An Article About Seymour Britchky
Restaurant Columnist for New York Magazine from 1971 – 1991
This past Christmas, my wife surprised me with a gift of several old volumes of Seymour Britchky’s The Restaurants of New York. I originally discovered his restaurant guides X number of years ago when my wife and I were dating and spending a great deal of time chowing down in Manhattan. Of course, in the intervening years – and many intervening moves – these now cherished tomes managed to get lost in the shuffle. In the past few months, however, I have once again had the pleasure of savoring his incomparable prose and equally incomparable wit.
Mr. Britchky, who passed away in 2004, was a 41-year-old marketing executive when he dropped out of the corporate life in 1971 and began publishing a monthly newsletter, The Restaurant Reporter. He wrote the restaurant column for New York magazine from 1971 – 1991 and, over the years, published sixteen (16) editions of his reviews.
“He used to say his main qualification as a restaurant critic was eating three meals a day,” noted his wife, photographer Nancy Crampton. “He just hung out his shingle and did it.” He did, indeed… During his two decades of culinary activity, his distinctive voice and droll, rapier-like acuity dominated the formative years of the New York dining scene.
According to restaurant writer John Curtas of Eating Las Vegas, “Seymour Britchky was simply, the best. In a class by himself. No one else comes close. The most sardonic, acid-penned, entertaining restaurant writer these shores have seen. We can’t hold a candle to the critics in England (where restaurant reviewing is treated as blood-sport), but Britchky comes closest to their whip-smart prose.”
Consider, for example, Mr. Britchky’s take on the now defunct Mamma Leone’s, the quintessential gastronomic tourist trap: “Mamma Leone’s has been called the most underrated restaurant in New York, which tells us more about the ratings than about the restaurant. There are worse restaurants in New York, but those are the ones which cannot be described in words, the ones that can only be rendered by example or anecdote. The English language can cope, however, with Mamma’s place – it is stunningly garish and ugly, the food is decent, the service automatic, the customers contented and unliberated cows with bulls and broods in tow.”
The Oak Room at The Plaza: “You figure that this is The Plaza, so the food may not be good, but can it be bad? Really bad? Can the roast beef actually taste like medicine, the red snapper like Red Snapper’s catcher’s mitt?”
Monk’s Inn: “Among the restaurants in New York that trade (successfully) on one restaurant feature, giving indifferent attention to the others, is Monk’s Inn, where interior design is all, and food, service and cleanliness (and you) are nothing. A local mag refers to its ‘monastic mood.’ It’s the customers who must be in a monastic mood to tolerate the place, and apparently they are. Their saintly indifference to mistreatment and their Zen relish of discomfort are manifested daily. Hundreds of them, paralyzed to abject faith by the overwhelming air of the place, line up – wide-eyed masochists, grinning, eager to be playthings in the management’s and waiters’ sport.”
The Coach House: “Nothing about this restaurant is as remarkable as its reputation. To find something similar, you must go to the great books, the ones nobody reads… The restaurant is attended principally by the very folks who, in the ritualistic course of their lives, sit through Philharmonic concerts, church sermons, political eulogies, and commencement addresses in states of blank, contented reverence. They do not attend for the message, of course, but for the occasion. And they come to the Coach House for the occasion.”
Ernie’s: “Among the terrible desserts is a terrible apple Normandy tart – it tastes a little bit like Normandy, but not at all like fruit; a chocolate soufflé cake with nothing about it of a soufflé; a strawberry rhubarb cake that seems to have been baked in a Turkish bath; and a chocolate walnut torte in which both chocolate and walnuts are present but not accounted for. You may have plastic whipped cream with any of these.”
Old Homestead: “The tables are too small, the background music is too loud, the air conditioning is arctic, and the doggy-bags leak. The Old Homestead bills itself as ‘New York’s Oldest Steak House,’ and it bedecks itself with hideous turn-of-the-century accoutrements, which bedazzle some of New York’s visitors: ‘This is a historic place,’ says he, his gaze dwelling reverently, now on the brass chandeliers (Lampland), now on the art (Artland); her gaze follows his; the stuffed moose (not from Mooseland, but moldering; possibly c. 1868, when the place opened) gaze straight ahead… Not to slight the local customers – they constitute the bulk of the clientele, and they are mostly what Manhattanites imagine their Queens neighbors to be. She, ventricose and pendulously bosomed, obscures her chair as she sits down beside the table and waits for his move; he, columnar and hard, takes his position opposite, and with the seat of his chair in his hands, by little hops, inches himself and the table toward her, forcing it between her upper and nether protuberances; she crosses right thigh over left, lifting her abdomen and establishing the family grip through meal’s end… If you thought the next generation long ago turned from the crass ways of its antecedents, come to the Homestead, where up-and-coming goons court their fishwives-to-be. Martinis and beer do nothing to unbend the silent ritual courtship dinners of these doomed robots. Only the groups of young men (full-time jobs and no obligations) seem to do any laughing… The food is dreadful – from the waterlogged shrimp or lobster cocktail, or the limp herring, to the mealy, tasteless roast beef and the resilient steak, accompanied by leathery cottage fries or powdery home fries, through the claylike cheesecake… The waiters are almost workmanlike – soon or later you get what you ask for.”
Frank’s: “Put this place in the middle of town, and no one would seek it out. Put it where it is, way out west on West 14th Street – virtually in New Jersey – and when the critics find it, they write about it as if they have turned up a new continent. It is not solely the restaurant’s remoteness, however, that has addled the acuity of its admirers. You see, the place has sawdust on the floor, and if you tell the world you like it here, you are announcing that though you have gone a long way in said world (dine on turtle soup six nights a week), you honor more than ever the honest values of your origins – big cars, red meat, and a shotgun in every broom closet. Still, you better get a taxi right to Frank’s door, for walking the last couple of blocks to this outskirt at night – anyway, without your shotgun – is spooky if not mad. Once inside, however, and you are in the security of the past, especially on weekend nights, when half the customers look like cops, the other half like their wives. The kids come too, to ruin the arithmetic.”
As Richard Corliss noted in his Time magazine article just shortly after Mr. Britchky’s death: “A reader consults other reviewers to find what to eat at four-star restaurants. You read Britchky for that, too, but also for acute descriptions of the décor, the posture and attitude of the staff, the plumage of the clientele. Dining, for Britchky, was not simply, perhaps not even primarily, the exercise of filling your stomach to sweet satiety. It was a social ritual that defined the diner, the restaurant and the city they inhabited.”
The bottom line, in my opinion, is simply this: The more you read Seymour Britchky, the more you realize how utterly impoverished contemporary restaurant reviewing has become. It has been unceremoniously and ingloriously morphed into an exercise in semantic & gastronomic futility; and, if you’ll pardon my punning paraphrase, a cursedly calamitous case of “the bland leading the bland.”
Most of Britchky’s reviews are museum pieces at best, as most of the restaurants he critiqued have long since passed into oblivion or changed management. But that matters very little… So… in conclusion, permit me to quote Mr. Corliss once again: “He wielded words with a sushi chef’s acuity and vigor. One of the superb prose stylists, his reviews can be read with pleasure and envy by folks who would never set foot in a New York eatery… I urge you to find, buy and consume any of the Britchky Restaurant books. Honestly, reading him beats eating.”
Fortunately, many issues of Mr. Britchky’s The Restaurants of New York are still available for purchase online.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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