By nature, I’m very uncool. For example, I never really liked Sonic Youth. There. I’ve admitted it. I’ll take “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn any day. I like to sing along. And there’s a good reason I like to sing along: Broadway.
When we were kids, my mom was really great at taking us places and exposing us to what I guess one might call “culture.” There were frequent outings to museums, zoos and plays. Monthly we were dragged to see the Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, which frankly I kind of loathed, and which my sister, I’m pretty sure, pretended to love, in order to show me up. (I’ll have to ask her about that now.) Broadway, on the other hand, was much more up my alley. The bright lights! The music! The singing! The beautiful costumes! I loved it!
The first word I could spell, after “cat”, and this is true, was “O-k-l-a-h-o-m-a.” The first show I remember seeing wasn’t on Broadway proper. It was in Long Island, where my grandfather played the Mayor in a local production of “The Music Man.” Hearing him sing his one little solo, in his sweet, hoarse voice turned that usually gruff and taciturn man into my hero, at least for the night. At visits to his small track house in Long Island, he would sit me down and play me records, ordering me to name the singer. It was thrilling!
I still know all the words to the London Stage production of “Les Miserables” and can sing them and do all the accents. The first show I think I saw on Broadway proper was “Me and My Gal.” Oh, I loved it! I did the Lambeth Walk all over my house for days and weeks. Or maybe it was “Cats.” And let me state for the record- “Cats” is amazing. Yes, “Memories” is hacky and cheesy, but the rest of it is brilliant. Those are TS Eliot poems, for god’s sake. He wrote them in letters to his godchildren. Even that chilly genius had a silly side, and now we all get “Mister Mistoffelees” caught in our heads as a result. (I wonder that no one ever dared to put “Prufrock” to music.) (Did they?) It’s poetry. Read it to your children.
Anyway, deep in the early winter of 1987, my mom and her friend Leslie Tagliarino, took me, my sister, and my friend (Leslie’s daughter) Heather to see a matinee of “Anything Goes” at Lincoln Center. And all I will tell you is that it starred Patti LuPone as Reno Sweeney. Yup, I was there. (So uncool! And yet, SO COOL!) By the time we went that day, I was a Broadway pro.
And as a treat beforehand, for which we were warned to be on our absolute best, most angelic behavior, we went to lunch at Tavern on the Green.
I don’t know why or how Tavern on the Green was chosen for that already special day. I’m sure the diner across the street would have been more than fine. (Pizza burger? Yes please!) Perhaps because it was the height of the 80s, and as in the know as my mom and Leslie may have been, they were still Westchester wives. Or maybe they knew the kind of effect a place as gilded as that would have on us. And maybe, just maybe, they trusted us and took us as a treat. We were restaurant pros too, after all.
From a very early age, I was an easy kid to take out to restaurants. Even before I grew to appreciate the subtly of a good meal, I loved a good crowd. According to an oft-told family nugget, my parents would pass me around from table to table, and I would work the room like Don Rickles in diapers, beaming at people, sampling their dinner, chatting disarmingly with them (I talked at eight months) and basically charming them into feeding me. Oh, how the innocent world has changed since then!
As we pulled up that day ( for some reason, I recall that we walked into the park. But we never took the subway back then, and I can’t imagine we walked there from Grand Central, because the one thing that remains very clear is how frigid it was that day.) I could see Tavern was special, its heavy red awning jutting out like a welcoming palm. “Come in, and be dazzled!”
To my nine year old eyes, the room we entered was utterly breathtaking, filled as it was with colored crystal chandeliers and ceiling art and gilded everything. It was like Daddy Warbuck’s house! This was what it must be like to be rich! (Children have no use for minimalism, and I was particularly maximalist, choosing as I did big fat puffy curtains in purple streaked with pink and black for my bedroom.) Had it been clean blond wood and spare windows, I would have died of boredom. On the other hand, at about that time, I was obsessed with chandeliers. I remember, when my parents bought their house, there was a large one dripping with “crystals” in the dining room. The first time I saw it, I froze in place and then did a spit take, exactly the way Bugs Bunny did on Looney Toons (on purpose. More proof of uncool). When my friends came over to the new house, that chandelier was the first thing I showed them, evidence, perhaps that we were “fancy”. But the chandeliers at Tavern on the Green were about a thousand times as brilliant and amazing. They were different colors and hung from a rococo ceiling!
A glamorous hostess, all leg and heel, showed us to our table in a room that was like a greenhouse in a fairy tale. It was so bright with the thin winter sun bouncing off the snow outside, the chandeliers were redundant as lighting, but still burned brightly in the day. Who cared about electric waste!
The menus were plopped in our laps, large and heavy and ornate. I was right at home. This was obviously how I was meant to live. I wondered if I could stay here, and ditch my parents and my sister.
I think there was a kid’s a menu, but I’m sure I didn’t glance at it. Who wanted chicken tenders or a burger in this palace of decadence! It’s probably not a surprise that I was an adventurous eater as a child. No one ever called me picky. My sophisticated palate was occasionally perplexing to adults, in that the three foods I really didn’t like were the three most common: tuna salad, ketchup and apple juice. Once, one of my friend’s mothers told me I was un-American for blanching at a glass of Motts. Orangina on the other hand- I loved. My third grade teacher had a near conniption when she (very kindly) proffered half her tuna sandwich to me after she found I had forgotten my own lunch, and I refused it. Now if it had been shrimp salad… that would have been a different story. Gina, the youngest of the Orfino sisters, always shook her head when I asked for mustard for my fries. “Who doesn’t like ketchup?” Me, that’s who. (Still kinda don’t.) So be it. But I would eat just about anything else.
I credit my palate to my mom. My dad, who I adore, has the palate of a nine year old boy. Give him tuna salad and chips and he is happy as can be. On the other hand, my mom fed me my first raw scallop by holding my nose and popping it into my mouth when I was about ten. I’ve seen her order squab and venison (which I don’t think she likes very much) and every sort of raw fish. The same way she loves to see plays and ballets and go to the theater, she loves to try new, weird, interesting foods. Sometimes she even tried to cook them. I grew up eating artichokes and being told to try avocados. I don’t believe she ever cooked a chicken breast. But she roasted a hell of a lot of whole chickens, and never the same way twice.
I read that menu as if it was the bible. I asked questions of a rabbinic nature. “Is Dover sole a fish? What sort of fish? From where?” So many delectable things I’d never had before! Frankly, if I’d been permitted, I’m sure I would have ordered a tin of caviar and some blini, ditched the blini and eaten the whole thing with that small mother of pearl spoon.
Soon the waiter came over to take our order. I buzzed with anticipation, because I had located exactly the right thing. I couldn’t wait to tell him. It was perfect, I imagined, for this day. When it was my turn, he turned his brown eyed attention to me, and I nearly bounced out of my seat. I could tell, we were going to be friends. I mean, this was clearly the sort of place that got me. A place that understood the finer things and probably didn’t even have tuna fish salad sandwiches or apple juice.
“And for mademoiselle?” He asked in an accent that was more Queens than Paris.
“I’ll have the Lobster Bisque.” I declared proudly. I was a sophisticated little lady, who knew her musicals and was perfectly at home in this clearly high class joint. I would order what my heart told me to order. Not that I’d ever had Lobster Bisque, but I liked Clam Chowder. And I loved Lobster! What wouldn’t be to like? I waited for the waiter’s knowing wink.
Instead, there was a pause as he declined to write this down on his pad. He cleared his throat. I kept waiting.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” He finally asked. “Lobster bisque?”
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure. I mean, yeah, that’s what I thought I wanted. Should I not want it? Had I ordered the wrong thing? The kind of thing that stupid people order? Was I really the sort of person who was allowed into a place as beautiful and special as this? No. There had been a mistake, and the waiter obviously knew that I had no business patronizing this establishment if I was going to order off the grown up’s menu, in clear disregard for the rules of behavior. I glanced back down. I mean, I liked burgers too…
I looked back up at the waiter’s questioning eyes. The gilded chair that had been a throne now seemed to reject me, and I slid down into it.
Suddenly my mom’s sharp voice filled the void.
“If she says she wants Lobster Bisque, then she wants Lobster bisque.” My mom said sternly and quietly to him. She closed her menu with a snap. “She knows what she likes.”
“Yes Madame.” The waiter said superciliously. Isn’t that a wonderful world? It’s almost onomonpaetic. For he was supercilious; obnoxious, silly and condescending.
But he brought me my soup.
I feel about Lobster Bisque the way MFK Fisher feels about caviar. It’s wonderful but also best as a memory. I mean, once in a while, as a treat, I’ll have it, but only on very rare occasions. And I have the perfect memory of it.
The food at Tavern was actually not cracked up to be much, but the soup as I recall was wonderfully warm and smooth, and most of all rich. It was perfect on that cold but glitteringly fun day. Cut by that hit of sherry, it filled me and made me happy. It was something new. My mom smiled at me. We did belong there. Of course we did. Whenever I eat lobster bisque now, I think of that day, and I remember that if I am true of heart, I am never out of place.