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New York Restaurants Through the Eyes of Gael Greene, Who Died at 88

She didn’t hold back

Gael Greene
Restaurant critic Gael Greene has died.
Dan and Rita Wynn

If you’re ever feeling down about New York, an exorbitant and pandemic-battered city currently bracing for yet another global recession, do yourself a favor and read what Gael Greene once had to say in New York Magazine about a certain local restaurant. The year was 1976, a time when the five boroughs were besieged by crime waves and a generational fiscal crisis:

“Suddenly I knew – absolutely knew – New York would survive. As Joan of Arc knew she would save France, as St. Theresa knew, and Charles Colson… I knew. If money and power and ego and a passion for perfection could create this extraordinary pleasure…this instant landmark, Windows on the World…money and power and ego could rescue the city from its ashes. What a high. New York would prevail. Forget about Acapulco gold. This is Manhattan green.”

I reject that money and power and ego will ever save any city, not ours, not any other, but gosh, it’s hard not to feel goosebumps as Greene packs in metaphor after metaphor to tout a magical culinary palace in the sky, recounting a real-life fantasy of New York for a city that desperately needed a bit of fleeting escapism — just as it does now.

Gael Greene died this morning at the age of 88, as first reported by ex-New York Times critic Ruth Reichl. Greene was a critic who did not hold back, lacing her missives with prose that ranged from straightforwardly enthusiastic to overtly sensuous, sensual, and sometimes acerbic. As she wrote about small plates, foams, Keith McNally, fine dining, and other restaurant-related issues, she also opined, sometimes smartly, and occasionally uncomfortably, about a chef’s meanness (David Bouley’s “charming Dr. Jekyll phase”), Manolo Blahniks, the supposed ethnicity of a host, skirt lengths, celebrities, and an Italian actresses’s decolletage.

Greene wasn’t just an analyst of acid balance and collapsed souffles. She was an astute journalist who relished contemplating the cultural pulse of our ever-changing city from inside a brasserie, a sushi bar, or a restaurant over 100 stories up. She conveyed her musings via an effervescent, easy-to-digest style of prose that felt appropriate for an 8:30 a.m. read at Balthazar, accompanied by a tall glass of Champagne.

Here’s a short selection of Greene’s writing, largely drawn from the late ’90s and early aughts.

On the scene at the Russian Tea Room: “Waiting for a guest who’s late, our dinner stretches toward midnight, and we watch the congregation evolve. ‘It’s become Las Vegas night at the bar,’ one of my friends reports, as the crowd shifts. Skirts get shorter, and the faces hairier. He is particularly fixated on a Brooke Shields look-alike, finding it unbearably erotic when she puts on glasses to read the menu. — From “Velvet Revolution,” New York Magazine, Dec. 6, 1999.

On a fine dining chef doing something more casual: “David Bouley is cooking Wiener schnitzel. The grand master of the ethereal is slapping bread crumbs on small rectangles of veal and frying them. Yes, I mean Wiener schnitzel. Nostradamus was right. This is the end of the world as we passionate gourmands know it. The priest of purity, avatar of the organic, that same David Bouley famous for rutting about in pure pastures demanding boutique roots and sprouts, has suddenly become an outright contrarian.” — From “The Empire Strikes Back,” New York Magazine, Oct. 20, 1999.

On the bane of foam: “About that foam: It’s not a new obsession, but lately, it’s been getting the kind of press reserved for pony-skin handbags or Al Gore’s tie. I fear we’ll soon be drowning in foam. At that first dinner, Danube’s kitchen is foaming all over the place.” — From “The Empire Strikes Back,” New York Magazine, Oct. 20, 1999.

On a fancy French spot, with a wild metaphor: “La Grenouille ages like a grande dame: impenetrable French (untranslated on the menu). Bijouterie piled on (floral bouquets ever more exuberant). And flaunting a younger man, American, no less. Chef Daniel Orr dishes up respectable quenelles de brochet and classic Dover sole.” — From “Where to Eat in 1999,” in New York Magazine, Jan. 4, 1999.

On the Hamptons crowd: “Brunch might call for a turkey burger with soggy sweet-potato fries or a surprisingly delicious gift-wrapped Asian burrito with grilled smoked tempeh (a disgusting vegan idea I’m shocked to say I liked), teriyaki mushrooms, and shaved carrot in a spinach tortilla with a nori insert. By mid-morning Sunday, there are little clots of wholesome folk with whiny and manic offspring waiting ahead of us.” — From “Hamptons 2000/Ask Gael: Hamptons Edition,” New York Magazine, July 31, 2000

On the Bronx: “What do I know about the Bronx? I went to a Yankees game once and reviewed a shore dinner on City Island. I read Tom Wolfe, so I know what can happen if you get a flat tire in the Bronx. There are men from the Bronx in my life, most comfortingly, the Road Food Warrior. Yet even he is wary: ‘What cabbie will take us there?’ — From “Plantain Hollywood,” New York Magazine, July 20, 1998.

On small plates: “Sociologists used to think they could track the rise and fall of the economy by the length of women’s skirts. Then fashion got hopelessly permissive. Perhaps the size of plates is a better indicator. In the dot-com euphoria, dishes had to be tall. Now restaurants boast their plates are small—perfect for a generation downmarketing, pinching dollars, and running from commitment to serious dinner.” —From “Small Plates,” New York Magazine, Nov. 30, 2003.

On McNally and Pastis: “As if Manolo Blahnik stilettos and pony-skin totes had not already corrupted the warehouse iconography of this remote district…The Washington Street approach by day has us creeping past double-parked trucks, braking for butchers and racks of carcasses. Yet the city’s nocturnal avant-garde has been crowded into the bar and loitering in thick clots between tables from day one. The first week, Keith McNally looks anxious, pale, gloomy — i.e., his usual obsessive self — as he finds tables for chums and Balthazar regulars while the ‘no reservations’ rabble remain backed up at the bar. After all, one doesn’t park Calvin Klein or Lorne Michaels too long on hold, does one?

‘I wanted this to be a place for everyday people,’ he says mournfully, juggling the power players.” — From “One Man’s Frites,” New York Magazine, Jan. 10, 2000.

An uncomfortable description about Indochine: “Still primal at a geriatric twenty years, Indochine’s waitresses are likely to be as stunning and/or exotic as its clientele of mannequins and their rotating sugars.” —From “Gael Greene’s Where to Eat in 2000,” New York Magazine, Jan. 3, 2000.

On haute service: “‘Harps and cockscombs are not my idea of a fun evening,’ mutters my mate, the Road Food Warrior, as we dip into a springlike toss of foie gras-stuffed morels and the rooster’s pompadour. And I agree. Great dining needs harp music like Sophia Loren’s décolletage needs a lobster bib. We are the captive audience of the loutish serving crew as they struggle to perform haute service rituals.” — From “Divine Oeuvre-Kill,” New York Magazine, June 1, 1998.

On a now-defunct practice: “Overtipping the waiter is wanton. It is impossible to overtip the maître d’...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” — “How Not to Be Humiliated in Snob Restaurants,” New York Magazine, April 13, 1970.