When anyone asks me, “How do you become a food critic?”, which is one of the dreamiest sidelines I have had in my fortunate dream job as a writer, the first thing I tell them is, “Go to Columbia.” Today, Broadway is a veritable Champs Élysées of sidewalk cafes, ambitious restaurants and gourmet markets. However, when I arrived on campus in 1966, Morningside Heights was a gastronomic no-fly zone in a metropolis I had been lured to by the prospect of great eating. I am from a little North Carolina town called Kinston that was to barbecue what Strasbourg was to foie gras, but that heavenly vinegar-sauced pulled pork and the accompanying glory-that-was-grease hush puppies had been my only taste of greatness. New York was then — in pre-foodie America — the country’s, if not the world’s, restaurant capital. You could eat anything there, but if you went to Columbia, you had to get on the subway to savor the diversity. And at first we didn’t, because my new classmates felt we had to study and stay on campus, until we figured out the best education of all was way outside the pearly gates of College Walk.
In those days, Broadway was the Via Dolorosa of dining. The best thing you could eat was the griddled frankfurter at the counter of Chock full o’ Nuts; the pre-tech, hand-cut French fries at the eternal Tom’s; or the delicious rare roast beef hero to go from Mama Joy’s, which has now become the upscale Milano Market — the food hall of dreams we would never have unless we had been to Peck in Milan or Fauchon in Paris. Thanks to bargain Columbia European summer charter flights, we would get there soon enough.
Until then we could drink away our hunger at The West End and The Gold Rail, and if we overdid it, there was the $1.19 Steak House to sop it all up with mystery meat whose only taste derived from the flaming charcoal it was cooked over. Burn, baby, burn — particularly from the postprandial acid reflux. Speaking of pain, the most surefire aid to those academic all-nighters was the incendiary meatball hero from Mama Joy’s lesser deli rival, Ta-Kome (“Take Home”), whose stunningly cryptic neon sign evoked some Native American tribe that we could inquire about to Margaret Mead [BC 1923, GSAS’28], who was still teaching then.
The best campus cuisine required a short walk, which was potentially hazardous in those pre-Giuliani crime times. If you were bold you could flee the bland moo goo gai pan and chicken chow mein at Moon Palace, immortalized by classmate Paul Auster ’69, and venture down an increasingly funky Broadway to the Harbin Inn at 100th Street, or up to TienTsin at 125th Street, for authentically spicy and then-exotic northern Chinese fare two decades before culinary Sinophilia turned upper Broadway into an appendix of Sichuan Province.
On Amsterdam Avenue at 111th Street was V&T, still standing as one of the city’s oldest Italian restaurants, founded in 1945 by two ex-GIs, brothers Vincent and Tony Curcurato, in nearby then-Italian Harlem as a spiritual cousin of Rao’s, which two decades hence would become the toughest reservation in all New York. There I had my first veal parmigiana; next door, at the Hungarian-style Green Tree Restaurant, I had my first goulash; and up Amsterdam at Aki Dining Room, I had my first tempura. I thought they were all the best things I ever ate, until I ventured downtown to Little Italy, to the paprika palaces of Yorkville and to the wonderful secret sushi places in the East 40s where the Japanese bankers ate; there I tasted things even better and learned that the more trouble you went to, and the harder the hunt, the better the food could be, or at least seem.
The 1960s bible for nascent gastronomes like me was Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Guide to New York’s Restaurants. Claiborne, a native Mississippian who went to hotel school in Switzerland, was the Times food critic before most papers and magazines had one. His seemed like the most glamorous job in the world — getting paid to dine out. As a one-man Michelin, Claiborne, with his three-star system, had the power to make restaurants (this was before chefs became celebrities) and to create feeding frenzies. He seemed like the most powerful man in the city. (Years later, after I read his biography, he seemed like the most miserable.)
What was great about those early days of the emergence of our food culture was how inexpensive the entire experience was. There was a terrific French bistro near Times Square, the Champlain, were you could get a complete coq au vin dinner, not to mention le vin, for around $3.00. For $20.00 you could go to one of Claiborne’s three-star temples of French gastronomy (to get three stars, it had to be French) like La Caravelle or La Côte Basque and sit near Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote or Gore Vidal, and really know you were in New York, the center of the world.
I’ll never forget my first trip to Le Pavillon on 57th Street. They were making a big fuss over Greek tycoon Stavros Niarchos, who was celebrating winning the auction for some Old Master at Parke-Bernet. I was with a sophisticated girl from Sarah Lawrence who knew this scene that I did not. Trying to be adventurous, I ordered my first artichaut vinaigrette. We didn’t have artichokes, that I knew of, in North Carolina. I had no idea what to do with it. So I took one of the leaves and put it in my mouth and nearly choked to death. My date was doing her best to keep a straight face and not humiliate me in the midst of the rich and famous. “Do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s a little … ” I searched for the word. “Chewy. A tad chewy.”
And then she broke out laughing. Out of this baptism of fire, a food critic was born.