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1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 6 of 6)

The perfection of a rack of lamb served from Mike’s overpoweringly beautiful silver meat cart is unimportant; it is where that lamb is consumed that matters. And the interior of this all-important chophouse is so cunningly arranged that its zigzag windowed partitions change it from a long, dull store building into a series of rigidly protected social levels, of almost homicidal significance.

There are the few tables by the Bar, known as Stockholders’ Row, and with much of the well-padded comfortable aura of an exclusive club. Probably fifty people in the whole world are qualified to sit at them, and any slight deviation from the twice-daily pattern of familiar paunches causes as much local speculation as a mysterious drop in the market.

Then there is the Reinhardt Room, named for its professorial and omnipotent head captain. It was rightly ignored at first because of its unbecoming pink sides and its dull isolation, until large peepholes were cut in the wall nearest the bar, and a celebrated columnist was prevailed upon with true Romanoff tact to make it the center of her sharpest political operations. Now anyone in Hollywood is glad to lunch or dine there, in order to catch her eye, and nod and smile, and guarantee himself one more kind printed word.

Off Reinhardt’s stronghold and down a step or two, but still with low partitions so that no Keneth Hopkins hat, no famous toupee need be missed by a quick-eyed loiterer at the Bar, is a small, quiet room where big deals are made. There fading stars form independent companies with other people’s fortunes and themselves as writer-director-producers. Story editors buy unwritten masterpieces for a quarter million. Agents murder other agents with invisible bloodshed.

In spite of the fact that the silver meat cart is too luxuriously weighty to go down the steps, rack of lamb tastes better in the little quiet room, temporarily at least, than anywhere except Stockholders’ Row. Certainly it would taste infinitely better there, basted with cyanide and laced with strychnine and garnished with Paris green, than it ever could if, by some trick, it were served plain and unpoisoned to the star or the story editor or the agent in the Back Room!

The Back Room, quite simply, is suicide. It used to be the whole restaurant, and a few old-timers smile fondly if discreetly at the remembrance of its early days, when Romanoff had not quite enough money to buy chairs and tables for it, and it was cut off from the half-deserted Bar by long, gloomy curtains that flapped dismally in the draughts of debt and insecurity and emptiness. That was before Prince Mike and his royal architect, in mutual desperation, had evolved their fantastically successful scheme of separating the local dukes, cabinet ministers, and lesser nobility into their proper groups, and their fair ladies into the correctly improper ones. Now the room, the dread Back Room, is reserved for a few miserable people whose options have just been dropped, and a blissfully ignorant flow of Eastern visitors who do not realize that they are actually enjoying what to a local inhabitant would mean social death.

Well-groomed matrons from the hinterland chatter brightly over excellent cocktails and down great quantities of delicious pastries served with skill and tact, and never suspect that from the Row and the Reinhardt Room and even from the far-west quiet corner where big deals are made, any glances that may come their way are heavy with scorn, boredom, or at best a faint pity.

Producers shudder at the thought of ever stepping over the sill of that airy, pleasant limbo. Producers’ girl friends in very new mink coats shudder, too, at the chance that some crowded day they might have to sit two tables in. Ambitious and “promising young” writers of no matter what age recognize the ugly truth that in a pinch they might penetrate as far as the third small table to the left, but pray that it will never be necessary. And meanwhile the happy visitors from Iowa and New York sip and chatter under the same artful roof with countless movie-great, oblivious of their wretched lot…and of one other room, which perhaps even the aristocracy up front might envy: a cool trellised garden off the kitchens, where one day I saw waiters and cooks and the lowliest busboys sitting at a long clean table in the dappled light, eating amicably together without benefit of silver meat cart, but from bowls and platters that looked well laden.

Mike Romanoff and his architect had built exceedingly well, I thought with my own kind of snobbism…and I wondered if there, and at the Chambord still and once at Foyot’s and once at the place in Amsterdam where there were, before the bombs fell, strawberries served two by enormous two upon white damask napkins, and at a hundred other great restaurants around the globe, venality and its huggermugger of intricate play upon the senses did indeed work maggotlike through the kitchens as well as the Bar and the Reinhardt Room. I looked at the men and boys eating with such seeming friendliness and pleasure under the vine leaves, and wondered if, for them, cuts of smuggled venison and truffles en papillote took the place of red-haired actresses, of senators of the opposition, to be manipulated and wooed in the full sense of the word venal…It was harder to believe, there in the sunlight, than it could have been elsewhere.

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