For someone who talks as much smack as I do, I rarely seem to get any hate mail. When it does arrive, it is often from someone I have dissed in print who has obviously changed his or her name and is writing under the guise of an outraged reader. But the passion behind these letters can only be from people who had their feelings hurt. For example, there was a bartender (at a place that shall remain nameless) who gave me and my friend just about the rudest, snottiest service I had ever had, and I took great lengths to insinuate that he was an actual vampire, a sack of smegma, and worst of all, a shitty drink muddler. Sure enough, the letter came in five paragraphs, each one angrier than the one before it. He said that he was just a reader who had come upon it, but the vitriol and spite were too great for me to buy that story.
There is, of course, a part of every reviewer who feels pangs of guilt — no one asks to be evaluated, let alone eviscerated. When people write me negative letters, I often agree with them, and I tell them so. It's the old cliché: If you can dish it out, you have to be able to take it.
But the other day I got an e-mail that has stuck with me. It definitely hurt my feelings, but has also got me to think. The subject line was "Happy New Year," and the writer went on to say how he used to read me, but now he doesn't, because its a column about bars, what happens in bars, what happens to me in bars, the decor of bars, etc., and so forth. He ended by telling me that the whole endeavor was a "waste of space." At first I couldn't understand why he would take the time out of his life to make me feel bad, but then I realized that I write similar things about various places all the time. Why shouldn't I also be the target of criticism? But after even more thinking, I realized that I was scared that what he was saying was true: All I do is write about bars: hookers in bars, losers in bars, alcoholics in bars, bars bars bars. What is it about bars? Was I losing my edge by sticking to the narrow confines of bars? The whole thing left me feeling like a failure.
Then I read about Range, the restaurant on Valencia that had earned itself a Michelin star, only to have it taken away this year; Michelin's subtle way of saying that the joint is a waste of space. I naturally felt immediately drawn to it.
The place has built a reputation for developing exciting cocktails, and it has been on my list of places to hit for a while now for this reason. I really don't know jack about Michelin stars, but it has always struck me as strange that a tire company would know anything about fine dining.
I arrived right at opening time so that I could be sure to get a seat at the bar. I was warmly greeted by the bartender, who was of course busily muddling a drink. First he dropped a small handful of black peppercorns into the glass, then he used a pestle to break them up. From there he squeezed a bunch of fruit into a tumbler, added the prescribed boutique booze, shook the heck out of it, and then splashed it into the peppercorns with a zippy flip of his wrist. He was making a Cheetah, which also has grapefruit bitters, maraschino, lime, orange, and Campo de Encanto Pisco. He handed me a menu and I looked at the dinner selections, most of which were fish or pork, my two least favorite things. I went with the chicken.
The decor of Range (yes, Letter Writer, this is the part where I waste space about the looks of the place) is rather sterile. The heat was on, so it wasn't physically cold, but the walls were bare and painted a sort of blue-gray. It was not cozy. The stool I was sitting on was sturdy but smallish; you better have a small, upwardly mobile WASP butt to really get comfy. The feeling in the place, however, was casual and happy. The clientele was well-dressed but unpretentious.
The old Avis slogan "We're No. 2, so we try harder" was going through my head. Now that Range had lost its star, I hoped its staff were doing the healthy thing, which is learning from their mistakes and trying to improve to regain it. This is easier said than done. What must it feel like for a chef to lose a star? Chez Panisse also lost one this year. Is there an eerie silence in the kitchen the day after such things are announced? Is basil chiffonaded with dolorous anguish? Does the chef go back over the menus for the past year, cursing the use of so much goddamned escarole? If they have a perfectionist streak like me, are they wondering whether they have never really put anything out that was good in the first place? Are they, in short, preparing to end it all by locking themselves in the walk-in cooler?
I hoped not. I liked these guys, from what little I had seen of them. The main bartender was training a new guy, methodically showing him where he put the zester when he wasn't using it, and making sure that he understood the careful science of the pour. There was pride in what they were doing here.
When I got home, I perused Facebook before bed and came across a post by a colleague of mine, a review of the memoir that he had just published. He had written about his mother's death from cancer, and his care of her in her final days. Having myself failed at book-writing, I know how much work goes into one, and especially one about something as sad as your mother's death. The review was in The New York Times, and it completely trashed him and his work. It said that it was the perfect example of why some memoirs should never be written. It said that he stripped his mother of all dignity. It said that he was shamelessly looking for attention in writing it. It said that it sucked.
I felt so sorry for him. I didn't know what to say. My stupid, self-centered ennui about being called a waste of space seemed to dwarf in comparison. I decided to do what I hoped Range was doing: Get better. Grow. Recharge. Reinvent.
And so I shall.