorable name of poultry. Of the bitterness of the sauce and the gloppiness of the rice, let us not speak. In Manhattan, the joint wouldn't have lasted three weeks.
If you are going to start a restaurant in Manhattan, you had better have something extraordinary in mind: Food of a kind not available elsewhere, or done better than anyone else is currently doing it. I don't know if Thurman Arnold or Joseph Schumpeter or any of the other theorists of the inner mechanics of capitalism have hitherto spoken of it, but there is, in capitalism, operating at a sufficiently intense level, a spirit of competition that can bring out the best in everyone, at least in those realms where you cannot fake it. Something similar operates in professional sports -- the Major Leagues, the NBA and the NFL. Room exists only for the best. What is operating here is the reverse of Gresham's Law, with the good driving out the bad, and in the gastronomic realm the result is splendid food.
Next time I feel a craving for Chinese food, I'm ordering take-out from Shun Lee on West 65th Street in New York. I'm sure they deliver; the only question is can they get it to my apartment, some 800 miles away, in under an hour and still warm. Impossible though it sounds, my guess is that they can find a way to do it.