Going to restaurants, lifelong habit; a place to gather information, to get a sense of the time.

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Looking south from the Great Lawn in Central Park, Saturday afternoon. Photo: JH.

Monday, September 28, 2020.  77 degrees and partly sunny yesterday in New York. Same for the entire weekend beginning on Friday. Although, oddly it didn’t feel as warm as 77 felt a month ago. Light on the humidity. Rain in the forecast but not a sign of it at the time of this writing. For our Jewish brethren, today is Yom Kippur, which concludes the 10-day period of repentance signaling the end of the High Holy Days. Today, as so many seek God’s forgiveness and mercy, it would serve us well to incorporate these virtues of compassion into our daily lives.

Nostalgia moment. Jeanne Lawrence — who NYSD readers are familiar with because of her columns on San Francisco social life as well as her years of moving back and forth between Shanghai, New York, and San Francisco — sent me these photos yesterday. Jeanne started writing about her adventures discovering China back when JH and I started the NYSD in 2000. 20 years later, she’s still at it. Chalk it up to endless curiosity about the world and how it works.

She sent them explaining that she was organizing her rafts of photos taken over the years to put in some kind of order. Occasionally I engage in the same intention except I’m always interrupted by memories presented in the images. 

Here I am with  Tony Hail (on left), the international interior designer who was headquartered in San Francisco, and his life-partner, Chuck Posey — at a table at Swifty’s back in 2000.

What struck me about the photo was how young I looked compared to how dour my two table companions looked. If I didn’t know the characters in the photograph, on seeing it for the first time, I’d guess the two guys — left and right — looked like they were waiting for the kid in the middle to knock off the ebullience for the camera. The truth is, after all these years, the camera makes me self-conscious and I prefer avoiding it. So there I was hamming it up.

Jeanne was the hostess of the dinner. A longtime resident of San Francisco, Tony Hail was the interior designer on more than one residence for her. A native Tennessean, he never lost his clipped Southern (gentleman) soft, deep rolling drawl.  And he always had stories to fascinate and delight the young man on his left.

“He represented San Francisco in the time when elegant living, dressing, and entertaining was appreciated,” Jeanne said. “Tony was a raconteur, sophisticated, and a wonderful host. He possessed impeccable taste, and as a classicist who decorated some of the best homes in SF such as the de Guigne Court mansion owned by Count Christian de Guigne III, and his wife Eleanore in Hillsborough.”

His manner appeared stiff and reserved on meeting, the same presentation you see in the photo. But that disguised his sharp eye and witty sense of humor. He saw the irony in people’s behavior. And remembered it. A prominent name could come up in conversation and Tony might pass off a brief, definitive anecdote about the person that changed the story. Chuck, his partner, on the other hand, had a kind of Boston accent and voice that was basso, often interrupted by his laughter. They were a team.

Tony Hail, hostess Jeanne Lawrence, and little ole me (though 20 years younger).

Back to the photos at Swifty’s: I was definitely enjoying myself, probably assisted by a couple glasses of vodka on the rocks. (That was then.)  I was a frequent customer at Swifty’s and liked that particular table which was right next to the front door. In that seat, with my curious eye, I could see everyone coming in and going out. And they could see me (and ask one another as they passed by: “who is that guy anyway … he’s always here!”). However, you never knew when someone passing might deliver a good story. The kind that would give me something to write about on a dull day.  I don’t recall this dinner except the pleasure of the company and my hostess.

Thinking about Swifty’s (which closed five or six years ago) reminded me that all my adult life I’ve been a regular customer as at restaurant, be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I’ve never given it a thought until now because it’s a regular habit that many of us have. Swifty’s, since its departure, has been replaced on my list by Sette Mezzo and, during the business days (of yore), with Michael’s restaurant on West 55th Street. They’re all a source for this writer. It’s an opportunity to see how the Other Half lives. And who the Other Half are. 

Friday night I had dinner at Sette Mezzo with Michael’s owner and founder Michael McCarty who was in from Los Angeles for the first time since March 14th,  and his General Manager and Host Steve Millington. 

Michael also has a Michael’s in Santa Monica. He’s a boy who grew up in Briarcliff, New York, son of an advertising man who worked in Manhattan. His introduction to food was weekend dinners with family friends and neighbors all together with everyone chipping in. The pleasure of that company and their contributions. After high school he enrolled in a summer chef’s program in Paris.

Steve and Michael, always the life of the party. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

The night before his flight he met his father in New York and was taken to a smart French restaurant, Laurent where the boy experienced adult dining in a French restaurant in New York City. The crème de la crème; the table, the china, the silver, the glassware, the service and the wonderful cuisine, the boy was bowled over by it all. I mentioned this memory to him at dinner Friday night and he told me it was definitely the moment and is still with him everyday.

That summer he stayed with a French family who cooked all the time; and his interest flourished. He later spent some time in Paris studying and working for an American caterer who did a big business there.  But that was long ago and Michael McCarty’s vast knowledge about the business and most especially about the food and the customer, as still “cookin’” today.

Because Friday was a nice night weather-wise, Michael, who keeps an apartment in the West 50s, walked up to the East 70s to Sette. He loved seeing all the restaurants on the streets. It was a turn-on. “They make the city more interesting and more attractive.” He was impressed that they were all doing business. When you dine with Michael, you see him at work (and at pleasure). He tries another restaurant’s menu out of curiosity and love of eating.

Young and hungry — Michael’s 1979 opening team: Michael McCarty (front left), Jonathan Waxman (back left), Mark Peel (middle) and Ken Frank (front right).

With times a’changin’, I learned that restaurants change too. People’s eating habits change over the generations.  Millington told me that their original menu has a set 26 dishes. The menu now has 41 because the customer likes the variety (and the smaller portions). It was Michael who inaugurated California Cuisine in his restaurant out there in 1979. Ten years later he opened here in New York.

(Checking details on Michael’s restaurant, I found this excellent interview in the Hollywood Reporter with the clientele also interviewed — including this writer — although this is the first time I’ve seen it; having forgotten about the actual interview).

These days I often sit down to write this Diary with nary a thought in my head about the Social part of it. This is all the result of the pandemic/lockdown/Covidcast that we’ve been enduring for the past now six and a half months. I have many complaints about it (being the ornery-complainer when the sun’s not around). Most people I know do (have ornery complaints about the state of things). For many of us it runs much deeper than that. So when I sit down for this Diary my objective is to move my thoughts forward to the world we are continuing to live in … And to work in; and to love in.

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