Now reading Only the Good Dine Young

Only the Good Dine Young

A tenth birthday at Daniel, and why fine dining is wasted on the old.

I have unreasonable expectations of what it means to “dine,” and I blame my parents.

Every night around seven p.m., my dad would turn on Ready, Set, Cook! on the Food Network and watch it while he drank wine and made dinner, and I would sit at the kitchen table and read the most recent Zagat guide to New York City. I would work through it page by page, starting with the most popular (Union Square Cafe), then the pages with the top food rankings, the top service rankings, and the top decor rankings, and then the alphabetical restaurant listings, skimming for the names in all caps and checking their scores. Have you been to Le Bernardin? Yes. Have you been to Jean-Georges? Yes. Why isn’t there anything above a twenty-eight? Because things can’t be perfect. But why isn’t there a twenty-nine? I don’t know, Brette. Maybe next year.

I learned that my parents had been to Daniel, too, and that the restaurant was pronounced Dan-yell, because the chef there was French. It was a twenty-eight. Later that year, when my parents asked me what I wanted for my tenth birthday, I asked if we could have dinner there.

At Daniel? Yes please.

I’m not sure if my parents were surprised or appalled or pleased that this quiet girl of theirs who wore basketball jerseys to school had just asked to eat at one of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in New York City. But they said yes. They were in. I was delighted.

My dad supervised as I called and made a reservation, exactly a month in advance. My voice shook on the phone: Can I please make a reservation for three people? (My little brother, who was six, wasn’t allowed to come.) Oui, mademoiselle. My dad got on the phone afterwards to confirm. It was settled. We were going!

The night of the dinner, my mom blow-dried my hair and I put on a lavender suit and a matching headband. We drove for an hour, into the city, and when I walked into the restaurant—in my mind, a darkened arena ringed with lights, with a man in a suit stepping out behind the host stand to bend down and shake my hand—my eyes widened into saucers. I was so incredibly happy.

These are the things I remember:

—We sat under a silk tent in the corner of the dining room. The silk was tied into an intricate knot far above our heads.
—We had little snacks—tartlets and the like—brought out to us on a tiered tray. Our tray was bigger than everyone else’s.
—I had a cucumber soup that was a deep, dark green.
—When I walked to the bathroom, all of the staff stepped out of my way.
—The cheese cart.
—The potato-wrapped sea bass with red-wine sauce, which my dad had singled out to me beforehand as the most famous dish there.
—The kitchen, which we had a tour of after dinner, with bright lights and high ceilings and lots of men in white jackets.
—The room where they made chocolate, which was small and cold and had a metal table.
—The wine cellar.

I told my parents it was the best night of my life, and I fell asleep on the way home.

Ten years later, I asked my parents if we could go back to Daniel for my twentieth birthday; my brother could come along this time, too. Uh, sure, they both said. They had been separated for seven years by then, and divorced for the last three.

I called and made the reservation with an uncharacteristic giddiness. Since my parents’ separation, I had been pro-divorce, and against the four of us doing anything together. On the rare occasion when we all had dinner, there was always a heavy dose of We are not getting back together. My brother had been banned from watching The Parent Trap. But on August 8 at 7:30 p.m., we’d all meet at Daniel: I’d come from work, my mom and my brother from Connecticut, my dad from a meeting. It was happening. I was excited.

These are the things I remember:

—We sat at a table in the middle of the dining room, far from where the tent had been.
—When my dad was offered wine, he laughed loudly and said something like, If I have wine, I would die. I blushed and looked away ashamed and felt immediately guilty for doing it.
—The restaurant had been redesigned, and I didn’t like the new floors.
—My mom ordered two appetizers instead of an appetizer and a main course, and I got irrationally mad at her.
—My mom said she had a stomachache and didn’t order dessert, and I got mad at her again.
—There were two little kids in the restaurant, and they looked bored.

After dinner I said goodbye to my parents and wished that we hadn’t gone back.