May 5, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable

And Not a Drop to Drink


          See that grizzly liquid gurgling in the gutters? It’s water. A few months ago the city was ossified in a crystallized quilt of it. Water. Yes, the Great Drought of 1965 is over, officially, historically, meteorologically. But Noah could float by in his ark atop the Number 5 bus and most New York restaurateurs would just keep on hoarding the season’s most abundant resource. I mourn the needlessly prolonged neglect of a fine American dining tradition: water, unasked for in a tumbler, a goblet, a Dixie cup. Civic patriotism struck the first blow. Now, I suspect, greed sustains the restaurant drought.


          It was positively subversive to waste water in May, 1965. The Northeast was parched and frazzled. No one seriously protested when then Water Commissioner Armand D’Angelo ordered restaurants to serve water only on request. Good citizens took showers with friends, watched the crab grass wither, thought twice before flushing and ordered no one knows how many extra bottles of Bardolino, Budweiser and No-Cal Black Cherry. One can only guess how many dollars restaurants have saved in glass-washing expense.


          Two hundred and fifty inspectors fanned the city, authorized to impose fines of $5 to $50 for any host caught serving water without demand. Not a single fine was levied. New Yorkers are scarcely a reverent breed, but restaurants taught us all new respect for Law. Even anarchists sipped seltzer.


          That was four years ago. Now the reservoirs are overflowing. It is still a struggle to get a glass of water in most New York restaurants. To out-of-towners this unique conservation program must seem like still another example of the city’s growing arrogance and hostility. Of course, not all restaurants are still fighting drought. Most Chinese waiters pour without a prod. In the trattorias of Little Italy, some do, some don’t, depending upon the waiter’s mood, the crowd, the proximity of the water pitcher. Naturally one does not expect to be served ice water at the haute French table – it is neither couth nor amusing to be so provincial. We try to rise above our peasant heritage. A sip of Perrier or champagne will quench the thirst – with haute pretension.


          But what’s going on at Charley O’s? The service was pleasant and prompt a few nights ago, but a request for water absolutely jammed the works; first one and then another waiter hustled off in concentric circles, both anxious to please, neither exactly sure where to find a source of water. And our captain at “21” laughed at an order for “one glass of wine” and “one glass of water.” Of course, that was the week I was proving you could lunch on a pittance at highest-priced inns. He may have been laughing to keep from crying.


          Considering pollution, chlorination and fluoridation, you may be surprised to rediscover how good New York water tastes. I’d forgotten, myself, having graduated directly from milk to Richebourg and Fresca. Then I had a near-religious experience that began in Fortunoff’s gourmet food department, with a 59-cent bottle of the French mineral water Evian. What an extravagance, I thought.


“Let me indulge you,” my mother insisted.


I stowed my precious Evian in the fridge. Quel cachet it lent to that proletarian box. At thirst’s command I would pour myself a goblet of Evian, distilled essence of purity and health. I even downed The Pill with Evian. Unhappily, 1 pt. and 14 fl. oz. all too soon were gone. Unwilling to simply discard the status bottle, I went to the tap and filled it one-third full. That night I reached for my Evian. It was superb. It tasted exactly as I remembered it the night before. That’s how good our water is.


          So whatever it is – greed, aesthetics, pomp or sloth – how about a gracious glass of water? I promise never to abandon Fresca or the grape.