December 1, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable

Not So Quiet on the Western Front


          When the Beautiful Young Burdens, our Carter and Ba, outgrew quaint Bohemia at the Dakota and moved east to staggering pursuits, the West Side’s Beautiful People population was decimated. Purists felt it obliterated. Our chic stock plummeted and morale slumped.


          It’s not that we haven’t got some very beautiful people in the neighborhood. Harry from-around-the-corner Belafonte is no ugly. Eli Wallach is one beautiful guy, and Anne Jackson is maybe even prettier. They have Penelope Tree for sheer élan, but we have Jules Feiffer. My alternate-side-of-the-street parking confrere, Van Avalon, Ink Spot Retired, has at least as much style as Chessy Rayner. Alas, mere beauty is not Beautiful. You can look in your mirror and see a face sweeter than Kenneth Lane’s. But you’re nobody unless Diana Vreeland loves you.


          What we have got over here north of 72nd Street and west of the park is a solid population of semi-Beautifuls, a thriving subterranean aristocracy. And at last, on our own home turf, the West Side is breaking out in spots where we can play our own minor-league status games.


          The West Side has always catered to the Underground Gourmet. Now the neighborhood is being courted with haute scene and ambitious menu. The Library, opened September 15 on Broadway at 92nd Street, is already proving that paid scribes and literati don’t have to go crosstown to procrastinate. Arthur Miller has been by. And Murray Kempton, Nick Pileggi and such literary hangers-on as Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, James Earl Jones and Josephine Premice.


          What used to be a tacky steakhouse is now a wonderfully warm, book-lined room. Instant warmth. Instant clutter. Books by the yard make dining nooks. The books came from the Salvation Army, a penny a pound, and the mix is eclectic, with the Reader’s Digest Condensed series discreetly filling out the lowest shelves: How To Retire Without Money, How To Be Accepted in the College of Your Choice, 125 Ways To Make Money with Your Typewriter, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Browse longingly…scoundrels even steal.


          Brutus Enterprises is the corporate triumvirate of owners. Why Brutus? “It was the only name the lawyer had available right away,” partner Stewart Steinberg explains. A Bronx youth who prepped in the Borscht Belt and at The Ginger Man, with some theatrical detours, Steinberg is so bullish over the The Library’s success, he’s negotiating for a second spot all his own. His favorite congratulatory telegram for friends read: “Today The Library, Tomorrow, Longchamps.”


          Omelettes and hamburgers are lunch fare. The dinner menu, à la carte, is ambitious, with some imaginative notions…lemon sole with tahini sauce (lemon-zipped sesame) at $3.50, seafood kebab ($3.50) and duckling with hot plum sauce ($3.95). Unfortunately, the kitchen can be wildly uneven.


          The room was jammed on a recent Wednesday night with the kind of people you see at George Tabori plays…lots of young men looking like David Frost, and couples who might have met at an Yevtushenko reading. Tables are crowded, requiring precise maneuvering instructions from the maître d’ until you are installed with your coat on the hook above grazing your shoulder or sweeping into your neighbor’s gazpacho.


          The food is lovely…as if a geisha were stationed at the kitchen exit to add some last decorative touch…a sprig of watercress or a pale blossom of inner artichoke atop the darker thistle ($1.25). A whole round of warm pumpernickel arrives on its own cutting board (or a stingy half, if you are only two). The quiche ($1) is precisely fluted and very good, well seasoned with a confetti of green onion flakes on top. Avocado with curried chicken might have been billed more candidly as “curried chicken soup,” but the blend of tastes and textures was spectacular. It took a knife to cut through the cheesy crust of a well-flavored onion soup ($1), but the floating bread was charred.


          Green fettuccine ($2.25) looked lovely baked with a crusty cheese mantle, but the noodles were soggy and undrained, the sauce anemic and diluted. Spareribs ($3.50) were sweet and moist, almost candied ($3.50) and the duck was good, but the plum sauce, lackluster. Steak tartare ($3.25) was served in a wooden bowl with a sprinkling of parsley and small mounds of capers, chopped egg and onion. Brussels sprouts and a toss of greens, gritty and undrained, came with each entrée.  (At a later lunch, both grit and wet had vanished). There was also an excellent spinach, bacon and raw mushroom salad.


          Among the desserts were a good pecan pie (75 cents), a sticky and delicious cheese cake (75 cents), rum-touched chocolate mousse ($1) and an incredible “hot” apple pie (90 cents) -- the plate was hot, the pie ice cold and the cheddar, a melted leaf of linoleum. Real espresso costs 40 cents at dinner, 45 cents, perversely, at lunch.


          We drank a Château Lynch-Bages ’64 (chosen from a book of labels) at $6. When the Paris Herald Tribune’s Naomi Barry asked French sommeliers their favorite “little” wine, Château Lynch-Bages was the most often named. Whether it was the myth, the mood or the wine, we had to agree.


          The service was pleasant and concerned, if not exactly professional, and I fully intend to return 125 Ways to Make Money With Your Typewriter. Eventually.


Broadway at 92nd Street.