I’ve been listening to Michael Tilson Thomas playing the steamy, throbbing, super-lyrical, quintessentially Manhattanite Second Rhapsody of George Gershwin and it reminded me of my first visit to New York, an eighteen-year-old hayseed from San Francisco about to taste his first Supreme of Chicken ‘neath the memorabilia at Sardi’s, with South Pacific playing approximately across the street (“Who can explain eet?” sang the dapper Ezio Pinza, “who can tell you whyeee?”), the orchestra conducted by a Broadway maestro wearing, much to my distaste, a gray tux rather than the black or white jacket that would have been suitable.
The chicken at Sardi’s was true to its period (1949) and very tasty: the capacious sauce, probably a cream/egg yolk thing, was the color of a Van Gogh haystack and had the texture of a good country gravy, the concept of which had been imported from plantation to asphalt jungle. But I wasn’t exactly in the jungle. In an effort, I suppose, to preserve a lone traveler’s virginity, my father had booked me in with a family he knew that happened to live in a safely Onassian precinct, Fifth Avenue across from the Met museum. I had what I suspect was the room for maid no. 2. Striding into lotus land from 1010 in my Brooks Bros. seersucker suit, I observed that Manhattan in August was 1) tropical, 2) elegant: virtually the entire air-conditioned population seemed to be clothes horses, hurried dudes in tattersall vests and such, 3) not as blessed with airspace as my beloved hometown.
I prowled around panelled basement emporiettes specializing in imported classical records, toured the lobbies of proper midtown hotels with my trust-fund aunt who loved to travel from one palm or fountain-attended banquette to the next, watching people and managing her widowhood, and I continued to eat, mostly well: some sort of “sous cloche” fowl in a spiffy sour cream sauce at a boîte on East 53rd called Michel’s, and a reasonably good Châteaubriand bouquetière at a big brasserie of a place down in Chelsea called Cavanaugh’s — “Opinion of all regulars is that no better food and drinks could be imagined,” reports the urbane Lawton Mackall in his Knife and Fork in New York.
Meanwhile the humidity was wilting my seersucker, no matter how Brooks Brothery, into something like Ethiopian injera. But onward! There were more shows to see, Kiss Me, Kate with Cole Porter’s delightful petty thievery from Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Guys and Dolls with the original pin-striped cast, and a wunderbar lost revue named Lend an Ear. When I ran out of shows I headed out of peacock city on the New York Central’s Cornelius Vanderbilt, observing that the biscuits in the diner were tougher than they should have been on an “extra fare” train. Heavens, I was morphing into a restaurant critic.