I grew up in restaurants. I don't mean that my parents owned or ran them — my father was a Hollywood screenwriter, my mother a onetime ingenue turned housewife and society dame — but they practically lived in restaurants themselves, and when they went out to eat, they often took me with them. Some of my earliest memories are of perching on a booster seat in a red or green leather booth at a table covered in thick white napery and crowded with silverware and glasses, and being waited on and fed and plied with Shirley Temples and told to sit up straight. I can still summon up a sensory impression of those evenings, romanticized, of course, and with the particulars of each occasion blurred hopelessly together, but vivid nonetheless: the ceaseless motion all around me, a choreography of waiters and busboys, arriving and departing guests; the reassuring clamor that suggested room-wide concord and contentment; the aromas intertwining in the air — cigarette smoke, Sterno, sizzling meat, coffee, the iodine-scented whisky in my father's glass, the floral sweetness of my mother's best perfume. It all washed over me, and never really went away.
At far too young an age, I'm sure, I fell in love with restaurants, and it was that love that ultimately led me to where I am today. My entrée, if you'll pardon the expression, into the world of what I later would call gastronomy came through the dining room, not the kitchen. I liked the food, certainly, but I also liked the ritual, the folderol, the whole experience — the way a place looked and felt, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff, the variety of choice, even the little sensory accents: the heft of the water glass, the dancing light of the table candle, the luxurious sensation of wiping greasy fingers on soft linen.
Eventually, almost accidentally, I found a way to turn my love for restaurants into a career — into, really, a way of life. When I first started to think seriously about that way of life and where it had taken me, it occurred to me not just that restaurants have been a constant for me but also that at virtually every stage of my existence, there has been at least one restaurant at the center of things for me, both literally and symbolically. This is a book about those restaurants, and about my life in and around them. They're a diverse bunch — some, world-famous temples of haute cuisine; others, more notable for their character or their clientele than for their cooking. All too many of them have vanished. I've picked them out for present purposes because they have been touchstones for me, personally and professionally, but also because they represent something, different in every case, about the history and culture of food in America and Western Europe. They are places that in some way help define who and what I was and have become, but that are also, for the most part, emblematic of the revolutions great and small, over the past half century or so, that have changed the way we eat and cook and think and feel about food.
From My Usual Table, by Colman Andrews. Copyright 2014 by Colman Andrews. Excerpted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.