Friday, 9 January 2009

Glam or Not So Glam? New York Dining in the Post-Modern Era

One of my main reasons for choosing to go to New York City over the New Year is that I have always found it to be one of the most glamorous cities in the world. I planned a visit that would please the whole family, one that would include a carriage ride in Central Park, some serious shopping and sightseeing, and last but by no means least, eating at lots of lovely restaurants. As you would expect of someone who writes about food, I love the stuff. In fact, my whole family loves to cook and eat, and where better than the Big Apple to experience dining at some of the most famous restaurants in the world? The only thing was, would dining in New York still be as glamorous as I remembered it or would the years of economic slowdown since my last visit taint our experience? In short, was New York dining still glamorous – or had the economic downturn taken the glamour out of New York?

We based ourselves at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and our first foray into fine dining was at their restaurant, The Bull and The Bear, on New Year’s Eve. I had seriously high expectations of this evening, not least of all because dinner was priced at $275 a plate. Sadly, due to some serious organisational issues, the atmosphere was more frantic than glamorous. We were welcomed less than enthusiastically due to the sheer disorganisation of the staff. The restaurant was decorated beautifully but the service was more conveyor belt than bespoke. We honestly felt like the staff wished we were not there. Mind you, I wouldn’t like to work New Year’s Eve either, but you don’t have to let everyone know that! The food, with the exception of the second course which was cold when it arrived, was very good – but it sure was not worth what we were paying for it. Although I expect to pay top dollar for a New Year’s Eve dinner in New York, I expect to feel special while I am doing it. I felt a lot of things, but special was not one of them! In fact, the atmosphere was so abysmal (please do not even ask me about the entertainment), we left when we had finished our meal – a whole hour and a half before midnight. We retired upstairs to watch the events unfold at Times Square which was fun as I was in good company, but not what I had expected to be doing, and not even remotely glamorous. Not a great start in the glamour stakes I have to say.

The following day we headed to The Russian Tea Room for New Year’s Day brunch. From the moment we were welcomed by the uniformed doorman, I could tell this was definitely somewhere special. The rich d√©cor, the discreet, attentive service and the gourmet menu were wonderful. Whether you wanted to drink champagne or tea, you were made to feel as welcome as any celebrity. Nothing was too much trouble and yes, I did feel special - so special that we booked to come back again later in the week. Glamour is definitely alive and well at The Russian Tea Room.

After our less than brilliant experience at The Bull and The Bear, I was hesitant to dine at another of the Waldorf Hotel’s restaurants, but when in Rome you just have to do as the Romans do. In short, you simply cannot stay at the Waldorf Astoria without trying their Waldorf salad. This famous dish is offered at Oscar’s, the Waldorf Astoria’s brasserie. The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived on a Saturday lunchtime and the chic palm-lined interior was very welcoming. The diners included a lot of New Yorkers, which I felt was as a very good sign. There were two versions of the Waldorf salad on offer – the traditional version (sadly served only served as an appetiser) and a main course Waldorf salad that included chicken and cheese. The latter did not sound very authentic to any of us, so we decided to have the appetiser version. While it was different than what I expected – including as it did only three walnuts (seriously, exactly three on each plate), it was delicious. The service was very good and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The atmosphere offered the glamour that the food did not, and on the whole, I am relieved to say that glamour is still alive and well at the Waldorf Astoria.

Suitably encouraged, we decided to dine the next evening at Peacock Alley, the Waldorf’s other signature restaurant, situated off to the side in the main lobby. Originally a cocktail lounge, Peacock Alley has evolved over the years into a good-sized restaurant. The lobby of the Waldorf Astoria is a busy place so I was a bit concerned we might feel a bit like we were dining in a goldfish bowl. On the contrary, Peacock Alley is cleverly designed so that while diners can people-watch to their heart’s content, those in the lobby really cannot see much of the diners. Our welcome was enthusiastic, the service impeccable and the food absolutely divine. Everything was the epitome of glamour and sophistication. That’s two brownie points in the glamour stakes for the Waldorf.

Not only that, but on hearing of our experience on New Year’s Eve, our wonderful waiter from Peacock Alley contacted the manager of The Bull and The Bear who not only offered us dinner next time we are in New York, but refunded part of the cost of our meal and paid for our bottle of wine. Okay, so New Year’s Eve wasn’t very glam, but the management of The Bull and The Bear are definitely a class act.

So at this point I have to say that although it is a much bigger and busier hotel than I expected it to be, the Waldorf Astoria has managed to retain a lot of the glamour it was famous for all those years ago. So would a journey to another bastion of old world New York glamour – The Rainbow Room – prove as satisfying?

The Rainbow Room opened in 1934 on the sixty-fifth floor of Thirty Rockefeller Plaza in Rockefeller Centre and was considered the jewel in the crown of this incredible development. Back then, it was described as an intimate supper club for New York’s elite and influential. I was expecting something very special indeed.

It all started off well, with a uniformed attendant escorting us to the express elevator to the Rainbow Grill. He pressed a button and we were off. This particular elevator stops only at the sixty-fifth floor or on the ground floor – nothing in between. When the elevator doors whooshed open I was expecting plush carpeting and quiet music, but instead I was greeted with a din. Noisy and crowded, we squeezed our way through the people at the bar on our way to our table. I was grateful that we had a table directly beside the window; the view was incredible. However, the tables were really squeezed in and all through the evening I felt a bit sardine-like. This did not help me to feel very comfortable – I love views but heights are really not my thing. The service was quite slow as well, and less than attentive. The food, on the other hand, was absolutely delicious – the only mistake being the fact that my son’s steak – which he had requested to be cooked to medium – was actually quite beyond well done. In fact, it was just short of completely overcooked. The waiters had disappeared at this point and it was not worth ruining the evening by complaining, but it was a major disappointment, particularly as it was my son’s birthday. I have to be honest, aside from the view, we could not wait to leave – there was no glamour left in the Rainbow Room.

It was therefore no surprise when we visited Rockefeller Centre the next morning to see a news headline on the ticker at NBC – “Rainbow Room to close on 12th January due to economic woes”. As we experienced it, it is the sort of place you would only visit once, and no restaurant can survive without repeat visitors. When I compare it to another sky-high restaurant, the 360 at the CN Tower in Toronto, it comes out very poorly indeed. We had a beautiful meal at the 360 not long ago – impeccable service and delicious food. It may not have the history of the Rainbow Grill, but it has tons more glamour.

With our visit to New York nearly over, I found myself in a reflective mood. Was New York dining still glamorous, or had the economic crisis taken the glamour out of New York dining? It’s easy to lose your shine in a tough economy, but if you want to survive as a business, the best thing you can do is to cultivate it. Thankfully, I can affirm that there is still lots of glamour to be found in many New York restaurants, although not always in the places you would expect it to be. All I can say is, long may it continue. We all need a little glamour in our lives – especially these days.

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