Saturday, August 16, 2008

Secret Restaurants

Originally printed in The Blue and White, Volume XIII, Number III under the title "If These Walls Could Sauté."

Peering through the windows, we saw antlers, a boar's head, and a white goose in mid-flight jutting from the walls. Every table in the dimly lit room was packed with diners. There was no sign, no address, and no entrance. We had been strolling west on Rivington and, nearing Bowery, had been intrigued by the name of a side street—Freeman Alley, as a high-hanging sign informed us—that we'd never seen before. We followed it to its end, but there was no way into the restaurant. We set out from the alley and walked around the block to what I presumed to be the front door. We entered. It was a different restaurant.

Only a few months later, poking around online, would I discover what we had missed. The taxidermy-fetishizing, semi-hidden restaurant was named Freemans. The obscure location and unmarked storefront (the door is actually to the left of the window we were looking through) are relatively tame tactics compared to other new establishments that are building their customer base by pretending to hide from it. NoLIta's La Esquina, for instance, requires the eager visitor to push through a door labeled "Employees Only" inside a taqueria of the same name before venturing through the kitchen. Once at the other La Esquina, you approach the hostess who gives you the number and asks you to call for a reservation from above ground. A woman—it sounds like the same one—answers: "I'm sorry, we're booked until 11:00." It's 7:30.

Walter Benjamin, quoting the novelist Régis Messac, once asked, "Is not the big city as mysterious as the forests of the New World?" That's the eternal promise of New York: around any corner, in any neighborhood, you can discover something new—a bizarre gallery, an eccentric café, a street you've somehow always missed. Simply by walking and looking, you can aimlessly wander like Charles Baudelaire's 19th century flâneur, with one catch: in the modern city, especially New York, the discovery is usually something to buy.

Actor Tim Robbins is a newcomer to selling secrets, opening The Back Room last year. Other than the black-clad bouncer looming idly on the sidewalk talking into a headset, the only clue to its presence is a metal sign labeled "Lower East Side Toy Company." To make it through the gate, you need to make it past that very large gentleman.

On a September evening, two fellow editors of The Blue and White and I attempted to gain entry. The big man did not look pleased. "Three guys alone on a Saturday night? How old are you?" "Twenty-one!" the boldest among us answered, proudly flaunting our legality. "Minimum age is twenty-five on weekend nights," he replied firmly. After a bit of contrived schmoozing and coaxing, we—shabbily dressed and without ladies on our arms—found ourselves being allowed down a dark, sub-street level walkway, up a modified fire escape, and into the 1920s-styled pseudo-speakeasy. At 1:00 in the morning, the wood-paneled hall held no more than a few dozen people. From that point forward, the number would only decline.

Benjamin accused the flâneur of being "a spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of the consumers." His role today blurs with that of the proprietor: together, they create an illusion of discovery. You visit places like The Back Room, not because you were lucky enough to find it but because everyone says you have to go, that this hulking bar posing as a speakeasy—or is it posing as a bar posing as a speakeasy?—is great, secret fun. But, of course, it's neither secret nor fun. Once you've navigated through the passage to the appointed space—your Goodfellas Copacabana moment—there's no need to go back, which may explain the incredible lack of a crowd on the Saturday night.

That's not to say that every place that engages in such subterfuge is destined for failure. Nom de Guerre, a reputed former Black Panther hangout in the East Village devoted to rare Nikes, extremely tight clothing, and Wittgenstein books, seems constantly abuzz with activity. Le Parker Meridien's Burger Joint, "hidden" behind a velvet curtain in the lobby, has become a favorite of nearby corporate workers on lunch break, filled to the brim at noon. And Milk & Honey, one of the first bars to establish strict reservation and referral policies, continues to crowd with people every night, even though, as per house rules, men are not permitted to introduce themselves to women. The trick is one of the oldest: tell people they can't come, and everyone will start jockeying for their place in line. As a means of making a first impression, it rarely fails; as a means of building a loyal clientele, it's not much better than any other technique.

This desire for obscurity (read: exclusivity) largely occurs on the Lower East Side, in the East Village, and Williamsburg, all relatively recent conquests of gentrification. Like much of the avant-garde architecture sprouting up around the LES (think Hotel on Rivington), their aesthetic experience seems to require the surrounding poverty, which lends authenticity to the ruse: the more dramatic the contrast between inside and outside, the greater the fun. They recall that Situationist slogan allegedly seen on an alley wall in Paris after the 1968 riots: "Club Med—A cheap vacation in other people's misery."

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