Suddenly Seymour Disappeared
Each month, Tasting Table will take a deep dive into a food story with which we're obsessed. In our first installment, we're chasing the ghost of our editor in chief's favorite New York City restaurant critic, Seymour Britchky.
You never dine alone in New York. There may be a single place setting, one napkin, a solitary fork trailing through the rustic berry crumble, but there is always a ghost next to you at the table. It's a small city of infinite souls, constantly writing, erasing and rescribbling its history on top of itself.
As you take a bite of grass-fed steak tartare, you think to yourself, Didn't this restaurant used to be called something else? I think that's the chef who worked downtown at . . . where was that? I could have sworn this used to be the bar where . . . remember? Remember?
The details fade. The addresses change. The names get hazy. For two all-too-brief decades, self-appointed restaurant critic Seymour Britchky made it his mission to capture it all in shockingly astute, hilarious, quotable prose before disappearing in his own right to become one of the city's best-fed (and, essentially, forgotten) ghosts.
Seymour Britchky: Given its gruff, distinctive ring, you might think it's a name all but impossible to forget. Ardes Quinn, the owner of his favorite later-in-life restaurant haunt, Café Loup, says she used to tell him that with a handle like that, he was fundamentally predisposed to be a curmudgeon—which by all accounts he was, both in person and print—but given how the food landscape has so vastly expanded, it's both surprising and unfortunate that precious few people remember his name now, only 11 years after his death.
Those who do can quote him chapter and verse (Tribeca restaurateur Drew Nieporent recalls, "For me to remember the line about the house wine being Alka-Seltzer, there's nothing like that craft."). When food obsessives cite their heroes, they tend to invoke a particular canon: MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl for their heady, evocative prose; Gael Greene for her saucy wit; R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin for their bonhomous wanderings; Anthony Bourdain for his honed and hungry swagger; Jonathan Gold, because he is Jonathan freaking Gold. Britchky's people are in it for his acid tongue and gimlet eye—the way he etched a menu, a moment, a space, a feeling, an era in dining when not every plate was Instagram-ready, every interaction Yelp-able to the world. For him, every meal was personal, every review a master class in the art of food writing.
The way Britchky got started is remarkably low key by today's standards: In 1971, when the then 41-year-old marketing executive decided to enter the restaurant-reviewing game, he did not do a crash course in food writing at The New School or become Twitter BFFs with his favorite taco truck owner. As his widow, photographer Nancy Crampton, said in an e-mail a few years back, he considered his primary qualification as a restaurant critic simply to be that he ate three meals a day, every day of his life, and it pleased him to do so. It was his passion, and he paid for it.
Britchky set up shop as the publisher of a monthly printed newsletter, "The Restaurant Reporter," which was compiled by HarperCollins into a bound volume called The Restaurants of New York in 1974. From 1976 (when Britchky shuttered "The Restaurant Reporter") to 1983, Random House took over publishing duties, and from 1984 to the final edition in 1991, the book found a home at Simon & Schuster. There were 16 volumes in all—as well as a newly renamed "Seymour Britchky's Restaurant Letter," which he sold via subscription for $15 a year for 12 monthly issues, $25 for two years in 1982, which ratcheted up to a whopping $35 annually by the time it ceased in 1991.
In addition to the pithy prose portraits of restaurants (often at a length almost unthinkable by today's mobile-centric readership), Britchky's reviews took pains to ensure their readers never had to experience a bad meal. He grouped restaurants in one section of the index by stars, four to one, then the even-lower "Acceptable" to "Unacceptable." He calculated costs from "Inexpensive" ($25 or less for dinner for two, beverages, tax and tip in 1976, and in 1990, that covered a three-course dinner for one, coffee, no tax or tip) to "Very Expensive" (1976: over $50, 1990: over $45). Another staple: "Ten Sensible Rules About Going to, Eating in, Paying at, and Departing from New York Restaurants" (No. 10, "Departure: Leave when you are good and ready. It is your right to eat at your own pace, including lingering over a second cup of coffee. Enjoy possession of a table that others are waiting in line for. Later they will.").
An exerpt from Britchky's 1976 book
Though some reviews were repeated from book to book—and picked up in varying forms in New York Magazine and other publications—Britchky made it his business to visit and revisit restaurants, anonymously and on his own dime (a rarity today), to chronicle the shifts and moods in service, chefs, menu and decor. And his choices weren't necessarily the same venues that the mainstream critics were covering—a welcome shift, even for industry insiders. Food writer Regina Schrambling worked at The New York Times and admired the work of the paper's critics, Mimi Sheraton and Bryan Miller, but truly relished Britchky's outsider perspective.
"It was almost like he was in an alternate universe, running on a road alongside the interstate. The places he was writing about were removed from what they were writing about, which was good," Schrambling said. "His world was not hanging out with chefs like writers do today. He just did his own thing. He said what he wanted. He did what he wanted. It was right for the period, and it was a different way of looking at New York."
Britchky noted in the foreword of the 1976 edition, "The current revision of The Restaurants of New York is appearing a scant two years after publication of the first edition. This may seem like a hasty return to market for a New York restaurant guide (to judge by competitors' sluggish standards), but like the city itself, the restaurant scene is being constantly transformed: here the overnight disappearance of what looked like an indestructible institution, there the evaporation of a predictably short-lived fly-by-night."
He continues, "Last year's glistening new eatery is soon tarnished and no longer merits so much as the space required to be literally bored with it; less frequently, restaurants mature, calling for revised words of praise or of higher praise; and, as ever, entrepreneurial optimists, with a fresh new gimmick or a variation on an old one, throw open just-painted doors to fresh linen, new broadloom and trite hopes."
Two years may seem positively glacial in an era when a chef's new plating technique can be broadcast to the slavering masses in mere milliseconds. But the obsession with what's shiny and new certainly hasn't changed, and for the modern-day reader, his reviews offer a rare time-lapse view of the evolution of restaurants that are still around today.
Case in point: La Grenouille, which opened in 1962 and was reviewed—enthusiastically, even—by a trio of Eater critics last year. Britchky awarded its haute, if hidebound, French cuisine a rare four-star rave in the 1976 volume, despite a few small dings for the waitstaff: "The service here is excellent, but not invariably available; on occasion, a bit of arm waving is necessary to get a waiter's or captain's attention. The tables are close together by the standards of any restaurant—some are actually inaccessible to serving carts—and by this time management ought to have found larger quarters or sacrificed a couple of tables for the comfort of the customers who must shell out the proverbial arm and leg to obtain what is, admittedly, some of the best food available in this country." (Which in 2015 may still be par for the course Downtown, in Williamsburg, Bushwick . . .)
By 1984, the bloom was off the rose. "It is as if your lover does not love you anymore. He/she still says the right things, does the right things. But these utterances and these acts, clearly, are no longer the boundless fruitfulness of a full heart. Rather, they are the same old fruit, sometimes even spotted. Time to move on. You can still be friends, of course, but do not come to La Grenouille expecting to find yourself utterly won over the way you used to be. Which is too bad, for the place still leads you on so, pretty as ever, sparkles at you the way it always did." Two stars.
And by 1990, the two stars remained, but Britchky seemed to have taken a long view of La Grenouille's place in New York's restaurant firmament. "Surely no one any longer takes The Frog as an exponent of French cookery. But in its time, it was a seriously intended restaurant—and, at the same time, a club for the rich and chic (with, of course, accommodations for plebes who wished to come in and gawk). Though some are persuaded that it continues as one or both, all that really remains of the restaurant's heyday is its special look, albeit that alone may well justify adding to that list of experiences—those you plan to have only in order not to have lived without them—one dinner at La Grenouille."
It's that note of genuine regret and circumspect that elevated Britchky from a talented snarkmeister or restaurant fanboy (chefs were rarely cited by name in his reviews) to a truly respected food writer of his era. He may have possessed a sharp tooth, but he wished to sink it into something worthy and save his readers the indignity and insult of a wasted meal.
"He was never mean-spirited," Nieporent recalls. "Hell of a curmudgeon, always looked pissed off, never happy, he just couldn't help himself. But never mean for the sake of it." He remembers the "leprechaun"-ish critic perched on the banquette at the four-year-old Montrachet, attempting to duck notice while Nieporent did his best to keep up his end of the charade.
"There were a few things I wanted him to know, but I couldn't tell him, so I told the next table. Loudly. There weren't a lot of big critics around at the time, and diners paid a lot of attention to him, so we had to care. Plus, he was just such a terrific writer. There was Larry David-level material in there. He saw things that no one else saw."
Britchky, so far as Nieporent could tell, was doing his best to remain in a peevish mood (again, by all accounts, his natural state), and somehow managed to spare a thoughtful three stars for Montrachet, based largely on the tour de force cooking—definitely not the decor. ("Nothing terribly wrong with it, you understand . . . Montrachet, too bad, is the downtown style, but little else.)
This peevishness may have put Britchky at odds with chefs, restaurateurs and, occasionally, the human race, but it's also what made him such a trusted source of information for New York food lovers hungry for worthwhile experiences. Secondhand copies of his books from Amazon, eBay and used bookstores are riddled with pen slashes, margin notes and check marks from die-hard restaurant-goers who used Britchky's words as a beacon.
Schrambling is one of them: "Someone once said people will always pay for a point of view. He had a point of view. You subscribed to his newsletter—which is crazy to think about today, because we expect everything for free—but we subscribed, because we already got The New York Times and read Gael Greene in New York Magazine, and he just spoke to us."
She continues, "The first fancy restaurant Bob [Schrambling's partner] and I ever ate in when we moved to New York was thanks to Britchky. Le Lavandou on 61st Street. I just reread the review trying to remember what made me want to go there, and it was a part at the end where he says the waiter explains that it's named after a town in Provence where the chef took his holidays when he was a 'leetle keed.' That was enough to convince me to go to a place that was more money than we'd ever spent on a restaurant: $125 in 1982. It was magical, and the way he wrote that review, you just knew it would be. No one else wrote like that."
Now more than ever, Schrambling wishes writers would. "What he did was so pared down. You got such a rich sense of the place in so few words. These days I'll read a review, and I'm just reading and reading and reading and, oh, my god, I'm just trudging through this. You don't have to tell us about every forkful, and you don't pull back enough to give us a sense of a place."
"In one mouthful, he gave everything you needed to know about this restaurant. Everybody today wants to tell you everything. Everyone is straining for references and allusions, and it's a great thing to be able to pick up a 35-year-old book and not be told who Nickelback is."
In 1991, Britchky's thoughtful restaurant review inkwell ran dry. The newsletter ceased publication, and he stopped contributing to New York Magazine as he began work on The Lutèce Cookbook with his friend, chef André Soltner. (Lutèce, for the record, was the only restaurant to receive four stars in every edition of the guide, and Soltner was one of two chefs to attend Britchky's memorial service, along with Chanterelle's David Waltuck.)
Though the 300-plus recipe volume stands as a respectful monument to a great chef's legacy, Britchky's own star began to wane—and it's not clear why. Perhaps the book had pulled him away from new tables for too long. By the time Lutèce was published in 1995, instant Internet dispatches may have made a printed newsletter seem Jurassic. Without an online archive, Britchky's words were trapped on the bound, printed pages, becoming less and less relevant every day. And maybe after all those years of voracious dining, he just wasn't hungry anymore.
Nieporent certainly thinks that Britchky earned his place in the pantheon of classic food writers, but he knows that sometimes these things just aren't destined to be. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of people who do good work and it never resonates past their death. Once they go, it evaporates."
As the restaurant universe swirled and expanded at light speed in the late 90s and early 2000s, the once-prolific Britchky's orbit compressed down to the boundaries of the West Village. He often trotted a path from his apartment to his beloved Café Loup five nights a week—occasionally, with his wife, but more often alone—content as he could be to knock back his evenings in the company of the bar's habitués.
"He called everybody 'baby,'" Quinn, who's worked at or owned the restaurant for 38 years now (her now-retired husband, Lloyd, was the chef), recalls. "It was mostly because he couldn't remember their names." But he's remembered at Café Loup, and fondly by Quinn, whose face lit up from the eyes outward when she was asked if she knew him.
"He was part of our family and, hey, someone has to put the funk in dysfunctional. Yes, he was a curmudgeon, but it wasn't that hard to de-crank him. Just put a hand on his shoulder and sigh, 'Oh, Seymour.' Then you'd see the Seymour I knew and everyone here loved. He was the salt of the earth and utterly delicious."
Britchky remained a Loup regular until the end, following along with the restaurant's move down 13th street to its current location. He was fixed permanently in his place at the bar in an essay by Christopher Hitchens and a poem by Julie Bolt (who lived upstairs from Britchky as a child) called "Appetite of a Dead Connoisseur." (It reads, in part, "There's no proof of existence, only footprints / From Mojave to Café Loup on West 13th / Where I just passed, and Seymour Britchky, / Or whatever his name was, often drank alone.") The critic had spent decades chasing his next meal, his next memory, and he was finally ready to take his place in the tableau he'd penned in a review more than a decade and a half before:
"By night, the Café is quite another thing, a little side-street neighborhood restaurant, the more-or-less private repair of locals who use it for private purposes. NYU professors, for example, bring their most beautiful students here to correct their poems. The place is also taken by many as just the spot for starting, ending or reviewing at midpoint, a romance. Intense conversation à deux—in which neither combatant removes his eyes from his opponent from cocktails through too many brandies—is part of the restaurant's constant theater."
The curtain went down on Britchky's tenure at Loup on June 19, 2004. Quinn got a phone call from some staffers who were at a party in Sag Harbor. Britchky had finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 73. Quinn told them she already knew. She'd felt it there at the bar. "He might be gone, but his ghost lives right here."
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