Diners in 1958 at Schrafft’s, which proved there was greatness in simplicty.
By William Grimes
It would be easy enough to start a fight by proposing the 10 best New York restaurants of the past decade. Robert Sietsema is just begging for a brawl by daring to name the 10 best of the past two centuries. Point number one (the obvious): we have no idea what the food tasted like at Delmonico’s in 1858, or even what the raw ingredients tasted like, for that matter. Try naming the 10 greatest tenors before the era of recorded sound. We know who the most famous ones were, and we have written descriptions of something that cannot, in the final analysis, be put into words. But that’s it.
So it is with food. The rapturous descriptions of the turtle soup at Bayard’s, a hugely admired restaurant in the early 19th century, glow on the printed page, but alas, there are no samples currently available.
Point two: even restaurants that existed within living memory quickly become enveloped in a thick romantic haze. Remembered taste sensations are highly unreliable. And tastes, in the broader sense, have changed. How well would the legends of the 1960’s and 1970’s withstand critical scrutiny today?
Point three: Fame and popularity do not always correlate with quality. Rector’s, one of the great lobster palaces of Times Square at the turn of the last century and No. 10 on Sietsema’s list, very likely was a wonderful restaurant, but its reputation undoubtedly benefited from its owner’s publicity-minded son, George, who wrote a very unreliable, bragadocious memoir, “The Girl from Rector’s,” and maintained a highly visible public role as a cookbook writer and the host of a radio show, which helped keep the flame alive.
So, just to stir the pot, allow me to offer some alternatives to Sietsema’s top 10. Here they are, in chronological order: Read more…