The Restaurant at 1900
Good eating: a fresh picked tomato sprinkled with salt. Perhaps I eat it standing at the window, wearing jeans so comfortable I don't notice them. Good dining: service of a meal in a beautifully crafted context, layers of awareness in all senses — the mouth, of course, but also anything else in me that discovers my surroundings. As I dine, these sensations, in turn, combine with the memory, history and humor that the restaurant evokes, and as this complexity builds, it is all welcomed by my palate. I taste it all. The difference between eating and dining is a degree of complexity.
Sometimes, in rare and wonderful restaurants, great eating meets great dining; simplicity and complexity coalesce. I’m made to believe that extraordinary sensual experiences can extend from the palate to every other sense with the simplicity of a garden tomato and a shaker of salt. This coalescence belongs deep in the "alimentary intuition" that Jean - Paul Sartre wrote about, an inner, gustatory site where each awareness reveals another:
It is the sourness of the lemon which is yellow, it is the yellow of the lemon which is sour. We eat the color of a cake, and the taste of the cake, and the taste of this cake is the instrument which reveals its shape and its color to what may be called the alimentary intuition….
The Restaurant at 1900 welcomes me to the center of alimentary intuition. Chef Linda Duerr, a James Beard Award 2019 semifinalist, orchestrates courses that gesture receptively to each other through every meal. On each plate, little surprises belong together, every unexpected tang or crunch or color, born of a basic familiarity. The concepts that come from the kitchen don't ask me to make sense of them, because their sense has been made already. The Master Sommelier and Master of Wine and approachable guy, Doug Frost likewise handles the work of beverage. Wine and cocktails are not mysterious, and their delights seem to be common knowledge, generously shared by any server. General Manager Keith Goldman makes this all feel easy all the time. When he stops at the table to talk, Keith is aware of ten thousand points of interest in the room, but appears to be focused on our conversation.
The Restaurant’s definitive name is no coincidence: this place is undoubtedly built on the history that defines dining out, a knowledge of the alchemy that can make food magically complex and reassuringly simple. The toppings on salads and soups, for instance, welcome fork or spoon with the candor that a buttery crust once did on my Aunt Gwennie’s macaroni and cheese. But Duerr's culinary thresholds have a mythical aura: a tiny wreath of flowers and nuts is gathered by a wood sprite a few moments before I taste it, before I begin dunking it into its silky broth or folding it into a tapestry of fungi and greens. Temperature, so often missed where dining would be food, is perfect in the meals at the Restaurant. Dishes that might cool suddenly, like soups and fish, travel from stove to table surrounded by insulating crockery or nestled in delicious accompaniments. At the same time, no extra stuff crowds the setting to present shortbreads or pickles, whose character stands strong on a minimalist plate. Countless measures like these make each pleasant quality flow through others, with a secret phenomenology that is food when it is heartfelt.
I dined at The Restaurant just after it opened in March of 2018. When I returned a month later, the staff and I picked up our past conversations. That’s not because I’m famous... It’s because the sense of history in this year-old place is as rich and reassuring as its incomparable seafood chowder, as well articulated as the many ingredients on its mezze plate. Succotash is a fantastic test of the duende that makes dining just right, because of the apparent separateness of its parts. When I begin eating the apparently distinct corn and beans of 1900 succotash, I am drawn into a long conversation between them that I had never imagined they were having, a deep, humorous and warm-hearted dialogue which I feel obliged to add to by chewing and listening, chewing and listening, until there is nothing more to chew.
In my first visit, I found it sweet that the wait staff wore blue jeans with their dressed up shirts; then, I came to notice how those jeans complemented the grey-blue upholstery, the curving patterns in the wall tiles... and, well, every other quiet detail. The historical nuance of the staff’s attire — the 1900 Building used to be a central office of Lee Jeans— was a layer of meaning I picked up on later. Artworks and decor in this room whose lunch hours are flooded with natural light, also reflect a remarkable appreciation for home, which I’ll leave it to the reader to discover.
Enjoyment and context at The Restaurant keep a special place in my memory, "like a destination of the heart,” as the old tango goes. They draw me back for more. When I call there to reserve a table, I recognize the hope that brought me back to Aunt Gwennie’s kitchen, asking for seconds; but there's also the excitement of opening a favorite book: when I return, I'll enter layers of imagination and sense a crafting of experience that responds honestly to its place and time. All the complexity of craft and context will be held in reliable hands, as certain of their purpose as mine are when I salt a good tomato.