A onetime San Franciscan now living in Manhattan recommended that we visit August, in the Village.
“It’s our Delfina,” he said. Delfina is of course a magic word, but the more interesting term in his little pronouncement was “our,” which carried a faintly downcast sheen, the sense of a not-quite-comparable attempt. For he and I had long ago agreed that the food is better in San Francisco than in New York; the former is a food city, the latter a restaurant city, and the difference slight but meaningful.
August was quite nice, if more Mediterranean than Tuscan. Its most winning feature is the walled rear garden with its canopy of glass. One would love to be there, at a candlelit table, on a snowy evening. A superior restaurant, not far away near Union Square, is the Union Square Café, jewel in the crown of the Danny Meyer empire and, according to another Manhattan friend with Bay Area roots, possibly the best restaurant in the city. It was certainly the best restaurant I’d ever been to in that city, and the high quality of its cooking doubtless has much to do with the presence of the vast Union Square greenmarket just down the block, where the kitchen does much of its provisioning. The market, on a beatifically mild October Saturday, was crowded but calm, and if you knew nothing else about New York you might be forgiven for supposing that you had found the beating heart of a city of cooks, snapping up heirloom tomatoes and dozens of exotic types of peppers.
But New York doesn’t appear to have the same home-cooking infrastructure we do. Apartments, even of the well-to-do, are smaller; kitchen space is tight. In the evenings, places like Zabar’s and Delmonico offer a wide variety of prepared food for people too busy or space squeezed to cook. Of course you see these food bars here too, but their pervasiveness in Manhattan is striking. They are like Laundromats, another set of commercial establishments that provide an essential domestic service to people living in tight domiciles. Doubtless there are efficiencies to these sorts of centralized arrangements, but I wonder if something isn’t lost too — a daily awareness that food isn’t just a commodity to be bought and consumed but is of the land and the sky. Just like us.