Virtual Gourmet

  January 8,  2006                                                        NEWSLETTER


1950's Select-O-Matic 100 Diner Booth Jukebox

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In This Issue

In Counters  by John Mariani

The Ultimate Odd Couple: Chocolate and Switzerland by Denise Harrigan

NEW YORK CORNER: HQ by John Mariani


In Counters!
by John Mariani

   aaaaqFor those who remember sitting at the counter at Howard Johnson’s or Woolworths back in the 1950s and paying 15 cents for ice cream and 25 cents for a burger, or maybe grabbing a counter seat at New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar and ordering a mess of bivalves and a bowl of steaming chowder, the idea that in 2004 you will pay $350 (plus wine, tax and 18% service charge!) to claim one of the twelve stools at the counter of the Japanese sushi restaurant Masa (10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-9800; click here) in NYC’s Time-Warner Center may come as an astonishment. Somehow, I think something has been lost in translation.

The first Howard Johnson's, opened  in Wollaston, Massachusetts, in 1925

Lunch counters have been part of American history ever since they began competing with the huge, raucous eating houses and saloons in the late Nineteenth century.   The first roadside eatery was the horsedrawn Pioneer Lunchqqq Wagon in Providence, RI, in 1872, and by 1889 entrepreneur Thomas H. Buckley of the New England Lunch Wagon Co.  had 275 wagons in the U.S.  “Diners,” built only to look like railroad dining cars, were the brainstorm of Patrick J. (Pop) Tierney of New Rochelle, NY, who became a millionaire with the idea. By the 1930s streamlined diners had become a major part of American food culture, with more than 6,700 of them across the land by the 1940s. The first soda fountain behind a counter was at Philadelphia's Broad Street Pharmacy in 1903, and soon the soda jerk was born.  At Schrafft's, which Frank G. Shattuck opened in 1898 in New York's Theater District, later taking on William E. Schrafft as partner, sandwiches, salads, creamed chickens and light lunches were served with a certain daintiness unknown in the sit-'em-and-serve-'em lunchrooms. Schrafft's even used real silverware and the counters were polished mahogany.
    Lunch counters seem ubiquitous in American literature, from Steinbeck to Kerouac, and especially in Hemingway's short story “The Killers,” at a place called Henry’s lunchroom, e32made into a movie  with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in 1964.
     In the 1960s and ‘70s lunch counters were flash points of the Civil Rights Movement, after a “sit-in” of four black protesters occurred at a Woolworth’s counter in
Greensboro, NC, on February 1, 1960 (right), an event easily as important in the movement as Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus.  The irony of that sit-in was that the manager refused them service but, by not calling the police to remove them, inadvertently sparked further sit-ins around the South. And it was at the Florida Avenue Grill, a soul food restaurant in Washington, that many of the marches and tactics were planned by the leaders.
      By then fast food restaurants like McDonald's, without counters, encroached upon the business of the lunch counters, which set a slower pace and were always places a person could nurse a sorrow or celebrate a joy over a cup of coffee.  Short order cooks often worked in full view of the customer, and waitresses took on a sassy, sexy image indelible to this day. The California-style coffee shop thrived, however, in vast structures with space age designs, and by the 1970s diners were large run by Greek-Americans, who transformed the old streamlined look into Hellenic motifs.

       m,,kyuDiners had become icons, some nostalgic as blue collar symbols, as in the TV show "Alice," while the  lunch counter at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern (430 N. Michigan Avenue; 312-222-1525; click) became a tourist attraction after its replication in a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch (left) where all they served was “cheezborger-Pepsi.” The Billy Goat opened several outlets as a result. Another famous set was the backdrop for the coming-of-age film “Diner” (1982), shot on location at the Bendix Diner, built in 1947, in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ (below). wwwwwwwwwret
      Lunch counters and diners are not going away, thank God. Indeed, under the supervision of top chefs and restaurateurs, they have in many cases gone upscale. Their menus are a far cry from the days of franks and beans, tomato soup and Saltines, grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles, and chocolate sundaes served up by teenage soda jerks and short order cooks in paper hats.  These days the counter may well be where the real action is at a new restaurant, not just a holding area or quick fix alternative but as a full-scale option where the same menu and wine list applies. These new counter bars appeal to people who don’t necessarily want a three-course feast or don’t have the time for one, but want to eat very very well before or after the theater or movies.
     One of the first NYC restaurants in the post-Chock full o' Nuts period to sublimate the idea of eating at a counter was Gramercy Tavern (below; 42 East 20th Street; 212-477-0777; click here), 3jk;which offers delectables like rabbit rillettes with olive tapenade and onion focaccia; grilled scallops with roasted beets and red wine vinegar; smoked paprika-scented quail with polenta and a raisin-mustard sauce; and striped bass with farro, peas and mushrooms, with most items around $16.  The exec chef, Tom Colicchio, then went on to open Craft, a sit-down upscale steak and fish house, and its dauntingly popular next-door Craftbar (900 Broadway; 212-461-4300), a small, no-reservations eatery that epitomizes the new counter style of good eats.  Here the daily menu lists just six main courses—two meat, two fish, and two pastas—along with an array of appetizers like melted pecorino cheese, hazelnuts and peperoncini with acacia honey, and the now-signature ricotta meatballs. Mains include spaghetti alla carbonara, grilled trout, braised rabbit, and sausage and beans (a contemporary turn on franks-and-beans), with cheesecake and apple fritters to finish. Here you’d be hard put to spend more than $30 for a full meal.
      TV star chef Mario Batali, who runs the expensive Italian ristorante Babbo and the new Del Posto, has also opened Casa Mono (52 Irving Place; 212-253-2773), his take on a Spanish tapas bar, where you sit at a rubbed wood counter in front of a very open kitchen from which come sizzling platters of pumpkin-cheese croquettes, piquillo peppers stuffed with oxtail, quail with quince, and chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream, with a price range of $3-$15.  And at the pretty corner restaurant in Greenwich Village named Alfama (551 Hudson Street; 212-645-2500;, you can sit at the counter, nosh on wonderful Portuguese food like grilled octopus with black olives and sardines with potatoes and roasted peppers, drink Portuguese wines, and on Wednesdays, hear live fado—the soul music of Lisbon.
      All up and down the eastern coast the counter idea has caught on fast.  In Washington, DC, one of the hottest restaurant of the moment is Zaytinya (701 Ninth Street NW; 202-638-0800;  click), a huge Middle Eastern restaurant with a long, central communal table, and a counter area where you can order from an enormous array of mezes and main courses that range from babà ghannouge (purée of eggplant, tahini, lemon and garlic) and kolokothokeftedes (zucchini-cheese patties with yogurt sauce) to roast chicken with onions and walnuts in a pomegranate sauce and braised lamb with a pistachio-date pilaf. And you can do so while sipping a cocktail called “the Black Sea,” made from ouzo, Absolut vodka and Kahlua served in Turkish coffee in a martini glass.
       l;9Some of the best, most modern seafood cuisine in Beantown is now being served at Great Bay (500 Commonwealth Avenue; 617-933-5000; click), over near Fenway Park, and at its center is a counter space (left) that specializes in numerous ceviches. But you can also order anything from an extensive menu rich in possibilities like swordfish with bok choy, coriander and walnut oil; wild striped bass with grilled sweet corn and chanterelle mushrooms; roasted Scottish salmon with cipollini onions, tomato and green beans; and spicy crab tacos with mango and tomato salsas.
      These new counter restaurants are not just holding areas or singles’ meeting spots, nor are they places you just grab a sandwich or drop by for a quick lunch—although you could.  More than that, they are places that are expressive of a new way of fine dining without the hassle and expense, and if you meet someone interesting on the next stool over, all the better.

Lunch Counter Lingo
  '['The slang used by lunch counter workers is a patois all its own, and has been dutifully recorded for decades by dictionary makers and etymologists.  Here are some of the more interesting:

Adam and Eve on a raft: two poached eggs on toast.
Lord’s supper: Bread and water.
Baby: Milk.
Bossy in a bowl: Beef stew.
Burn it and let it swim: A float, made with chocolate syrup and ice cream on the top.
Cat’s eyes: Tapioca.
Hold the hail: No ice.
On wheels: a take-out order.
Vermont: Maple syrup.
Zeppelins in a fog: Sausages in mashed potatoes.

The Ultimate Odd Couple
Chocolate and Switzerland, Part One
by Denise Harrigan

    Under its kitschy canopy of plastic flowers, the overcrowded Café Schober (4 Napfgasse; 251-8060), 77in the Great Alcove dating to 1314,  is the antithesis of Zurich's usual discreet elegance. But I have come to this overcrowded café not for its ambiance but for its legendary  hot chocolate. The café itself dates to 1875 and has been host to everyone from James Joyce and Brahms to Herman Hesse and Lenin.
     I sit down, open the lacy menu, all in German, and recite  to the waiter "special-chocoladen, heiss, mit schlagrahm." It arrives in a simple white mug, sporting a cap of whipped cream that borders on butter (below).  Through pursed lips, I summon the satiny liquid that lies beneath. It leaves me groping for a new language: the term "chocolate" is too generic for the deep, dusky but perfectly balanced flavor washed in by this creamy tide. It is not bitter, but I taste no sugar. The flavor lingers, long after I swallow. I feel a triumphant sense of discovery, then a sudden kinship with the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Cortez, was introduced to chocolate by the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who was reputed to drink 50 cups a day.
    In fact, there is little resemblance between the gritty, bitter chocolate of  pre-Columbian times and the creamy beverage I sip--five centuries later--at Café Schober. My knowledge of chocolate turns out to be sketchy, despite my dedicated consumption of the product.  So I have reported to Zurich for a crash course in chocolate appreciation. Where better to be schooled in such weighty matters? Switzerland, just twice the size of New Jersey,  holds the current world records for chocolate production and per-capita  consumption.
     And who better to guide my studies than the chocolate masters at the Lindt & Sprungli,  whose global niche is in premium chocolate and whose  "mother ship"  is just outside Zurich in Kilchberg?  Until this trip, I had not stopped to ponder the odd pairing of snowcapped Switzerland and the tropical cocoa tree, which grows no more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator. But it makes perfect sense. Seventy percent of Switzerland is mountain-covered. Raw materials are in short supply.  But the Swiss themselves are industrious and inventive -- and not intimidated by the gnarly cocoa bean.
   Still, it took centuries for the Swiss and chocolate to find each other. When Spanish explorers first brought chocolate back to the Old World, it was reserved for Europe's elite. It was also a challenge to dissolve the gritty paste extracted from the cocoa bean. But gradually, the Europeans invented processes to  make chocolate more accessible and versatile. By the 18th century, there were machines to  extract the cocoa nibs from the shell, to grind them into cocoa paste and to make cocoa powder.
     d22 The credit for two major chocolate milestones goes to three Swiss inventors. In 1875, Daniel Peter made the first milk chocolate with condensed milk, invented by Henri Nestlé. In 1879, Rodolfe Lindt invented the revolutionary "conching process" that heats and agitates the chocolate mass until any grit gives way to silky smoothness. Conching, though time-consuming, gives premium chocolate a  melt-in-your-mouth texture. These advances have helped make the chocolate  industry  a cornerstone of the Swiss economy, which in turn has given Switzerland one of the world's highest standards of living  and a voracious appetite for premium chocolate. So while Switzerland exports the vast majority of its chocolate, the average Swiss citizen eats about 23 pounds of chocolate a year--twice the average American's appetite.
      On the topic of averages: in the past 10 years, the average life expectancy in Switzerland people has increased by three years. An avalanche of  new medical evidence shows that the flavenoids in dark chocolate lower blood pressure, among other health benefits. But the sensible Swiss need no excuse to enjoy chocolate: it's already synonymous with celebrations and inextricably woven into the culture and cuisine of Zurich -- as we'll see in my next installment.


90 Thompson Street

      tkIt's getting so you can't walk out the door of any NYC building without stumbling straight into a wonderful little American bistro run by a young, energetic chef who is mightily putting everything on the line to please people by serving the kind of food one can easily make a habit of. Places like Red Cat, (click name for a review) August , Hearth , PruneThe Spotted Pig, and Cookshop seem to be on every corner or middle of the block, and they all fill up with the locals and out-of-towners people who have come too.  They are antidotes to the  huge, impersonal, swarming and intense restaurants like Spice Market, Asia de Cuba, and Cipriani Downtown, where the bar seems to take precedence over food and service.
      The brand new HQ, which takes its name from the fact that the premises were once headquarters to a Revolutionary War general,  is  a marvelous addition to these lovable little restaurants, in this case mid-block in Soho.  Chef-owner Terrence Cave (right), formerly at
The Cub Room, Metrazur, and Blue Ribbon Brasserie, was born into a farm family and his father was a fine cook who always worked with the kind of local produce and seafood featured at HQ.8jj
     The room is cozy, unpretentious, and has wonderful antique silver-colored ceilings, along with chocolate brown banquettes, and a brushed metal bar.  The French doors are sure to be open wide in warmer weather.

     Cave's cooking is clearly built around the seasons and local markets, of which New York offers myriad possibilities, so if he's featuring his wonderful parsnip soup, with applewood-smoked bacon crisps, don't fail to have it. Quite in the same, though lustier, category of starters is his Niman Ranch seared pork belly, with caramelized Brussels sprouts, bacon, and applesauce; at $11a plate, order two and make a main course out of it!  Foie gras comes with glazed pineapple and toast riddled with cranberries and raisins.
     19For entrees I highly recommend his duck breast with parsnip purée, Brussels sprouts and a tart-sweet orange sauce. There was a good deal to love about seared yellowfin tuna--certainly an overused fish these days--but here treated to a brandade with garlic toast, shellfish broth and tomato confit, with all elements in perfect harmony. Hungry for chicken? Go for the simple roast chicken with mashed potatoes and glazed baby carrots--as satisfying as can be. So, too, a simple but very delicious boneless ribeye with spinach, tangy red onion marmalade, and a mild cognac-mustard sauce, was all it should be.
     Desserts are in the same homey yet refined style and also pay homage to the season's fruits. The wine list is small but carefully culled to reflect the tastes of the menu, with plenty of hearty reds and spicy whites from Provence and the Mediterranean, a good number of them well under $50, including a fine Leon Beyer 2003 Pinot Gris at $45 and a 2004 Waterbrook Mélange from Washington at $40.
      I love to see restaurants like HQ thrive, though with such rampant competition among other, similar American bistros, it gets tougher to choose among them all the time, a situation that is clearly the customer's gain and one that challenges chef-owners like Terrence Cave to give his all every night.


"A powerful mania descended on me a decade ago
when I first tasted duck confit."
--Michael Ruhlman, Charcuterie (2005).


After setting fire to his own apartment, a 68-year-old unemployed Japanese walked into a convenience store in Tokyo and threatened to kill himself unless served the finest sushi meal in Japan.  After an hour of eating bananas and vitamin supplements, he was taken into custody by the Tokyo police.


Re Mort Hochstein’s article “25 Italian Wines That Mattered” (December 25, 2005):
   ehh44444 "Although Piero Antinori usually gets the credit for launching the Super-Tuscan movement with his release of the first Tignanello, the 1971 (in 1978),  Piero's uncle, the late Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta, creator of Sassicaia, should actually receive the kudos for being first.  Sassicaia preceded Tignanello in distribution by at least 10 years; in 1968, it was commercially available in
Italy, and it definitely preceded Tignanello in the U.S. market, because I bought it in New York about 30 years ago. ). It is true, however, that Antinori distributed Sassicaia for his uncle abroad, including the U.S., and in that way helped to launch the Super-Tuscan movement with his uncle's wine, Sassicaia. After seeing the success of Sassicaia, Antinori launched his own Tignanello. Perhaps, Piero Antinori and della Rocchetta should share the honors, because the term "Super-Tuscan" wasn't really used, that I can re-call, until after Tignanello was released."--Edward V. McCarthy, North Baldwin, NY. (Edward McCarthy is the author of several books on wine including Italian Wine for Dummies.)


* Throughout January NYC’s Brasserie 8 ½ will feature “Springtime in Paris” with a $45 tasting menu and the chance for one lucky guest to win a 5-day, 4-night springtime getaway to Paris’ Hotel Meurice, with select meals, spa visits, and partial airfare ($1,000). Call 212-829-0812 or visit

* On Jan. 17 Chef Ed Brown of NYC's Sea Grill will host a 5-course Gala Black Truffle Dinner, at  $250 pp, with wine pairings and a gift bag with black truffle salt and a truffle slicer. . .  From Jan. 18-Feb 13 he will also offer a black truffle prix fixe menu for $90 pp (with wines $125). Call 212-332-7610 or visit


 * In Atlanta on Jan. 18 Executive Chefs Pano I. Karatassos of Kyma, Doug Turbush of Bluepointe, Piero Premoli of Pricci and Gary Donlick of Pano's & Paul's will celebrate Kyma’s fourth anniversary with a 5-course menu  at $65, with wines +$20.  Call 404-262-0702.

* On Jan. 20 The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa’s Santé will host a 5-course dinner by Chef Brown with winemaker Randall Watkins of Moon Mountain Vineyard. $99 pp. Call or visit

* Visitors to NYC's Chinatown during the 2006 Lunar New Year (Jan. 27-Feb. 14) will have an opportunity to sample a unique dish called “yee sang,” a raw fish salad, believed to have originated in Malaysia and Singapore, now spread to other Asian countries and to NYC’s Chinatown, where it will be served at:  Jaya Malaysian Restaurant, 212-219-3331;  New Malaysia Restaurant,  212-964-0284; Nyonya, 212-334-3669; Penang Restaurant, 212-431-8722; Singapore Café, 212-964-0003. In addition, bakeries and supermarkets will unveil other Lunar New Year specialties, like whole fish dishes symbolizing abundant prosperity to sweet desserts such as “xiu hou joes” or “crunchy smiley faces,” which symbolize long-lasting happiness. For more info go to

* On Feb. 1, Tristan in Charleston, SC, will  be overtaken for a tasting by the winery Mayor De Mugueloa, with vintner Juan Gutierrez. Executive Chef Ciarán Duffy will create special courses inspired by the regional foods of Spain. $75 pp. Call  843-534-2155 or visit

* The Island Hotel Newport BeachRomance Package” offers guests one night in luxurious accommodations, a champagne upon arrival, chilled seafood, gourmet meats with fruit, and an assortment of chocolates for those who wish to dine “in,” and complimentary valet parking.  Prices start at $475 per couple, available throughout  February.  Call 1-888-321-4752. . . From Feb. 10-19 Executive Chef Bill Bracken offers a Valentine’s Day tasting menu at Pavilion restaurant, at  $180 per couple.


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2006