From the April 13, 1970 issue of New York Magazine.
I wish to introduce M. Martin Decré. His face is pink. His hair is gray. His feet are flat. His cufflinks, by Cartier. He is the sentinel of La Seine Restaurant…a beau monde cloister of drop-dead chic. Martin Decré stands between you and a good dinner in a great restaurant.
Martin is a warm, sympathetic, earthy good fellow. But that is the seven-eighths of the Decré iceberg you may never see. It is not that Martin is a born fascist. He does not eat ground glass for breakfast. He is simply a highly trained despot. A maître among the town’s haughtiest maîtres d’. Let us not hack the tiniest chink in his armor of unshakable arrogance, thus tarnishing La Seine’s snob cachet. If it were a snap to seduce Martin, would it be worth the effort? The canons of haut snobisme are perfectly clear: there are clients who adorn La Seine and clients who pollute its elegance. It is for Martin to court the former and discourage the latter.
It hurts so nice! The card-carrying Manhattan masochist thrives on a diet of flageolets and flagellation, so often the spécialité du jour in the posh Pleiades of restaurants where the snub is often more creative than the cuisine. Nor must one be French to subscribe to the tyranny de gall. The Colony, “21” and Orsini’s serve memorable cold shoulder. And for the discriminating masochist, the chill of Miss Pearl on West 48th Street is a snub with its own scrutable ouch.
Perhaps your ego is as neat as a nicely poached egg. Deep down inside you know you’re more fun on a hayride than Babe Paley. In a pinch you’re more pinchable than the Duchess. You bring money, lots of money, in your Hermès sac or your Vuitton duffle. But mere money will not spring you from the bitter frostbite of Siberia, from neglect, glazed ennui, under-age wines, snarled lectures on gastronomic propriety, and other lessons in humility.
If you are a Machiavellian radical like Saul Alinsky, you slam your glass to the floor and bellow insults right back. If you are Uriah Heep, Pariah Emeritus, you practice absolute submission, take a table at 5:30 if there’s nothing at 8, make like a meek little kipper in your crowded corner, dutifully order the plat du jour and carry your Gelusil in a discreet flask.
When simple everyday snobisme escalates into assault, with intimations of sadism verging on assassination, you may decide to kick the humble-pie habit and abandon the scene. It will be an autocrat’s nightmare if tight money, the ides of April and a growing sea of white tablecloths turn the usual chill positively toasty. Meanwhile, if you have only one masochistic bone in your body, stick it out. Decré can learn to love you. Dedicate yourself to “making it” on the haute eating scene.
a) You write a best seller…get lionized by your publisher… get sued by the Kennedys.
b) You are named co-respondent in a fancy divorce, preferably royal.
c) You are being rushed by Frank Sinatra.
d) Or Truman Capote.
e) Your husband’s renegade conglomerate swallows a major communications empire.
f) Daddy gets elected President.
If instant stardom eludes you, hire a press agent. Call her “my dear friend.” Her name is Marianne (Mimi) Van Rensselaer Strong. She will tell you, “Really chic people don’t go out on Saturday night… only the crumbs go out on Saturday. The chic people go to the country…or a movie. Sunday night has become very chic, very ‘in.’.” She will help you plan “drop-dead little dinner parties” at La Seine. “There are only two restaurants for dinner, my dear,” says Mimi, “La Seine and ‘21’.” She will keep Women’s Wear and Suzy panting for news of your labels and your Longuettes and your lunches with your decorator.
Does that sound too calculated? Too costly? Then go it alone. Try this cram course in humility-and-chutzpah. Essentially the snob maître d’ is somewhat human. He respects fidelity, celebrity and wanton extravagance. Be loyal to your chosen restaurant. Open a house account. Spend lots.
On the Phone
Your secretary calls for a reservation. Your English secretary, preferably. Or your wife, cleverly passing herself off as your English secretary. “This is Mr. Ford’s office. Mr. Ford would like a table for two at lunch.” When the cagey maître d’ asks for Mr. Ford’s initial, cagey wife answers “E.” Roosevelt and Vanderbilt are also good names. As Mimi Strong observes, “Not every Vanderbilt is a Vanderbilt, you know.”
If you are Miss Nobody lunching with Ava Gardner or Dorothy Schiff or Happy Rockefeller, say so boldly, or slyly: “By the way Martin, I am meeting Mrs. Rockefeller. Please watch for her in case I’m a few minutes late.” And you are late, to insure getting a Rockefeller table instead of a nobody table. If your family name is Orlovsky, change your first name to Prince. I have a friend who has vowed to name her next son Count. “Count Kaufman’s table, please.” If he is stabbed by the petit pain boy, he needn’t bleed blue—merely profusely, muttering darkly about hemophilia.
For really advanced knavery, it takes a rogue—“preferably Hungarian,” says writer-rogue Bela von Block, John Paul Getty’s ghost. “This is von Block,” Bela announces, demanding a table. Then he asks for a rundown on the house’s clarets, or orders champagne to be waiting in a bucket. “I ask for Pol Roger and I accept nothing older than the forties.” What if the restaurant has an acceptable Pol Roger? “I doubt if five restaurants in New York have,” says von Block. “If they do, you’ll be stuck for about $60, but when you play Russian Roulette, you’ve got to be ready to take an occasional shot in the wallet.” Next von Block deploys a messenger with an envelope addressed to himself care of the maître d’. “I steal impressive letterheads and use a wax seal.” When he arrives at the restaurant, the headwaiter takes him aside. “We have an instant intimacy.”
For sheer class, you may never beat the wispy plaster-cast dowager whose chauffeur carried her into La Caravelle. But sables never hurt. Jonathan Dolger, author of The Expense Account Diet, advocates a confident smile. “Definitely have your teeth capped.”
Don’t rush… glide. Greet the maître d’ by name. As he teeters off-balance (Who are you? Should he know you?), quickly give your name. “Ford. Table for two.” “Of course, Mr. Ford.” (He juggles tables mentally. Perhaps you don’t belong quite so deep in Siberia.)
“Good” table and “bad” table can be crucial. Ludwig Bemelmans told of a woman who was always given an undesirable table in a certain posh restaurant whenever she dined with her husband. One day she came in with another man and was immediately led to the best table in the house. Divorce inevitably followed.
Just as water seeks its own level, tables find their own status. The most desirable tables are in the heart of tumult and traffic. Not even the iron-willed Henri Soulé could de-status a table once Le Pavillon pets had charted their own perverse social topography. “They would rather dine in the telephone booth than in the dining room,” he would complain. True, it’s the same mousse de sole no matter where you sit, but the service can vary erratically. Of course, the snobbery of status-¬seekers breeds reverse snobbery. At “21,” says Mimi Strong, “the nouveau status-seekers will stay at the bar till they get a seat in the front room…they’re afraid to sit down anywhere else. The most important people insist on a table upstairs with the nobodies.”
Money liquefies some glaciers, but not those of the Académie Pavillon.
Money will not melt Robert Meyzen of La Caravelle: “You cannot buy a table—not for $200,” Meyzen has said. “If you belong here, you get a table.”
Martin Decré likes simplicity. Simple black dresses and simple diamonds. Mme. Henriette of Côte Basque and the cantankerous Fayets of Lafayette have never warmed to ladies in pants. Soulé’s disciples are stodgily conservative. La Grenouille is more permissive. There, in the castle of the Seventh Avenue kings, anything goes: see-through jumpsuits, unfettered bosoms, Sioux rain-dance togs. Le Pavillon under Stuart Levin has softened its formidable mien. But after five, dark suits and white shirt are still de rigueur. And no turtlenecks at lunch. “Not even for Sammy Davis Jr.,” Levin warned. “Of course, if he comes in dashiki I’ll have to let him in…dashiki is national dress.”
The wrong purse and a voluminous suburban bag (unless it’s alligator) are dead giveaways, Mimi Strong cautions.
The lady checks her coat. Yes, even her sable. “We like to think our customers are secure,” Levin observes. So, check the security blanket. Martin demoted a very impressively dressed couple from the plains to the frozen tundra. “When he passed by I saw his rundown heels and white socks.”
Even the consummate arbiters of “in” have their astigmatisms. Henri Soulé himself once seated two matrons in the farthest reaches of Outer Mongolia. They ate lunch without protest. “You have a nice restaurant—it’s a pity you don’t know your New York,” the former Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller admonished Soulé as she exited. La Grenouille’s headwaiter failed to recognize Alice Longworth. “Howard Hughes in his dusty sneakers would probably get the same rebuff,” predicts Jonathan Dolger. “I assume he’d walk around the corner, step into a phone booth and buy the block.”
No reservation? The snob maître d’ keeps a few empty tables for the eleven-hour whims of his favorites. Present yourself, discreetly costumed, to the benevolent ogre. You may get the table you couldn’t reserve on the phone that same morning.
A Little Knowledge
You can never know too much about food. If you care what crosses your palate, you may fire a bored captain’s imagination. I favor an academic approach. Cooking lessons…a year at the Cordon Bleu. A tutor in French…frequent research trips to France. Waverly Root is my muse, and Larousse Gastronomique the companion of my insomnia. At the very minimum, memorize a few common terms: Florentine (spinach); Veronique (with white grapes); en gelée (jellied); fumé (smoked). If something is cold or singed or spoiled or rotten, send it back. If you order ris de veau expecting rice and veal, you lose points complaining that you didn’t order sweetbreads. Try not to weep when you discover pamplemousse is not exotic mousse of pamples but merely everyday grapefruit.
Caviar is always impressive. May and June, October and November are the best months for caviar. Malossol means “lightly salted.” Daddy O prefers the slightly less expensive caviar. Restaurants Ari favors keep a supply on hand. Ask if the house can spare some. Champagne goes well, Polish vodka even better.
Bela von Block always demands fresh horseradish. “That throws them. Not too many places have it.” If they do, he commands it cut in paper-thin curls. “Delicious with Bloody Marys. Put a strip between your teeth and drink the Bloody Mary through it.”
Devastate the chocolate mousse-swilling proles with your dessert order: “A nice crisp apple would be pleasant.”
For the best possible meal, restaurateurs wish you would order ahead. “Especially if you are more than four at dinner,” Stu Levin urges. “But even for a party of two.” Paul Kovi at the Four Seasons outdoes himself when you say, “We put ourselves entirely into your hands” Martin at La Seine says, “We knock ourselves out for out-of-towners who confide they’ve come because of the Gourmet magazine rave, have saved for a year and hope they won’t be disappointed.” Alfred Knopf Jr. asks to meet the chef.
Any fool knows that Lafite Rothschild is a hotshot label. And the average child of 11 knows that 1959 was a great year. A great wine demands a great dinner. Nothing is less cool than ordering a Lafite with calf’s liver. If you can’t pronounce French, anglicize it with a pronounced Cambridge accent. Imagine that you are David Frost. The wine thermometer as a weapon demands élan and knowledge. You can impress even a journeyman oenophile if you know what vineyards got rained on just before the ’64 harvest. Study Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine. For classic one-upsmanship, grape division, memorize the Morrell liquor shop catalogue. Eye the cork stonily as the captain presents it to you. Sniff. You needn’t close off one nostril—it isn’t a Benzedrex inhaler. If the wine smells dirty, it is safe to say: “It has a lovely nose.” If it costs over $20, you may comment: “It isn’t quite what it could be. Let’s allow it to breathe awhile.”
Overtipping the waiter is wanton. It is impossible to overtip the maître d’. Some innocents still tip 15 per cent and some tip 25 per cent. But 20 per cent (before tax) is the going rate—15 per cent for the waiter, 5 per cent to the captain. If you sign the check, you must specify so much for each. Otherwise, the waiter claims it all and the captain is miffed. If there is a wine steward, he gets 15 per cent on the wine (subtracted from the waiter’s total at the risk of his wrath) or a dollar (on half a bottle). There is infinite cachet in the invisible payoff: Ask the maître d’ in advance to sign your check and add the usual tips—he will be impeccably discreet. Regulars tip the maître d’ $2 to $5 every three or four visits or generously at Christmas and before his vacation. A painting magnate hates to see his tips pocketed discreetly, with minimum impact. He likes to thank the maître d’ for a fine evening by sending $20 to his house with a note—“Makes the guy feel big at breakfast in front of his wife, and he remembers where it came from.” He did it after an impressively flambéed evening at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars. “Now whenever I walk in, I’m the thirteenth Caesar.”
If the evening was great, put it in writing—on Tiffany note paper, of course. If dinner was an outrage, definitely write. You may be invited back as guests of the house.
You can do better than gross currency. Martin’s Cartier cufflinks came from Mrs. Charles Engelhard. Frederick Brisson gives him tickets to Coco. When Martin and his wife arrived in St. Thomas on vacation, they were met at the airport by Charles Revson’s chauffeured limousine and invited to lunch on the yacht that “Fire and Ice” built. When Martin visits Rome or Milan or Washington, he sees the town in a car dispatched by J. Edgar Hoover, complete with FBI men.
What have you done for your favorite maître d’ lately?
Perhaps you can get his son into St. Bernard’s.
In fleeting moments of sanity, the lust to be be loved in haute eating circles may wane. If so, take a few deep breaths. Attacks of sanity usually pass quickly.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Find more vintage articles by Gael Greene at www.InsatiableCritic.com.