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A Study in Contrasts

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Last weekend, we were in New York City—and, being little more than peripatetic gullets, we wanted to experience some of the unique dining opportunities Gastropolis had to offer. Such visits always remind me of ravening wolves descending upon a village.
On Saturday night, we went to Eataly, the rightfully ballyhooed emporium of Italian gourmandise. Even before opening the door, it was obvious that every cubic inch of that palace of the palate was filled with people—an awe-stricken gawk-jawed Eatalian swarm. There was certainly much to inspire their awe: shelf after never-ending shelf of exquisite comestibles; display cases filled with meats, fish, cheeses, pastries, and breads—of a fineness never to be seen in suburban supermarkets; ample opportunities to sample the output of several kitchens (assuming—admittedly a rather large assumption—that one could find an empty seat to occupy); books; cleanly-designed cookware; perfect fruits and vegetables; rare olive oils and ancient vinegars; pasta in shapes and sizes to dazzle the imagination; plus souvenirs to prove that one has made it to the promised land. The bounty—displayed in spanking new splendor, seemed never-ending. 
At our table, the food and service were faultless. That itself was a managerial miracle, considering the frantic ambiance of the place—an odd amalgamation of first day of vacation season at Disneyworld, the seventh game of a subway World Series, and the tossing of the first Christian to the lions at the Coliseum.
The next morning, our appetires renewed, we schlepped down to Houston Street, for a late brunch at a New York landmark. For those who’ve never been to Yonah Schimmel, the place is tiny (twenty people would probably over-crowd the place… and would barely leave room for a few of their colossal knishes). I suspect they’ve never changed their recipes for egg creams, knishes, half-sours, and coleslaw—even slightly—in over a century. In place of the polished faux rusticity of Eataly, Yonah Schimmel sports fifty-year old formica, a thick coat of red enamel that tried (and failed) to rejuvenate the even older battered chair-rails, and several generations’ of faded celebrity photos and autographs, valentines from notable noshers of the past.

Restaurants like Yonah Schimmel are fast-disappearing, victims of rising rents, changing demographics, real estate prices, and fickle tastes. They’re being replaced by high-rise condos and the mega-glitz of places like Eataly. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed eating at both places. However, while I felt restored (not to mention stuffed) on Houston Street, Eataly’s unabashed excess left me with a kind of metaphorical emptiness, a slight tristesse of embarrassment. Perhaps that was not a bad thing; after so much self-indulgence, a little class-conscious guilt might have been just the right digestif.


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