When it comes to food, the tried and tested is often the best. Credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

April 27, 2020   4 mins

Per Se, one of New York City’s most admired restaurants, serves a tasting menu which is an act of emotional control from a chef (Thomas Keller) in which the diner, masochistically, submits. High above Columbus Circle, in a hushed and ugly dining room, you eat, for an absurd amount of money, tiny, painted meals delivered by rude waiters, who seek obeisance to the cult.

When I reviewed it in 2015, I thought it was a hoax on the credulous. It was not, for me, food, for it has no hint of generosity. It was, rather, anti-food, for people who think food, by itself, is too prosaic. They must have something new; something that is denied to others. The result was both gruesome and a fair revenge.

I thought of Per Se when reading William Sitwell’s The Restaurant: A History of Eating Out. It is, by its nature, incomplete. Most meals are lost to history, for nothing is more transient than food. Even so, it is a curious history of our relationship with eating houses from Pompeii, whose restaurants were preserved, to today, when they are all closed, so it reads like an acting obituary: who knows what will survive? On the wall of a bar in Pompeii it read: “For one [coin] you can drink wine / For two you can drink the best / For four you can drink Falernian [the wine of Mount Falernus]”. Who cannot identify with that?

This book is full of humanising stories. Charles II, for instance, was emotionally dependent on figs. When the Ottoman Empire forbade their export, he begged the sultan to make an exception, which was granted, and two ship loads arrived per year. Read that, and you do not see a king. You see a child.

Per Se, for most of the narrative, was a nightmare long in the future. Rather, there is pleasure. I could smell the street food of the Middle East – long my favourite food — through the pen of the 14th century north African Ibn Battuta who, during what Sitwell calls a 32 year-long “gap year”— often his style fails him — eats fried rice and chicken in what is now Iran. It summoned my favourite restaurant, which is a nameless hole in the wall near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, where Al-Wad Street meets Beit Habad Street, slightly to the right. (I tell you this because I want you to find it.)

Here a man who has probably never heard of Thomas Keller, who could not even be bothered to name his eating house, served falafel, which he fried in front of my eyes, with pitta bread and French fries. Then I wandered through the souk with my falafel sandwich. I have been a restaurant critic for 10 years, and this is the one I remember. He pretends to remember me too, even if I go only once a decade, because he is a gifted restaurateur; as gifted, in his way, as the Roux Brothers. Or likely more gifted.

Political revolution created restaurants, which caused rulers to fear them. Charles II resented coffee houses, and their ability to create dissent almost as much as he loved figs. I could have done without Sitwell writing that the Jacob the Jew, a coffee house owner in Oxford, followed the money to London. I am sure it was unconscious, but I was no longer hungry when I read it.

The three great engines of the modern restaurant were the Reformation, during which the religious houses, which fed people out of cynicism or charity, closed; the French Revolution, which put the chefs to the aristocrats out of work; and migration. One French chef went to Robespierre to complain — he had bullied kitchen staff too long, he thought he could bully Robespierre — and lost his head. The others created the great early restaurants of France and, with it, the ill-starred — for me, but I like food from holes in walls — decree that French food, and later all food — if prepared for the very rich — is art. I admire it for its ambition, and I know what it costs in every sense. But I don’t want to eat art. It cannot love you.

The most interesting parts of Sitwell’s history are the modern, for these are the restaurants I eat and write in, and they express less a love of what tastes good — nothing in good food is new, as Ibn Battuta says, nothing — than the neuroticism of the people who eat in them. These restaurants are fascinating, but I doubt their clients would recognise Ibn Battuta’s greed for fried chicken or Charles II’s hunger for figs. At El Bulli or Osteria Francescana or Per Se, the food is trivial and boastful; it bespeaks vanity, not greed. But restaurants are as personal as lovers. You want what you want, and they will pick out your sins for you.

But first – what to admire? The obsession of the great chef: Marie-Antoine Carême, who codified “gastronomy” and was killed by his poorly ventilated kitchen. He was, a poet wrote, “burnt out by the flame of genius, and the charcoal of the roasting spit”. Or the Roux Brothers who trained in private kitchens and created the first great French restaurant in London — Le Gavroche — and silenced those, like Bernard Levin, who called post-war English food a disgrace. (It was, Sitwell noted, no better in the Middle Ages.) A Roux wife drove each week to France for chickens because English chickens were inferior.

It’s both truism and metaphor: chefs burn out. Marco Pierre White, the first British chef to win three Michelin stars, re-established Wheeler’s a few years ago. I went to eat the cauliflower risotto. I shouldn’t have. On the evidence of Wheeler’s, White no longer cares about food. He gave up; and he knew he did. He returned his stars.

He was lucky.

A whole chapter is given to the tragedy of Bernard Loiseau, a talented French chef who heard rumours in 2003 that he would lose his third Michelin star.

It is impossible to study modern restaurants and not hate this silly guidebook — a sort of Vogue for butter — which exists to sell tyres; and who can eat a tyre? Loiseau put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. That is where it leads you, this snobbery that kills. It tells how far food has come from its purpose, but what else would happen in a milieu sliding, in its pomposity, to decay?

What now, with Covid-19? I want to believe that, in our fear, we will, when it is over, turn to what is close and kind: the excellent neighbourhood restaurant. I want to believe we will reject the vanity of Per Se and the mulch of KFC, and eat from our favourite holes in the walls, from people who remember us, or pretend to. But it is unlikely: it is usually the behemoths that survive.  When you next eat out, go to the neighbourhood restaurant. You need it, and you will mourn it when it has gone.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.