Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Scene: A small corner booth in the Grill Room of The Four Seasons,
a little past 8 p.m.

The Cast: John Simon, fearsome Serbian-born theater critic and curmudgeon; Gael Greene, lusty food critic and author; Maer Roshan, their chaperone and editor.

G.G.: Scanning the menu Ooh, crisp farmhouse duck. It’s one of their specialties.

J.S.: I don’t eat duck, because I actually like ducks. I feel sort of anthropophagous if I eat a duck, because ducks are my friends.

G.G.: I try not to be so attached to anything that I can’t eat it.

M.R.: John feels the same way about the people he reviews.

J.S.: That’s right. Absolutely.

G.G.: If I order a duck, will you be positively depressed?

J.S.: No, because you will be eating it, and not I. I’m going for the baby octopus.

G.G.: Laughs Because you feel nothing for babies.

M.R.: Gael, do people recognize you when you venture out?

J.S.: I thought you’d be wearing a ski mask or something like that to be unrecognizable.

G.G.: It’s impossible not to be recognized here. I used to have credit cards with other names – now, perhaps 75 percent of the time, someone from the restaurant will recognize me.

M.R.: Then how can you review the service?

G.G.: I look around and see if other people have anguish on their faces while we’re surrounded by waiters.

Waiter: How’s the wine?

G.G.: Well, it’s a little sharp right now, but I’m hoping it will soften.

J.S.: That comes from keeping our company.

M.R.: So, when was the last time

you were together, you and John?

J.S.: Together in what sense of the word?

M.R.: Laughs I don’t even want to know.

G.G.: The only place we have ever been

together is at La Colombe d’Or.

J.S.: That’s one instance.

G.G.: Oh, I don’t remember the other.

J.S.: You see? I make such a feeble impression upon you. The other time was in a back room of this very restaurant.

G.G.: Oh, that I let go. La Colombe d’Or is in my memory because you were on a date. A beat With a married woman . . .

J.S.: And you were there with a porn star, right?

G.G.: I was there with my porn star.

J.S.: What was his name? Jamie something?

G.G.: Gillis. He was a wonderful companion. It turned out you had insulted him in some review. Though I don’t know how you happened to be reviewing porn films.

J.S.: Just lucky, I guess. The porn star was a nice fellow.

G.G.: I was a little cross at John’s date. I had written an article called “The Joys of Not Having Children,” and she and her husband had decided not to have children because of my article, and then she went on to make non-parenthood an entire industry. John was traveling with her. We were in the south of France.

M.R.: Wait. John reviewed porn flicks?

J.S.: No, no … There were one or two major porn films at that time that were getting serious attention. It was called Something About Joanna. No. The something of Joanna. That’s what he was in. It was not only a porn movie, it was S&M, but I guess all porn sooner or later turns into S&M – it’s the nature of the beast.

G.G.: Well, I don’t know … Most of life is S&M.

M.R.: The conversation is getting deep very quickly.

G.G.: Work is somehow more sadistic than most sex – alas. Alas twice.

J.S.: Maer, do you think I should remind Gael of our last encounter at The Four Seasons?

M.R.: Oh, yes. It’s a good story. And you’ve waited fifteen years to deliver the punch line.

J.S.: Well, the story takes place right here at The Four Seasons. It was a lunch for New York advertisers, and the speakers included Nick Pileggi, and you, and me. And we were all instructed that because these people had a brief lunch period, we were not to speak more than five minutes. So Nick Pileggi, very graciously, spoke for five minutes. I, equally well-behaved, spoke for five minutes. But Gael had just written a novel, and she was so full of the glory of being a novelist that she went on for some twenty minutes.

G.G.: No! I can’t believe it! When I’m not being paid, I like to be very brief.

J.S.: Well, we were getting a free lunch. But I guess you get that anyway. Anyway, you began your talk by saying, “When I came on the scene as a food commentator, there were three major innovations: The quiche, the Cuisinart, and the clitoris.” After we spoke, there was a question period. And I was going to ask you a slightly rude question, but you had been so nice that I couldn’t bring myself to be beastly to you: “Miss Greene, as the proud possessor of at least two of those three wonderful things, which one would you say chops finer?”

G.G.: Oh, God. You swine!

J.S.: But you see, I forbore.

M.R.: Now, play nice. The problem with going out to a restaurant with a food critic is you never get to finish your food. Gael makes you keep passing it.

G.G.: Well, usually that’s the case. But when I’m with a cantankerous old man like John, I let him have his own dish and just take a taste of it.

M.R.: What do you think is your main task as a critic?

J.S.: It’s to write well enough to meet my standards and amusingly enough to make it enjoyable for others. The sad fact is, most criticism is written by people who don’t feel that anything is at stake – unless it’s steak au poivre.

G.G.: A lot is at stake! A restaurant could fold, and thousands do. Most of them fold within two or three years.

J.S.: Yes, but that’s their problem, not yours, necessarily.

G.G.: You want to be sure that you’re not judging too quickly. In the case of Le Cirque, I went six or eight times before I wrote something critical.

J.S.: What’s enviable about your situation, Gael, is that you have an embarrassment of riches. Whereas with theater, it’s often just an embarrassment – not of riches.

G.G.: You’re right. I can go anywhere – even to Queens, as we did last night. We stumbled on this restaurant that was fantastic.

M.R.: See, John, you could go see some experimental theater in Queens.

J.S.: In Queens you would certainly not find anything experimental. If you mean the Borough of Queens. Laughs But the trouble with covering experimental things, as bitter experience has taught me, is that they are usually even worse than commercial things. I don’t want to be the kind of critic who roots like some kind of truffle hound for buried wonders. I see my job as being the one who waits until this experimental thing has been discovered by others, has been praised to the skies, and makes it to, say, Broadway . . .

M.R.: And then you shoot it down.

J.S.: Not necessarily. I tell them the truth as I see it.

M.R.: Some complain that you’re stuck in the Stone Age, that culture has moved on your tastes have remained fixed.

J.S.: The culture has now reached the point where it has no standards at all. Therefore, to have any kind of standards, old, middle-aged, Stone Age … However, the Stone Age of the theater may be now! If I’m stuck in it, I’m absolutely up-to-the-minute.

G.G.: Thank God for John. He’s holding out.

J.S.: Do you get lots of hate letters, Gael?

G.G.: Not enough. I get the most wonderful letters from readers, especially women wanting to give me to their husbands for their birthday. “My husband loves food, loves dining, he’s a wonderful chef; his dream would be to have dinner with you.”

M.R.: John, you get interesting mail.

G.G.: People who want to go to the theater with you?

J.S.: No. They want me to stop going to the theater altogether. Laughs

G.G.: Have they offered you interesting jobs in other fields?

J.S.: Well, if you mean the Elysian Fields … Laughs They generally invite me to drop dead.

M.R.: Is Sylvia Miles the only person who ever threw something at you?

J.S.: So far, yes.

G.G.: No one has ever thrown anything at me. Laughs I just know I’m not mean enough.

J.S.: Well, in the food business, perhaps they have too much respect for food to throw it away.

M.R.: Has anyone tried to bribe you?

G.G.: Tiny little things, like giving an extra dish or leaving a second bottle of wine off the bill. Or trying to make me the guest for dinner, which, of course, I can’t accept.

J.S.: No one has ever offered a fourth act of a three-act play to make me happier.

M.R.: I was rather surprised to read a quote from John in the Paris Review in which he said, “The most important attributes in a critic are to be likable and modest.” I was wondering, John, which one of those traits you think most applies to you.

J.S.: I’ve never ever said that! That’s somebody maligning me.

G.G.: John must have been on something. He’d never say a critic should be liked.

J.S.: What I may have said is “readable, entertaining,” which somehow may have been corrupted into “likable.” And “modest,” yes. Modest in the sense that one puts oneself second and whatever good there may be in the play first.

M.R.: Has anyone ever threatened to kick your ass?

J.S.: There was a while back a producer looking to off me. He said he was going to take out a contract on my life.

G.G.: How clever. I do get postcards very often from someone who signs herself “Sister Veronica,” bitterly denouncing me whenever I say anything positive about veal or foie gras.

M.R.: I was wondering how you can review people who are your friends.

G.G.: It’s very hard. It’s much easier to be brutal with someone you’ve never met.

J.S.: If you must befriend people in your business, the trick is to do it selectively. One doesn’t befriend a lousy actor.

M.R.: You started off as a film writer, John, right?

J.S.: I started out as a freelance critic of various stuff – theater, movies, literature, fine arts quite a bit, dance occasionally. I love all the arts. Now I am also classical-music columnist for The New Leader.

G.G.: John, when do you have time to do these things?

J.S.: I don’t have children, which you don’t have, either.

G.G.: We have more in common than I thought.

J.S.: Well, I think all critics who are serious about what they do have something in common. I don’t give a damn about sports, which take up most people’s lives. I follow tennis, but that’s it.

G.G.: How about dancing? I love dancing.

J.S.: I don’t. I like ballet, but I don’t like social dancing, though I did it as a kid. Naturally, all kids dance.

G.G.: But how about during the seventies, when everybody went dancing every night?

M.R.: Haven’t you seen all the pictures? Every night at Studio 54 – it was Calvin and Bianca and Halston and John Simon.

G.G.: I used to go dancing every night of my life. Every night I would go to Xenon, Regine’s, or the Ice Palace. But not Studio 54. I couldn’t get past the door. Ian Schrager once gave me a tattered piece of paper with his name, saying, “Let this woman in.” The first time it worked, the second time the doorman said, “What is this piece of shit?” and turned me away in front of my date. I was so embarrassed. I never went back. Looking around Here is something very interesting that didn’t exist when I started. Tables full of women. I noticed it last night at Gramercy Tavern. Thirty years ago, you’d never see groups of women sitting together at a fancy restaurant.

M.R.: Well, women are making more money now than they once did.

J.S.: And more of them have come out of the closet, too.

M.R.: John seems to be a bit preoccupied with the subject, don’t you think, Gael?

G.G.: Yes. Do you have a thing about gay people?

J.S.: Well, yes and no. The theater is terribly, monotonously homosexual.

M.R.: Perhaps, given your natural prejudices, you should recuse yourself from seeing gay plays at all.

J.S.: Then I’d stay home much of the time.

M.R.: There’s a thought.

J.S.: I don’t buy the supposed neutrality of the typical reviewer who falls for all sorts of politically correct trash. Take Liz Smith, for example. It’s a sorry society in which a phony-baloney flack like her passes for a critic. At every play there’s a sign with huge letters, I love it. Liz Smith. And she loves every piece of garbage.

G.G.: There’s a huge audience for things that you hate, John.

J.S.: But a discriminating one for the things I like.

M.R.: Have you ever thought of writing a play or opening a restaurant yourself?

G.G.: No. Knowing all I know, the last thing I would do is open a restaurant.

J.S.: In college I wrote plays, but that’s okay when you’re a student. Though I can’t imagine students writing the kinds of plays adults are writing now. These days its hard to find anyone to go to plays. Most people know how bad the theater is.

G.G.: I think restaurants have taken the place of theater, sex, and dancing.

J.S.: Well, it’s true that when I started writing, to go to a restaurant was not a night out. It was the preamble to something else.

M.R.: What do you think is the best thing that’s happened to the culture in terms of restaurants?

G.G.: The nouvelle cuisine before it went overboard – because it freed chefs from classic rigidity, made them fiercely demanding in the market. American chefs, the great product revolution, boutique farms, heirloom vegetables. The bread in New York. The desserts! So much has happened since I started writing about food. I could never be bored.

J.S.: Not much has happened in theater, I’m afraid. There is a certain attempt nowadays to produce an occasional obscure play by Shakespeare, perhaps a little more often than used to be done. And there are certainly so-called avant-garde playwrights, who are not all that avant-garde by my understanding, but still different and nice in a way. I mean, there is a woman called Paula Vogel, a lesbian playwright, whom I have come to like quite a bit. There are also certain disappointments. Someone like Lanford Wilson, who was going great-guns for a while, has now practically written himself out of the picture.

M.R.: Do either of you think you’ve mellowed at all?

G.G.: Not at all. In fact, I’m crankier.

J.S.: I don’t care. I don’t see anything wrong with mellowing. I don’t see anything wrong with not mellowing, either.

G.G.: I do feel optimistic about the future of food. I used to worry that we’d all end up eating little capsules or Soylent Green, but now boutique farms are producing 50 varieties of tomatoes, and immigrants are pouring in from countries I’ve never heard of, eager to open new restaurants. On the other hand, it’s getting very expensive. The most modest restaurants think they’re Le Bernardin.

M.R.: To sommelier No wine from 1968?

Owner: I tried looking everywhere. No. We don’t have anything here that old.

G.G.: How about my birth year, 1945?

Owner: Skeptically ‘45? … Uh, yes.

J.S.: I guess a wine from my birth year would cost way too much.

M.R.: We should have something for a toast. Not to get maudlin, but I wanted to toast you, John and Gael, who over 30 years have taught a lot of us about standards and professionalism and, most of all, about stubborn perseverance.

G.G.: Oh, what a graceful toast! John, where’s my glass? Thank you. Let’s clink glasses. To 30 more years.

J.S.: Ah, perish the thought!

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner