January 6, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable
The Menu Rap and How to Beat It

        There have been - well, so far anyway - no flossy charity dinners at Voisin for the good folks raising funds to clothe the naked savage. I brood about such things: poverty and the high price of haute cuisine. I brood fleetingly. It’s not wholesome to moralize at the table. No slab of cow is worth $18.50 no matter how you hang it or dress it or flame it or blanket it with a puree of some force-fed goose’s big fat liver. But then $18.50 isn’t worth $18.50 any more either.

        Let us not work ourselves into an anxiety attack over the morality of the $30 dinner. Let us be pragmatic - Freud absolves us all - and pursue a non-conscience-panging study, a question of technological competence: How to eat rich though poor. Or, more realistically, how to eat with the rich, at austerity prices.

        It takes cunning, discipline, poise and unjellied chutzpah to make a measurable dent in the high cost of haute dining. Unfortunately there is no beating that insidious cover charge- unless you want to try ordering the waiter to remove the table cloth. You can’t even beat the bread and butter rap at Quo Vadis unless you are willing to make a scene. And you can’t beat the inflationary tipping spiral. Twenty per cent is the standard minimum. If the waiter does something special, like smile, big spenders go to 25. Of course, if the service is clearly rotten, then our counselors at Pavillon and The Four Seasons strongly urge a punitive pittance, 10 per cent - and, I strongly urge, a dignified but hasty exit.

        My very rich friend, the selective penny pincher from Chicago, claims she dines haute without spending a cent by stalking out in a snit at the slightest provocation, dragging her sables behind her. Her snits rarely precede the entrée. But I think the sable helps. And even she is fast exhausting high-snit-type restaurants.

        Beyond larceny, fraud and free-loading, there is always the fashionable discount lunch. The prix fixe lunch at La Caravelle ($7.50), La Grenouille ($8.25) and La Côte Basque ($8) is three to four dollars gentler than the prix fix dinner, but hang on if you’ve recklessly ordered drinks, coffee, wine and salad. The Stuartlevinized Pavillon (“The King is dead, long live the king,” chants Stu) woos the masses with its $8 lunch. Even Lutèce, where a dinner tab can resemble a page from the US Budget, manages to offer a dazzling $7.50 lunch.

         But the unrivalled best buy in town is the Café Chauveron’s Déjeuner Special…preferably on Saturday, for leisured debauchery. Abandon sense, discipline and calorie chart. There is a master in the kitchen here. Begin with the moules glacés vin blanc, a dizzyingly wondrous assemblage of mussels in a whipped cream enriched wine sauce. Succumb to a Mephistophelean finale, the mousse au chocolat: dark, textured, gutsy, veiled with a whipped-cream-enhanced sabayon sauce. The price of the entrée in between is the price of the meal, $5.50 for the lobster cardinal or chicken liver omelette or filets of sole aux amandines to $9.50 for a bouillabaisse or grilled minute steak, salad and coffee included. Walk there, vow to stagger home, invest what you save on cabs in half a bottle of Pouilly Fumé or Chablis. At dinner the tab for two would run close to $40.

        Outwitting the extravagance of the à la carte menu is a greater challenge to one’s wit, imagination and elocution. Now it is no longer a matter of getting the most for the money. It is an exercise in spending the least for the ambiance. You may not get much to eat, but you can hold down a table at “21” or The Colony for hours and even quiet a few hunger pangs. But is does take practice. I’ve been sternly parsimonious at table for a week…seen almost nothing but eggs and lettuce for days…and I keep coming home with $20 lunch checks.

Quo Vadis


Two couverts                 1.00
Cheese soufflé, salad      3.75
Omelette Maison            3.50
Vin Blanc en carafe        2.50
Oeufs à la neige              1.75
Tarte                               1.50
Two Coffees                   1.20

                               tax      .80
                          waiter    2.40
                        captain     1.00


    We were two at Quo Vadis. There is no cover charge but off in a remote corner of the hors d’oeuvre list I spied something called B&B, 50 cents. From my early eating apprenticeship in St. Germain des Près I knew only too well that B&B does not stand for Benedictine and Brandy. Out of my mouth came the voice of Zoe Caldwell instructing the captain: “You may remove the bread and butter.” Startled, he did so. When the tally appeared, $19.40 after taxes and tips, there it was: a dollar charged for “2 couverts”. But we sent back our bread and butter, I protested. The waiter’s shrug said you cannot beat the system. And how we had suffered. “I feel like little Orphan Annie,” my companion had confided, as we sat 45 minutes for her little cheese soufflé ($3.75, salad included), with not even a crust to nibble at, while all around us the affluent were eating up a storm. That bare expanse of white cloth - I felt myself going snowblind. We sipped California Chablis from carafe ($2.50) feeling so virtuous that we were easy victims for the rolling dessert cart.



    Two Covers                   2.50
    Martini                            1.60
    Glass of wine                  1.60
    Omelette fines herbes     3.25
`    “21” Burger                  4.50
    Salad                              1.25
    Roulade “21”                 1.50
     One coffee                       .75

                                  tax       .85
                             waiter      2.75
                            captain     1.00


    I vowed to be merciless at “21.” My guest had a hamburger. I had the inevitable omelette fines herbes ($3.25) and the tab with tips soared to $21.55. Well, how could I deny a Time Inc. staffer a therapeutic martini? Who would have dreamed five ounces of Pinot Chardonnay would cost $1.60? …who needed that awful dessert we shared (an unhappy slice of ice cream roll drowned in sabayon)?....was coffee really that vital?

The Colony


    B and B                1.80
    Oeufs Benedict     4.20
    Potage Fermiere    1.70
    Romaine Salad      1.65
    Two Coffees          1.50
    Martini                   1.70

                     tax          .60
                 waiter        2.25
                captain       1.00


    I chose the perfect partner for lunch at The Colony: suave, authoritarian, dieting. “All I want is soup and a salad,” he announced. The captain did not smile. He didn’t scowl either. The Colony’s cover charge is disguised on the menu as “ B and B et cèleries”- 90 cents. Had my companion the guts to order the table cleared? “Buy me a martini, “ he said, “and I’ll see.” I munched absently on a rather grimy radish. At that point, having carelessly violated the celery dish, neither of us felt up to debating a half-rebate on the bread. I made a second fatal error, not specifying “un oeuf”- the menu read, under Oeufs.—Benedict $2.35. I got charged for two, $4.20. We saw cookies being passed around the room like crazy and decided why order dessert. For some reason, the cookies never reached us. We sipped boiled coffee and triumphed over the check, a modest $13.15 plus tips.

        Hollow triumph. What had I proved? That a man can lunch on soup and salad for $7. That you won’t be thrown out on your ear if you order corn flakes at “21.” That I had been trying too hard to get something to eat at the expense of style. Another friend, a man well up on such things, scolded me for gluttony. “You’re eating too much,” he said. “Be a vegetarian. Order the fiddlehead ferns and coffee. Be eccentric. Eat nothing but figs. Be sophisticated. Order bibb lettuce, a nice runny brie and a good glass of port, Dow’s ’55 or a Mendiz, ’37.” He himself gets waiters at the Palm to bring him prime rib bones…free. “Of course, I tip well.”

The Forum


    Two Covers                         2.00
    Great Mushrooms                2.75
    Mushrooms of the
    “Sincere Claudius”               2.50
    Rack of Lamb Trimalchie    7.50
    Caesar Salad                        3.95
    Crown of Chestnuts             1.95
    Espressus                               .75
    Wine                                    4.00

                                       tax    1.25
                                  waiter    3.75
                                 captain    2.00


        I felt ready to take on the Forum of the Twelve Caesars in all its pomp and pyre. We would order nothing but what the Forum called Prologues, mostly $2 and $3 items, Gustatories, Provocaties, Ramekins…”The Relish of the Gods”…and we’d share. No cocktails. American wine. (Someone should hire Bill Blass to make California wine as chic as the Princess telephone.) I outlined the battle plan to my dinner companion, the oenosnob and Kultur Maven. I did not like the expression on his face.

        “I’m hungry,” he said, callously adding $10 to the bill merely by turning the page to “Pleasures of the Imperial Table.”

        “I’m ravenous”

        Across the room three tables went up in flames. (Those who can cook, cook. Those who can’t, flambé.)

        I dutifully dine on great mushrooms stuffed with snails, Gallic cheese and walnuts, glazed - three “great” mushrooms about an inch and a half in diameter - and Caesar salad. (It said $2.75 on the menu, but without consultation, I was served a largish portion, $4.25.) With unconcealed distaste, my companion ordered a California wine. What splendor: it was borne to our presence in a massive silver upturned Roman helmet ice – our $4 bottle of Wente Bros. Sauvignon Blanc. It was lovely. Even the oenosnob was forced to admire it.

        Though I’d been betrayed by the Kultur Maven (with his $20 dinner) and double-crossed by the heavy hand of the salad-maker, I’d proved one can have three mushrooms, a small Caesar and a California high for one ten dollar bill. With dark glasses, a few years of psychoanalysis and some sables, I’m sure I could do it on a five.


Pavillon in Moderation


    Two Covers                         2.00
    Great Mushrooms                2.75
    Mushrooms of the
    “Sincere Claudius”               2.50
    Rack of Lamb Trimalchie    7.50
    Caesar Salad                         3.95
    Crown of Chestnuts              1.95
    Espressus                                .75
    Wine                                     4.00                        


Poverty at Pavillon


    Two couverts                          3.00
    Moules au Chablis (2 forks)    3.75
    Rognons de veau
        ardennaise (2 forks)             5.50
    One Coffee                                .75


        “Pavillon is for everyone,” beamed the new proprietaire whose eyebrows make Frencher expressions every day. But Prop. Levin’s budget dinner runs $40 for two, even though he suggests spitting the moules…”There’s enough moules there to sink a horse…at $2.87 per person.” Complimentary cookies do not go to just anyone. That’s known as the petit fours policy decision. “We pay two great pastry chefs and one does nothing but petit fours,” Levin protests with an edge of hysteria. The Pavillon will not willingly become a voluntary soup kitchen in our poverty program. Courage!

Four Seasons in Moderation


    Two covers                                   3.00
    Vermont cheese soup                    1.50
    Moussaka orientale                       2.25
    Twin tournedos with
Woodland mushrooms (2 forks)      10.50
    Sugar loaf beignets                        1.25
    Pot of coffee                                    .75


Four Seasons in Your Slack Season


    Two Covers                               3.00
    Mousse of chicken livers
(to share) or                                    1.75
    Onion soup with port
        (two spoons)
    Two quail en brochette               8.75
    Pot of coffee                                 .75


        On a shoestring. You can do it, concedes Associate Director James Morrison, but why? Four Seasons patrons usually eat now and worry about paying for it later. If you insist, Morrison shrugs, the cellar offers some highly respectable native wines. Small sweets of the season are brought to each table - no charge - with the coffee (75 cents per pot). Watch for entrees in multiples of two or three - twin tournedos, two quail en brochette, three French lamb chops to share.


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