One of the best pieces of advice ever given to a restaurant staff was delivered by Keith McNally during the furious, every-night's-a-party-where-the-fun-never-ends first year of Cafe Luxembourg. "I love you all, really," he said. "But you are not fabulous. It is your job to make them feel fabulous." Well-connected restaurants like Cafeteria should have this adage embroidered on their staff's shirt collars.
Last summer, when the geometrically striking luxe coffee shop first took off like the opening of a Prada Sport store, it was understandable that the hosts often appeared stunned and haunted every time the front door opened and another horde of the all-too-knowing were suddenly pinned against the reservations desk. Not surprisingly, confusion was as rampant as white vinyl. Your waiter would appear only on the quarter-hour. Three people would take your drink order; none would arrive. Apologies were heard more often than specials. And though some of the kitchen's updated versions of classic American cookery worked really well, most felt like somebody had left out one step. It would have been easier to find someone who had actually found Armageddon moving than to get a check. Still, there was something undeniably kinetic about it: the unforced menu, the exuberant crowd . . . you got up to leave, thinking, Okay, I'll give it another shot. And then nobody bothered to say good-bye.
Time does heal some wounds, and Cafeteria, looking a trifle weathered by success, has finally found its rhythm. At night, it glows most seductively, and both the horn-rimmed gentleman and the bright-eyed blonde lady at the front desk now command an attractive crew who move more assuredly through the tight quarters and have learned to handle the finicky but happy (and increasingly local) Chelsea throng with clipped aplomb. But the biggest improvement is in the eats. Breakfast is pretty damned good all round, especially the croissant French toast and the salmon-and-potato hash. At lunch, there's a fine turkey burger, a regular burger, a two-fisted tuna club, crackling calamari with revitalized tomato-ginger chutney, and fragrant herbed garlic broth to coat the Prince Edward Island mussels. Then, at night, nix the chicken paillard and tuna tartare, but fried chicken is giggly finger food, seared tuna is thick and lean, both chicken pot pie and meat loaf are uncommonly close to a home-cooked meal, and the hearty smoked pork chop, which now comes with sweet potatoes and roasted apple sauce, was better with the potato pancakes that used to accompany it. As for the desserts, yay for the deep-dish apple pie, the cappuccino-chocolate pudding, and milk shakes that are almost at corner-malt-shoppe-level thickness.
These changes are really kinda fabulous, no? But funny how easily they can be overlooked when someone's not making me feel kinda fabulous. Like the waiter who won't look anyone in the eye, or the other two "working" the bar. No one, however, can touch the dark, slim maître d' with the Black Watch-plaid jacket who seats three sets of women without ever pulling out a table, tosses every menu down as if it were an invitation to yesterday's club nite, tells a first-to-arrive diner entering the half-empty room that it's best (for whom?) if he waits at the bar, and routinely stands behind the front desk with his back to the door, incessantly flailing while whispering into the phone. Big surprise: He never says good-bye. Well, I'll tell ya, bud, until you find yourself a prince who will take you away from all this, it's not about you. So pick up those dirty dishes and smile.
Cafeteria, 119 Seventh Avenue, at 17th Street (414-1717). Open 24 hours a day, seven days a a week. A.E., M.C., V.