Although proud of my work as a food and restaurant critic for the New York Times, my father, Joseph H. Solomon, harbored the persistent fear that I might be beaten up or even killed by some restaurateur irate because of a negative review.
Little did he realize that he unwittingly taught me much about that craft as I observed his habits and behaviors in the restaurants he loved and took me to, whether with my mother, Beatrice, or when in my pre-teen years we had occasional Saturday “dates” to big-house movies and restaurants in what we Brooklynites called “The City.”
My parents ate out much more often than our primarily middle-middle class Jewish neighbors and not just in local, casual Cantonese eateries and New York kosher-style delis. As they did not observe kosher laws at home or away, the world was their oyster, to say nothing of their clams, lobsters and roast pork, too. As I was an only child until the age of 8, I often went along.
Perhaps because of the nature of his work and those with whom he shared his restaurant lunches, my father had a broader more individualistic view of how to proceed when eating out. He was in the wholesale food business practically his whole life, having finished elementary school in Williamsburg at age 14 and then finding a job in the wholesale meat market with a firm that specialized in poultry. Eventually he switched to wholesaling fruit and produce in the Washington Market—the area that is now known as TriBeCa.
Most of the merchants there were Italian or Jewish with a smattering of Irish and German immigrants. All knew each other and worked out deals over lunch in several big, masculine bar-taverns of a type that have almost completely disappeared from the city now. The menus would feature such classics as clams on the half shell and oysters, too (if there was an “R” in the month), usually a few hefty soups and corned beef and cabbage, sauerbraten, and, with mushroom sauce, London broil and Salisbury chopped steak, plus several kinds of potatoes, slaws and vegetable sides and pies.
On some school holidays, I spent the day at his office playing with office equipment and writing on rolls of blank adding machine paper. Then it was lunch time at one of the bar-taverns. Greeting staff members and asking about their families, my father proceeded to his regular table where he was told of the specials. If that meant soft shell crabs, shad roe, broiled squab or lamb chops my father would just ask for “a platterful and maybe some home fries, but no green stuff.”
In a fancier mood, he introduced me to French food at a midtown restaurant called Maison A. DeWinter at 36 West 48th Street where it opened in 1908. The battered fallen grandeur of a Victorian townhouse still more or less stands today and happens to be the site of Wu Liang Ye, my current go-to place for great Szechuan food. (I still always glance down at the little low steps that lead into the rather spare French dining room, although there was a fancier one upstairs. As a kind of urban archeologist, I look for the restaurant’s original name in mosaic tiles set as they were at the bottom of the steps.)
The iconic dish for me was the onion soup, something my father adored and so I was determined to like it as well. It was not gratinéed or served in heavy stoneware bowls. Rather, it came with thick, silky wisps of onion in a golden broth in wide, rimmed soup plates with grated cheese (my father said it was Swiss meaning Gruyère) on the side to be sprinkled on as one slurped along. I do not recall if there were any croutons or toast on the side. I am not sure that I liked it much on first try–all those onions and hot liquid–but somehow it took hold and in-midwinter I often prepare it for myself as a warmer of spirit as well as body.
The other restaurant that made a lasting impression was Fan and Bill’s at 135-137 West 46th Street, where the specialty was planked steak. As I recall, it was a big mound of steak such as a Chateaubriand broiled rare, then set in the middle of a thick oak plank (in my memory oval) surrounded by a Della Robbia rainbow of cooked non-leafy vegetables all edged in Pommes Duchess—creamy puréed potatoes piped out as a border and glazed golden-brown under the salamander. My mother would sometime wish for the broiled sweetbreads on the menu but my father always said we all had to have the steak as it would be too huge for just him and me and so she complied. As an appetizer, my father would have his beloved insanely salty oil-preserved anchovy fillets on toast and then so would I, but my mother preserved her identity by ordering Bismarck herring or a canapé of chicken liver pâté.
There was more, of course, such as my father’s sudden yen for a Sunday shore dinner at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay, where he ordered the shore dinner for all, a set menu that was a precursor perhaps to the tasting menu model, and to which he always asked for vanilla ice cream on the richly inky huckleberry pie, because, I suspect, he liked to say à la mode. And, naturally, so do I.