Weekend reads: Requiem for a dream
Shuttered restaurants, a vanishing working-class culture - and a remembrance of things past
It has been snowing today in Toronto. And, it being early in the season, the snowfall has rendered the streets eerily silent. It’s the kind of day when one does not feel guilty drinking coffee and staring out the window for hours at a time.
I’ve been hard at work this week on the Lean Out podcast’s series on independent journalism. In case you missed the first episodes, check out my interviews with Brooklyn’s Freddie deBoer, and Oakland’s Leighton Woodhouse (now part of the team reporting out The Twitter Files).
In coming weeks on the podcast, you’ll be hearing from Holly Doan, Meghan Daum, Bridget Phetasy, and Rupa Subramanya — who’s recently joined the team at The Free Press, the independent media platform founded by Bari Weiss.
There’s lots to talk about.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for pausing and venturing into completely different territory for today’s post — which is about working-class culture, and the restaurant kitchens of yesteryear.
My nostalgic mood set in earlier this week, as I planned a trip to New York City.
In my twenties, I worked in restaurants and freelanced for media outlets. After landing a gig as an online columnist at an American rap magazine, I began spending time in New York. And — some of you will know this — there is no more wondrous place in the world to be young than Manhattan.
But these days, I can’t think of the city without thinking of a trip that one of my friends and I took right before the pandemic hit.
We flew in from opposite ends of Canada and met at Chelsea Market, passing a couple of days in a state of blissful incomprehension of what was to come. We wandered around the crowded, chaotic city, and eventually found ourselves perched at the bar at Prune, a bustling bistro in the East Village that I’d read about in its chef’s gorgeously-written memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter.
Shortly after we flew home, New York City was plunged into lockdown.
I finally went back this summer, and am now set to return. Preparing to walk the city’s familiar streets once again, I went to book a table at Prune — only to discover that it was one of the casualties of the pandemic.
I then found Gabrielle Hamilton’s gut-wrenching 2020 New York Times Magazine essay on shuttering the restaurant. It serves as a window into the early days of the pandemic, told from a point of view we rarely heard then (or have heard since).
Try to read this paragraph without getting choked up:
And then, finally, three weeks of adrenaline drained from me. I checked all the pilot lights and took out the garbage; I stopped swimming so hard against the mighty current and let it carry me out. I had spent 20 years in this place, beginning when I was a grad student fresh out of school, through marriage and children and divorce and remarriage, with funerals and first dates in between; I knew its walls and light switches and faucets as well I knew my own body. It was dark outside when Ashley and I finally rolled down the gates and walked home.
But the essay is not just a devastating love letter to the restaurant that defined Hamilton’s life — it’s also a eulogy for a certain kind of working-class culture, which both the dire economic climate and the elitist food world have displaced.
For the past 10 years I’ve been staring wide-eyed and with alarm as the sweet, gentle citizen restaurant transformed into a kind of unruly colossal beast. The food world got stranger and weirder to me right while I was deep in it. The “waiter” became the “server,” the “restaurant business” became the “hospitality industry,” what used to be the “customer” became the “guest,” what was once your “personality” became your “brand,” the small acts of kindness and the way you always used to have of sharing your talents and looking out for others became things to “monetize.”
The work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever. Our beloved regulars and the people who work so hard at Prune are all still my favorite people on earth. But maybe it’s the bloat, the fetishistic foodies, the new demographic of my city who have never been forced to work in retail or service sectors. Maybe it’s the auxiliary industries that feed off the restaurants themselves — the bloggers and agents and the “influencers,” the brand managers, the personal assistants hired just to keep you fresh on “Insta,” the Food & Wine festivals, the multitude of panels we chefs are now routinely invited to join, to offer our charming yet thoroughly unresearched opinions on. The proliferation of television shows and YouTube channels and culinary competitions and season after season of programming where you find yourself aghast to see an idol of yours stuffing packaged cinnamon buns into a football-shaped baking pan and squirting the frosting into a laces pattern for a tailgating episode on the Food Network.
Consider, too, these paragraphs:
I meant to create a restaurant that would serve as delicious and interesting food as the serious restaurants elsewhere in the city but in a setting that would welcome, and not intimidate, my ragtag friends and my neighbors — all the East Village painters and poets, the butches and the queens, the saxophone player on the sixth floor of my tenement building, the performance artists doing their brave naked work up the street at P.S. 122. I wanted a place you could go after work or on your day off if you had only a line cook’s paycheck but also a line cook’s palate. And I thought it might be a more stable way to earn a living than the scramble of freelancing I’d done up until then.
Like most chefs who own these small restaurants that have now proliferated across the whole city, I’ve been driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand. Even after seven nights a week for two decades, I am still stopped in my tracks every time my bartenders snap those metal lids onto the cocktail shakers and start rattling the ice like maracas. I still close my eyes for a second, taking a deep inhale, every time the salted pistachios are set afire with raki, sending their anise scent through the dining room. I still thrill when the four-top at Table 9 are talking to one another so contentedly that they don’t notice they are the last diners, lingering in the cocoon of the wine and the few shards of dark chocolate we’ve put down with their check. Even though I can’t quite take part in it myself — I’m the boss, who must remain a little aloof from the crew — I still quietly thrum with satisfaction when the “kids” are chattering away and hugging one another their hellos and how-are-yous in the hallway as they get ready for their shifts.
Reading Hamilton’s essay make me miss, on a visceral level, the restaurant where I spent formative years in my teens and twenties.
On writer Bridget Phetasy’s podcast last month, the two of us talked about this. About working in restaurants, and the unique flavour of working-class culture found there. About how it was not unlike the newsrooms of the past: rough around the edges, hilarious, adrenaline-fueled. Equal parts gallows humour and gruff generosity.
Restaurants are worlds unto themselves, and working in them shapes you.
Here is an essay about the one that shaped me.
This is an excerpt from my book Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, which was published, as it happens, around the same time that both New York and Toronto shut down.
After I read William Gibson’s brilliant novel Pattern Recognition, I started to believe that our souls are rooted in a specific time and place. In the novel, Gibson coins a term, “soul lag,” for the surreal sensation that accompanies international jet travel. That feeling that although our feet are standing on foreign ground, some fundamental part of our being has yet to show up. And we must wait for it in order to feel whole again.
I suspect some parts never catch up. Strictly speaking, of course, my soul is always with me. But when I fly to the other side of the world and visit another corner of the planet, I think a little fragment of my soul lingers on there. As I march through life, I leave pieces of myself in the places that have changed me.
And so if you charted my soul’s movement around the globe, I think you would find a good-sized portion of it with my body, walking the rainy beaches of my hometown, breathing in the salty sea air. You’d also probably find a fragment of it racing around downtown Toronto, humming Usher ballads. And another piece on the Upper West Side of Manhattan eating bagels and lox. And yet another in a longhouse in Borneo, waking at dawn and watching the mist rise off the jungle canopy (a story I’ll get to shortly). But I think you would find the most sizable piece of my soul in a burnt-out plot of land on 4th Avenue in Vancouver, in what was once the kitchen of the Topanga Café.
The forty-seat eatery has been home for as long as I can remember. When I close my eyes, I can transport myself back there in an instant. There I am, sitting at a table gazing out the front window, waiting for my shift to begin, eating hot tortilla chips and homemade salsa. It’s fall in Vancouver, at once extravagantly lush and green and gloomy with rain. The light outside is violet. Cars swoosh past and their headlights look like fireflies in an enchanted forest.
This is how it happened: When I was eight years old, my mother enrolled in art school. Overnight, she became cool. Or rather, she began expressing her inherent cool. She dressed all in black and wore red lipstick. She bought a thrift-store fedora, and Clemente art books. She played Leonard Cohen records.
Until then, we had been living in Penticton, a dry, arid town in the interior of B.C., where my dad ran a group home for troubled teen girls who wore caked-on blue eye shadow and went AWOL all the time. My mum stayed at home to take care of me and my baby brother. When she put my brother down for a nap, she would get out her easel and canvases and brushes, and paint clowns. Not the kind of clowns that entertain children at birthday parties, but the stylish, sophisticated ones that always look depressed. They have chalky white faces and maroon lips and a tear on each cheek. They wear black caps on their heads and frilly white collars on their smocks. Pierrot, I think they are called.
My mother painted them all the time. And when she wasn’t doing that — or driving me to soccer or ballet — she was bemoaning the lack of culture in our town. The only paintings you could find in galleries were of horses grazing in fields. Or else windmills, sailboats, farmhouses. It was a nice, quiet life for us kids, but it really was very suburban, and alas, my parents simply were not suburban people. So my mother applied to art school, and she got in. The August I was eight, we drove a U-Haul through the mountains to Vancouver. When we arrived, renting a run-down two-bedroom apartment in Kitsilano that was not without its charms, I was introduced to city life and my mother was introduced to her calling.
By the time I was fourteen, my parents had endured a nasty divorce, and my father was largely absent. He remarried, set up a private practice as a therapist and moved to a beach town an hour away. My mother worked countless jobs, cleaning houses and manning tills at department stores. Now she painted giant canvases with haunting, ethereal faces. My life was unrecognizable to myself.
The upshot of that painful period was that my mother’s friends were always around. One of them, a painter, had a boyfriend, Iain, in a punk rock band called Curious George. One night I got to pile into the back of a rusty van with the band and all the gear and then stand backstage at their show and watch the skateboarders in the front row mosh.
Iain worked at the Topanga Café, and he got me a gig in the kitchen for the summer between grades nine and ten. It was my job to take the steaming plates out of the oven and decorate them with lettuce, tomato and shredded cheese. I also made nachos and blended margaritas and opened cold cans of Coke for the waitresses. The walls were adorned with hundreds of framed menus that patrons had coloured with crayons. The Cole Porter tribute Red Hot + Blue always seemed to be playing on the stereo. That or the dreaded, ubiquitous Gipsy Kings.
The most soothing thing about Topanga, I think, was its predictability. Things were in the same places that they’d been in since the restaurant opened in the late 1970s, when I first visited as a toddler. The broom was always in the staff washroom behind the door and the chopped tomatoes were always in the back fridge, on the second shelf next to the avocado sauce. In between unloading all the condiments at 4 p.m. and scraping the vinegar off the wooden island to clean it at ten-thirty, you could be assured a mad, adrenaline-filled evening, during which the only thing you thought about was the enchiladas in front of you. Your mind would go blissfully blank. For years afterwards, I was tempted to pick up a shift just for the comfort of it all being exactly the same.
For thirty years, Tom Zallen owned the Topanga, until my dear friend Andrew bought it. Tom was from California and had a PhD in psychology, but he left academia to run the family business. (Though, when I ran into Iain recently, I learned Tom had quietly served as a police psychologist for the Vancouver Police Department the entire time I’d known him.)
Tom oversaw Topanga’s daily operations with a blend of dogged hard work, biting sarcasm and unprecedented kindness.
He expected us to work hard. But food was always free to the staff. And when one of the waitresses developed a heroin addiction, he did not fire her. Another staff member’s friend was in a car accident, and Tom opened the restaurant on a Sunday and held a fundraiser to help her parents, who’d flown into town and were staying at a motel on a very limited budget. Tom had never met this girl. “I felt she needed a boost,” he explained to a local newspaper.
I, too, was often the recipient of Tom’s generosity. He allowed me to come and go over the years. He hired my brother during his troubled teen years, and was very good to him. One time, when a customer complained that I worked at a Mexican restaurant and didn’t even speak Spanish, Tom replied, deadpan, “Right, because minimum- wage workers should always be required to be bilingual.”
He once made a donation to a writing project, backed by the government-funded Canada Council for the Arts, that I had undertaken. In true Tom fashion, he sent me the check with a note wryly pointing out that the sum was in addition to the amount he’d already contributed through his taxpayer dollars.
We shared a love of food and good books. He loaned me Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I loaned him a morose memoir from an Irish novelist about her tortured childhood. He cheerfully refused to read it.
When I was in my mid-twenties and taking a break from the restaurant, Tom fell ill and had a major operation. I wrote him a card telling him how much Topanga had meant to me, how it had been an anchor in my life.
I’m very glad I did. Shortly afterward, he passed away. He was 59 years old. I could not attend his memorial, held at Jericho Beach, where we had our staff picnic every year, because I was in New York City and could not afford to fly home. More to the point, I could not bring myself to say goodbye.
For many years, every time I burst in the door of that tiny restaurant, inhaling the pungent fragrance of cilantro and garlic and craving a prawn burrito, I would expect to see Tom holed up at the corner table, painstakingly poring over bills. I never stopped hoping that he’d be there, and that he’d look up and smile, mutter something sarcastic and pull out a chair for me.
And then, one day as I was drinking my morning coffee on my couch in Vancouver, I got a dozen texts from friends, at home and all over the world, informing me that Topanga was on fire. It burned to the ground. I wept much of that day as the building smoldered, mourning the loss as if it were a cherished friend. Which, in many ways, it was.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.