Less than two months into the life of The Glenwood Restaurant (and less than four years into the life of The Glenwood Bakery) it is high time to look at the nature of what makes for very old, near historic, eating places. You may laugh, dear Patron, but a wise and charming little blonde girl once said to her bitter and twisted, wine swilling father, who was sneering at a building of 100 years being called ‘old’: ‘Buildings first have to be a 100 years old to get to a 1000’.
But this missive is not about buildings. It is about establishments. In particular eating establishments. Places where people have chosen to eat and drink for, sometimes, more than a hundred years. Checchino dal 1887, in Rome is one. El-Fishawi in Cairo, a café more than 250 years old, is another. The Russian Tea Room, in New York, now 89 years old, has never been a place which bows to the pressures of the New York reverie of haute design. Its focus is elsewhere.
Even though visceral atmosphere and visual aesthetics are extremely important for enduring patronage and, consequently, longevity, the eating and drinking places which live for a very long time are hardly ever trend oracles. Trend oracles, even when extremely beautiful and elegant, if also faddish, are expected to be fast paced and ever changing. They themselves create such expectations. After all, the people who are expected to love them are similarly fast changing; wall paper might be the final word on decorating this season, but it could also be the death of a restaurateur the next. Such eating houses’ lives are accelerated and their deaths always imminent. This, of course, has a beauty of its own. But the truly creative genius of, for instance, elBulli and others like it, in both food and restaurant design, is not sustainable.
Sukiyabashi Jiro, still in its first generation, is patently not about faddish trend. If it ceases to exist it will not be because sushi is out of fashion or because people have become aesthetically inured to its interior. It will not be because what it costs to make even Jiro’s sushi is financial lunacy. And this is because Jiro’s sushi is made by a small group of people who do so with near monastic dedication. The luxury experienced is contained in the freshness of the fish and silkiness of the rice, the skill of the knife work and the delicacy of the pickles. For the cooks at Jiro, feeding people is about incremental steps towards perfection, in a very narrow and very old tradition. If Sukiyabashi Jiro ceases to exist it will be because the people who work there have decided to extinguish it. And this, ironically, is a credit to its patrons; people who understand fully what it takes to labour at that sort of food, and who will continue to eat there whilst someone is willing to do that sort of work.
It would, however, be a mistake to read this letter as a dismissal of haute design. This it is, by no means. There can be no greater disciples of the pursuit of beauty; higher, faddish and other. Nor is the claim that all old eating places produce excellent food. This is simply an attempt to isolate what it is that hardly ever enables the longevity of eating places; it is certainly not novel concepts, food wise, nor slavish reverie of transient visual aesthetics.