A few months ago, my wife and I wanted to visit Manhattan’s then–restaurant du moment. Our motives were pure and old-fashioned. I had found out that two people we’d become friends with when they had a restaurant in Brooklyn were working in this new place, and we were anxious to see them again. Thanks to my stepson, a man of some standing in the New York City restaurant world, an early dinner reservation was arranged.
The décor and seating arrangement seemed agreeable. The wine list inventive and inviting. The cooking imaginative and tasty. Our friends were in fine fettle and as glad to see us as we them. All pretty much as expected. But then…but then…
A casual glance around the handsome room suggested that although knife, fork, and wineglass remained the dominant implements in use at the tables around us, closing fast were smartphones, both to be shouted into and employed to take pictures of the food and tableware, presumably for immediate, envy-inducing posting on Instagram. I found this odd—and somewhat irritating.
But there was no point in trying express my mild aggro to my dining companions, because my wife and I, sitting perhaps five feet opposite from each other, couldn’t hear ourselves above the clamor raised by diners shrieking in the self-congratulatory tones peculiar to people simply thrilled, darling, thrilled, to fancy themselves where the prestige action of the moment is. So intrusive was the uproar that it leached away a good deal of the variegated pleasure that an evening like this should have brought.
Why this should be troubled me. This was a restaurant masterminded by two experienced, well-regarded, innovative chefs, in which a fair piece of money had obviously been invested. So why had the noise level been allowed to percolate to a decibel count sufficient to drown out a Seattle Seahawks home crowd? ’Twas a puzzlement. On the other hand, to be fair, it seemed that the people around us were entirely caught up in the moment, were having a very good time and wanted everyone within a five-block radius to know about it. So perhaps my reaction was simply another of the approximately 10,000 ways I find myself out of step with modern life. Was this actually what these people considered to be fine dining, I wondered?
I had few stars to steer by. Although I enjoy reading about food and wine and dining—but only as recorded by the likes of Waverley Root, A. J. Liebling, my friend Bud Trillin, or Joseph Wechsberg (the latter’s Dining at the Pavillon is in my view the best book ever on New York dining styles)—I’m not what is today called a “foodie,” that form of gastronomic zealotry produced by an age seemingly in love with every type and style of exhibitionism.
All in all, I don’t subscribe to the imperatives and rituals of what we might call “foodieism.” I seriously doubt that the examined life is founded on the deference of headwaiters and Parker wine ratings. When people ask me what I look for in a restaurant, I start by telling them that what’s on my plate is no more important to me than the sort of people I find myself dining among, and seated and served by.
In search of expert advice on the matter of contemporary city restaurant dining, with special attention to the noise factor, I consulted my chum Cathy Treboux, the soignée and assured proprietress of Le Veau d’Or, one of my three favorite New York restaurants (the other two are Frankies 457 Spuntino and Lillo Cucina Italiana, both in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill).
She had two thoughts. First, that the design and décor of the non-kitchen elements of a new restaurant are often entrusted to someone who may or may not have the aural welfare of diners uppermost in his planning. In an arresting article in The Atlantic, “How Did Restaurants Get So Loud,” the writer Kate Wagner puts it this way: “That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.”
Cathy’s second suggestion confirmed my own suspicion that this— noise—is what the people want. A successful restaurateur supplies this craving. In New York, Keith McNally is generally esteemed to be the master of this craft. His early restaurants Pastis and Balthazar set the tone, if you will, for bustling oversized bistros, and proved hugely popular (McNally has since closed Pastis), although Paris friends possessed of enviable palates and refined taste tell me that they found the din in the latter intolerable.
Not long ago I was chatting with Frank Falcinelli, one of the two identically named Queens cousins who started their eponymous Sputino some 10 years ago. Frank started his career cooking at Moomba, a “scenester” joint on the west side. His cooking won high praise from the Times’s Ruth Reichl, but Moomba’s clientele wasn’t there for the cuisine. Such people move on in search of new boastable experiences, new names on the gastronomic bucket list, new images for Instagram—and then where are you? Which is why Frank Falcinelli and his cousin and partner, Frank Castronovo, decided to bypass a “scene”-type joint and open a first-class neighborhood restaurant.
I first went there not long after they opened. I looked around, checked out the menu, listened to the sound of the place and knew on the spot that here was my kind of restaurant. Apart from eating there every Friday that I can manage, my wife and I have celebrated three big birthdays and got married there.
But all is not lost. A widely read online site just reported on the 2019 agenda and plans underway at the immensely popular and influential SoHo restaurant Frenchette. Not all of these have to do with menu changes. At the conclusion of the report is this: “Another thing diners can expect in 2019: a quieter dining room. Sound absorption panels will be installed in the restaurant next month to tone down the decibel levels, something the chefs admit to overlooking.”
This suggests that the future may hold a flicker of hope.