|Swan Oyster Depot|
Sometime in the last decade or so I lost whatever hangup I had about going to restaurants that serve a lot of tourists. I guess it should have happened a lot sooner given that I've been part of Zingerman's for almost two decades and we've been a tourist joint almost the entire time. I think I can pinpoint my personal transformation to sometime around the second bite of lunch at Cal Pep in Barcelona. It was a crowded counter swarmed by Americans. I was there with my friend Eric Farrell, now the owner of one of my favorite bars. We did that kind of anxious wait you do in Europe when you stand around not sure if anyone has seen you or if you should be doing something different or just leave. Sometime later a bottle of wine was handed to us, no questions asked; naturally we emptied it. An hour and a half later we closed the place having eaten most of the menu. I've never forgotten the food. I'm sure there are technically better meals in Barcelona — I've eaten a couple of them — but for sheer force of expression almost no place I've eaten at feels quite like Cal Pep.
What was a small transformation has grown into a larger passion. Where once I avoided them or held my nose when I visited, now I'm really drawn to old places that continue to do something great. That said, I like new places, too. They have loads of energy and I learn all kinds of things. They're exciting like a new rock band is exciting. But with older places there's almost something else to grasp. It's not like they have to do everything well, and in fact most of them don't. It's kind of like watching old movies; you have to get over the period artifice to some extent in order to enjoy it. Same with old restaurants. Most of the time half the menu will be crap. Order carefully. If they do enough well — or even just one thing — that's enough for me. The part that makes it worth it is that they've done whatever it is so well for so long they wear an elegance that newness can't share. My friend Dai who owns Astro Coffee (highly recommended) put it well when he recently told me, "When people ask me where to go in San Francisco I tell them Chez Panisse. I mean Mission Chinese is red hot and it's fine but Chez Panisse has been at it and after 40 years it's beautiful. You want to know the secret to a great place? That's it. You just show up and keep making it great—endlessly."
Here are a few of my favorite old tourist joints — some older than others — that I think are worth it for one reason or other.
San Francisco, Swan Oyster Depot and, on some nights, the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel
Buenos Aires, La Preferida
Rome, Sora Margherita
New York, Grand Central Oyster Bar
New Orleans, almost anything