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The Joys of Fidelity
An Article by Frank Bruni

(New York Times)

Frank Bruni Photo Several weeks ago, I came across a rather thought-provoking article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times entitled “Familiarity Breeds Content.” Mr. Bruni is the former Times’ restaurant critic and currently their editorialist, à la the late R.W. Apple, Jr. And, interestingly enough, contrary to what readers may at first presume, his article is not about the joyful intimacies of long-term marriage partnerships or even those of significant others – except in the broadest metaphorical sense.

No, no… the purpose of Mr. Bruni’s article is to extol the profoundly virtuous pleasures of restaurant intimacy: “What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.” And then he continues: “The fashionable script for today’s food maven doesn’t encourage that sort of bonding.”

Indeed, it does not. There always seems to be another restaurant waiting in the wings, another gastronomic orgasm just around the corner. For the insatiable, faddy-obsessed omnivore, apparently, there is simply no end to the possibilities. Sound exciting…? Well, yes and no. During his tenure as the Times’ restaurant critic, Mr. Bruni notes: “I was a paid philanderer. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting.”

Some thirty-three years before Mr. Bruni’s article, the late Jay Jacobs, former restaurant critic for Gourmet magazine, in his entertaining and informative book Winning the Restaurant Game, echoed similar sentiments, albeit in more humorous detail: “In the long run, gastronomic promiscuity pays off no better than sexual promiscuity. The one-night stand is no more rewarding at table than it is in bed. The Don Juans of gourmandise eat their way through a blurred continuum of meaningless scores that make no demands on either party and establish no relationships worth the name… To prolong the sexual metaphor, pleasurable carnal knowledge is as much a matter of knowledge as carnality, and intercourse with restaurants is no different. No matter how accomplished and conscientious the restaurant or bed-partner may be, have a single quick go at either and chances are that you’ll leave feeling you’ve merely been screwed.”

I certainly understand Mr. Bruni’s feelings when he indicates that while he was the Times’ restaurant critic, philandering about from eatery to eatery, he would often look back fondly to his pre-critic days as Rome bureau chief and the handful of restaurants with which he formed a wonderfully intimate relationship.

During my 10-year tenure as food critic for nj.com, churning out three new Garden State restaurant reviews each month, as well as moderating their Restaurant Forum, my wife and I had similar yearnings for several charming little eateries we had discovered in my pre-“hired belly” days and to which we would gladly have returned on a regular basis had I not been otherwise occupied with reviewing deadlines. Being a restaurant critic is one occupation of which almost everyone appears to be envious – but it does have its drawbacks. It is exhilarating… but also exhausting… and somewhat frustrating at times.

Free of his formal critic’s mantle, Mr. Bruni notes, “I’ve come to see that the broccolini isn’t always greener on the other side of Houston Street, and I’m here to sing what’s too seldom sung: the joys of familiarity. The pleasures of intimacy. The virtues of staying put.” I wholeheartedly agree.

And regular patrons matter to a restaurant. They matter a great deal. “Though the newcomers drawn there by reviews or Yelp chatter can keep it packed for a while, the familiar faces help it go the distance.” Indeed. A restaurant positively thrives on those regular folk who drop in, not only with reservations for lunch and dinner, but also impulsively, perhaps at off hours, for a glass of wine, a snack, and a respite from the tensions of the day.

In return, regulars at most restaurants are given special consideration: an extra amuse-bouche, perhaps, a glass of sparkling wine that wasn’t requested, or a complimentary dessert… and, of course, a promotion to the head of the waiting list when the restaurant is full and overflowing. Above all else, however, are the smiles: “The smiles you get from hosts, hostesses and bartenders who know you are entirely unlike the smiles from ones who are just meeting you. They’re less theatrical, less stilted, warmer by countless degrees.”

Frank Bruni Photo “To be a regular,” Mr. Bruni concludes, “is to insist on something steady in a world and a life with too many shocks, too much loss… To be a regular is not just to settle down but to grow up and appreciate that for all you haven’t tasted, you’re plenty lucky and plenty happy with what you have.”

One additional note: Not all restaurants readily lend themselves to the culinary-social intimacies of which Mr. Bruni writes. And it is equally true that, based upon personal preferences and predilections, individual diners will more easily form cozy, long-term affiliations with certain types of establishments rather than others – and certainly my wife and I are no exception. Thus, noted below are the restaurants with which we continue to enjoy eminently satisfying emotional as well as a gastronomic relationships…

Garlic HummusBuckley’s Tavern, 5812 Kennett Pike, Centreville, DE: Buckley’s was always a popular local happy-tappy; but since the change in ownership, the 3 million in extensive renovations, and the much improved cuisine, the joint always seems to be jumping. The dining rooms are very nice, but the Tavern is the place to be. The last couple of visits, my wife and I have just plopped down at the bar for a couple of glasses of dry German Riesling… And the garlic hummus, tomato bruschetta mix, and the charcuterie plate have all made first-rate mid-afternoon snacks.

Creed's BarCreed’s Seafood & Steaks, 499 North Gulph Road, King of Prussia, PA: I first reviewed Creed’s seven years ago, and my wife and I have been back on a regular basis ever since. We’ve had the same waiter on numerous occasions; and the bartenders have remained in place over the years as well – that’s always a good sign. Expensive? Indeed… and it seems to get more expensive with each subsequent visit… But for special occasion dinners several times a year, it simply can’t be beat. Both steaks and seafood are impeccably fresh, perfectly prepared, and beautifully presented. Lunch here is also first-rate and a good deal less costly than dinner. The convivial bar/lounge is always the right spot to enjoy a designer martini or glass of wine.

Limoncello ExteriorLimoncello Ristorante & Bar, 499 East Uwchlan Avenue (Route 113), Chester Springs, PA: The younger sibling of the restaurant of the same name in West Chester, Limoncello continues to be a perfect stopover for lunch. The pleasant bar area, awash with high-top tables and chairs, is particularly enjoyable and to be preferred over the hustle and bustle of main dining room where the noise level and/or rambunctious progeny can be somewhat intrusive. The pizza here is excellent… ditto the sandwiches & salads… and the arancini, seasoned, breaded, and fried risotto croquettes filled with ground beef, peas, and mozzarella cheese are something of a must. Limoncello also sports a very nice wine selection; and al fresco dining in warmer weather is an added plus.

Thin-Crust PizzaRon’s Original Bar & Grille, 74 East Uwchlan Avenue (Route 113), Lionville, PA: Tucked away in the Heritage Center, a mini strip mall, just a stone’s throw from the above-mentioned Limoncello, Ron’s is well… unique. Not only does the restaurant offer its patrons the best of organic and/or local comestibles, it also turns them out in a manner that is pleasing to both eye and palate. The casual “Pub Grub” is outstanding across the board, and the irresistible thin-crust pizza is worth a journey. The restaurant also offers a variety of entrées, including traditional Italian favorites. Once again, the bar provides the most comfortable seats in the house; and Scott, the chatty, convivial bartender, is guaranteed to take care of you in style.

Sips BarSips Bistro & Bar, 400 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, PA: Chef Gerald A. Petrus, Jr., serves up creative French bistro fare in ample American-size portions at reasonable prices. And his offerings strike a perfect middle ground between often intimidating esoterically-oriented upscale cuisine and somewhat less than sophisticated “pub grub.” This is “bistro” in the very best sense3 of that designation. Among the starters, nothing quite tops the pure velvet of the sautéed chicken livers teamed with lardons, minced onions, and an addictive red wine sauce. Entrée-wise, the incomparable bouillabaisse continues its undisputed reign as the chef’s signature dish. On the other hand, if you just want to settle in with a couple of glasses of wine at the beautiful antique bar, the charcuterie board – featuring cured meats, country pate, and all the accoutrements – is perfect for sharing.

Chicken with Black Bean SauceVeekoo Asian Cuisine, 10th Avenue Shoppes, 333 Tenth Avenue, Royersford, PA: At least twice a month, my wife and I are overwhelmed by an insatiable craving for Chinese food and find ourselves returning to Veekoo once again. Going on seven-plus years now, this would most certainly qualify as a long-term gastronomic relationship. And having been carried on for such an extended period of time, permit me to quote Mr. Bruni once again: “We don’t have fireworks, not this late in the game. But we have a rhythm. Sometimes that’s better.” I agree. When we return to Veekoo we aren’t in search of new passions, but the comfort of old friends…Starters like lettuce wraps or Peking-style pot stickers, for example; simple and straightforward entrées like the chicken with black bean sauce or shredded pork in garlic sauce; vegetarian dishes like sautéed fresh green beans, sautéed spinach in crushed garlic, or zippy Chinese eggplant. These are dishes that continue to nourish our hearts as well as our stomachs… After all, a restaurant critic does not live by foie gras alone!

November 2013
The Artful Diner

The Artful 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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