British GQ’s Remembrance of ‘Loud, Stupid, Uncomprehending’ Elaine Is Online

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

If you enjoyed pondering the crowded restaurant conundrum yesterday, here’s more food for thought. Michael Wolff’s British GQ story about Elaine Kaufman (yes, the one that incensed "Page Six" because he called her a “loud, stupid, uncomprehending woman,” among other things) is finally online, and besides describing Elaine in a none too flattering light (she was “more threatening than hospitable, muttering discordant and guttural oaths, and, given her size, taking up far more space than the front room in her narrow establishment could afford”), Wolff points to her restaurant as “the first whiff of self-consciousness” in the history of New York City restaurants: Like the Waverly Inn and Minetta Tavern after it, it was “a restaurant as you might imagine a restaurant to be, instead of a restaurant being a business that merely conformed to the standards and requirements of the restaurant business (laundered table cloths, professional waiters, furniture bought from the restaurant supply store: red-sauce Italian; escargot French; steak or chops American).”

Elaine gained a following not only because she counted Woody Allen as a regular (he “ran the social life of the city for a decade or more”), but also because she was “the last working-class Jew in New York”: “For the fading WASPs,” Wolff thinks, “Elaine was an amusing bridge to the new vulgar world — a bit of verve on Second Avenue.” The Wasps perceived her as an “odd amusement,” and Elaine responded with nothing short of contempt: “I'm going to abuse you. I'm going to serve you wretched food at high prices and, then, too, I'm going to cheat you on your bill.”

So why did “a few A listers and then a legion of self-congratulating nobodies” put up with this (at least, until the downtown scene ushered in the decline of Elaine’s)? Well, the same reason they put up with velvet ropes later on. Wolff thinks it’s because New York is “one of the world’s most clubby towns”: “Nobody knows what the clubs are, or what the rules are for getting into them. Indeed, you get into the club when you discover the secrets of how to get into the club.” In this way, “Elaine made restaurants, those heretofore public accommodations, the ultimate closed community. After Elaine's you could never quite be sure of the rules for admission at a New York restaurant.”

Of course, Wolff fails to mention other celebrity-tavern keepers who came before Elaine — for instance, Toots Shor, who once answered Louis B. Mayer’s complaint about waiting for a table with “It’ll be better than some of your crummy pictures I stood in line for.” Are we really to believe that this sort of idiosyncratic clubbiness and exclusivity started with Elaine’s?

Hell's Kitchen [British GQ]