Monday, September 7, 2009

Last Chances

This holiday weekend I found myself knocked out with a cold and wasn't up for much beyond a movie and a good read. The movie I chose, Last Chance Harvey, and the novel I was finishing, That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo, turned out to have a lot in common.

Both protaganists are men of a certain age, and they have reached a time of reckoning. It sneaks up on them. Both have complicated relationships with the women in their lives. For Harvey Shine, played by Dustin Hoffman, it's his daughter he doesn't quite know how to relate to. For Jack Griffin in Russo's novel, his mother makes his life difficult, both when she's alive and even once she's not.

Hoffman's Harvey has had opportunities to succeed in life, yet he seems to always be getting in his own way. He arrives in London for the wedding of his daughter, Susan, and turns up at the rehearsal dinner in the wrong suit and spends much of the evening trying in vain to salvage a project at work, where's he's been told he's at the end of the line. The reunion between he and Susan is touching but painful--they both love each other and want desperately to reconnect but there is so much distance between them that it's almost impossible. When Harvey sees his former wife and her new husband acting as a family unit with Susan and her husband to be, he feels as though he has no business being there at all. The parallel plot of the life of Kate Walker--played by Emma Thompson--intersects with Harvey's at various points in the film, and finally they converse at length and find themselves changed. Kate helps Harvey to finally take action to repair his bond with his daughter, and in turn he helps her open herself up to possibility again, even if he falters at some points. Kate sums up her life and her reaction to him when she says, "It's just that I'm so accustomed to disappointment. I guess I'm angry with you for trying to take that away from me."

As for Jack Griffin, his story begins and ends with weddings, with the year between them almost doing him in. As he returns to Cape Cod, he is flooded with memories of visiting there each summer with his parents, who are the sort of people who should have never had a child. His father is an emotional teenager who takes out his rage at his overbearing, narcissistic wife by becoming a serial adulterer. While it hurts her, she gets even, and then some. Young Jack is the real casualty in this drama. Although he outwardly deals with his mother with humor and perspective and even manages to intellectualize the most painful parts of his childhood, when his father dies he loses his bearings. His wife, Joy, is from the opposite kind of family: he is an only child, while she one of five; his parents are liberal academics who move around constantly, while hers are bedrock Republicans who live in a gated community. He is attracted to her stability, but eventually resents her for what he perceives as a fixed view of the way their lives should be lived, and things unravel quickly.

Both Jack and Harvey are outsiders. We don't know exactly why Harvey is so, although it's painfully clear from the first scene that he is always a beat off, and his spotty career as a studio musician serves as a perfect metaphor. As for Jack, he is a bit player in the grander story of his parents' marriage, which for all its flaws is still the most important narrative in both of their lives, far exceeding any interest they have in their son. Both protaganists spend a tremendous amount of time inside their own heads, and it's not until they turn outwards that either of them have any hope of finding their way. Both stories are difficult to experience, yet in the end they demonstrate we can all find our way back to what matters if we are brave enough to try.

Bar Food

In this month's issue of Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten, the magazine's food editor, writes about the virtues of eating at a bar. Not a beer and a shot bar, but at the bars in some of the best restaurants in New York. Although Steingarten professes to have disliked bars in the past (as a result, I find it difficult to take him seriously as a journalist of any sort, but he does write awfully well about food) he decided to tackle the project in the spirit of the economic moment, although eating upscale food and washing it down with single-malt scotch in Manhattan restaurants isn't exactly what most of us call slumming.

In the years since I started traveling for business on my own, I have become a great fan of eating at the bar. Before this, I don't suppose I had ever been in a bar all by myself, but I wasn't going to fritter away an evening in a new city with room service. Sitting at the bar made me feel less conspicuous than at a table alone, and usually bartenders are interesting and like talking to patrons. I've also learned since that it's a great way to eat at places where reservations are hard to come by. So here are a few of my favorites.

Bistrot Zinc, Chicago. This is a lovely little spot on State Street just far enough from the tourist and shopping area known as the Miracle Mile. On the July day I visited, the front windows had been thrown open and there was a perfect breeze. I arrived after the lunch rush and a long morning of walking the city. I'd bought something to read at the bookstore across the street, and took up a stool at the very pretty bar, covered in decorative tin. I enjoyed a glass of Sancerre and a sandwich of sliced leg of lamb with some lovely aioli, homemade mayonaise, and listened to bits of conversation that floated my way while I read. The bartender kept a respectful distance, as I think it was clear I was enjoying my reprieve from the rush of a Saturday in a big city.

Sapristi, Fort Worth. This is a neighborhood spot in a strip mall that between the food, decor and staff manages to conjure up Northern France. The space has expanded in the past couple of years, but before that it was difficult to get a table on a weekend evening, so I wound up sitting there more than a couple of times. (Note to single women: the dates who went there with me always seemed impressed that I wanted to sit at the bar. I think they took it as a mark of a low-maintenance woman.) I still often will grab a stool if I am only with one friend, because the full menu is available--even though I always have the same thing, the yellow mussels--and because the staff is friendly and very knowledgable about the excellent wine list. Full disclosure: John, the sommolier, dates a good friend of mine. But even before I knew him, I always enjoyed what he recommended and liked his unpretentious manner.

Lupa, Soho, New York. On my first visit, I was with my friend Julia, and we had a marvelous lunch that more than put back all of the calories we'd burned off walking in Soho, which is one of my all-time happy places. The wine recommended by the fashionably rumpled waiter with the British accent (who managed to make us feel like he would have been even more condescending had we not been so charming and attractive, quite a gift I must say) was outstanding, and the veal and wilted greens I had were simple and perfect. On my next visit I was in town to work, squeezing in a late lunch before running back to prepare for an event later that night. I sat at the bar that day and ate and drank just as well, and also got to enjoy conversation with the young woman behind the bar, who didn't make me weak at the knees but was friendly and highly enthusiastic about the menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner.

The Setai, South Beach, Miami. This hotel is a restored Art Deco building on Collins Avenue and looks unassuming from the outside. It was the tiny plaque that designates it as one of the "Great Hotels of the World" that drew my friend Tammy and I in out of a rainstorm one afternoon. One look at the hushed, dark, Japanese style lobby and bar and we vowed to come back before dinner that night. We ended up eating some appetizers at the bar, where the chisel-featured bartender from Rhode Island told us that rooms start at $550 a night, and that for those of us who don't need complete privacy the bar is the best part of the place. We got out of there for thirty bucks, but felt like we'd had an authentic look into how The Beautiful People live when they visit South Beach.

Lonesome Dove, Fort Worth. Again, this is in my hometown, but it is also home to Chef Tim Love, whose celebrity is well-justified. It is far and away my favorite place to eat here, although the cost and half-hour drive mean I only get there once or twice a year. It's always hard to get a table without a reservation, and I have found that eating at the bar with a friend or two means not only getting to eat whatever is on the menu--try the kangaroo nachos and the wild rabbit--but also a great conversation with patrons from out of town. The Stockyards is a destination, and Lonesome Dove is where people who know about really amazing, five-star food in a relaxed setting. The bar is dark and rustic while still elegant, and the cowboys in starched shirts and pressed Wranglers usually have some oil in their backyards if they can afford it. It's Cowtown perfection.