William Grimes Gives a Taste of New York City
New York City is a restaurant town and to take part in many of the gifts the city has to offer, one must eat out. In 1980 I began traveling to New York City and by 1982 I was living here. The city was unlike anything I had ever experienced before and as a young woman I wanted to experience it all. I got a job as a waitress and stayed in the industry for 20 years. At the start of my waitressing career, my food knowledge was limited. Originally, I am from the Detroit area, I was a meat and potato girl, though I knew Middle Eastern food. The Detroit metropolitan area has the largest population of people from the Middle East outside of the Middle East itself. Over the years I have become familiar with many types of food and have also become not such a bad cook. It was years of working in restaurants and eating in restaurants, watching, asking questions and tasting that got me to where I am now, a food enthusiast who knows her way around the kitchen. In my 20 years, I have worked in a spectrum of restaurants from a small family owned Italian restaurant on Montague Street with good simple fare to what at the time was considered the premier executive dining room in the city – Shearson Lehman Brothers, a sumptuous if staid environment serving the kings of finance.
William Grimes presented a program last Tuesday, April 18 at the Mid Manhattan Library on his book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York. Grimes was the restaurant critic for the NYTimes from 1999-2003, (now he writes obituaries for the NYTimes). Though his assignment covered mainly the upper tier restaurants of New York, he was quick to point out that what makes New York City a great food town is the quality of good food offered, in restaurants at all levels, as well as the authenticity of the multitude of ethnic cuisines we have in the city. He stressed that no city in the world offers the variety and quality of cuisines that New York does, from the “soccer taco food vendors” in Red Hook to the teeny tiny dumpling shop under the Manhattan Bridge, to all the other little dining spots throughout the city, where pockets of ethnic pride present themselves in eating establishments all across the boroughs. Grimes stressed, that as diners, we benefit greatly from this diversity.
William Grimes began his talk with an historical overview of restaurants and dining in city. It all began downtown and as the city grew uptown so did the restaurants. New York’s food industry increased and changed over time. These changes were in direct relation to outside forces. For example Prohibition for one single handedly killed the great dining palaces like Delmonico’s almost over night. The World’s Fair of 1939 introduced New Yorkers to the haute French cuisine. Once the fair was over, the chefs remained in New York and established French restaurants that became legendary, like La Pavillon. Years later, the classic French style buckled and lost its grip, as the rigidity and stodginess of French cuisine could not withstand the onslaught of a more free and casual approach to food. Today there is tremendous variety in high-end restaurants where once there was none. Partly because classically trained chefs are sent all over the world to establish hotel restaurants. Grimes stated it is natural that a mingling of cultures occurs. For example, Jean-Georges Vongerichten brings together his classic French cooking background and mixes it with the Asian traditions. In the 90’s he was the wunderkind of haute cooking in the city, creating a vast food empire. During this same period there was another change taking place and that was the birth of small dining establishments. Across the city, in all the boroughs CIA trained chefs and others were making their mark in small dining markets. It is still happening today. Serving an eclectic cuisine, Grocery, a small storefront restaurant, on a quaint street in Carroll Gardens Brooklyn, received the ZAGAT rating as best restaurant in the city in 2003. Up against power house establishments, Grocery placed first to the chagrin of the owners.
As William Grimes said, we live in the best food city in the world; nowhere can we get the variety of cuisines that we can get in New York. The quality of the food is consistently good at all levels and you can enjoy a wonderful meal at a reasonable price. Every day diners gather at tables across the city, feasting with friends. From the most expensive restaurants to the least expensive restaurants, New Yorkers celebrate in a vast and rich culture of food.