I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. My curriculum involved a grueling schedule of “studio” classes, eight hours a day, three days a week, on Manhattan’s Theater Row. In between classes the various studio groups would gather in a kind of green room to eat or rehearse or whatever people did in the late ’80s before everyone started looking at their phones.
My sophomore year I noticed there was one particular guy whom people would gather around in that moldy carpeted room. He wasn’t loud or attention seeking, like so many of my classmates; he simply sat on the floor and received guests in a kind of regal way.
One day I went over to him and said, “Hello. I’m Christine. I’d like for us to be friends.” He said, “Well then, I guess we’ll be friends” and from that moment on, we were.
I still don’t know his family’s entire situation but he was not a trust fund baby; as he explained it to me, “I think people choose what they want to spend their money on, and I’ve made my choices.” Among his choices at that time were Versace shirts and egregiously expensive meals at Manhattan’s finest restaurants. For many of those meals, I was his companion.
So for the next several years, we learned about Beaujolais Nouveau thanks to a hilariously hammered staff during the lunch service at Cafe des Artistes. We ordered a tasting menu paired with wines and got gloriously drunk at some place, maybe Arcadia? We ate at La Côte Basque, one of my only requests, me a clumsy, overweight Babe Paley to his strikingly on-point Truman Capote.
We rejected our reservation at Le Bernardin because he wouldn’t wear a borrowed jacket. We went to Philadelphia on the train to eat at Le Bec Fin, and the ancient server told us that everyone in Philly dunks their bread. There were many, many long lunches at the original Aquavit, in Teddy Roosevelt’s old residence behind MoMA, always upstairs, never down in the atrium. And Lutèce, and La Grenouille, Chanterelle, the Four Seasons…
…and then there was The Quilted Giraffe.
We first ate at The Quilted Giraffe with his parents, who were visiting from Pennsylvania. His father was an elegant man of Italian ancestry and his step-mother was petite and from Sweden. We ate beef seared for 30 seconds on one side and, of course, we had to have the beggar’s purse: a pastry filled with caviar and tied with a chive like a hobo’s pack, with edible gold leaf sticking out of it. It was placed on the top of a column that, when you put your hands behind your back and leaned forward, as the server suggested, you could eat it in one bite.
Oh children, have you heard about Manhattan in the early ’90s?
In any case, it immediately became our favorite spot and I believe we ate there a few times after that first meal. And then we heard (I don’t remember how; how did we learn anything before Google?) that it was closing on New Year’s Eve 1993. The building was being sold to Sony, and the ground floor, where the restaurant was located, was to become some sort of exhibition space for Sony’s new products.
It became our mission to get into The Quilted Giraffe for New Year’s Eve. He called and we were placed on the waiting list by the ever-sincere Susan Wine, the wife of the chef and owner Barry Wine, who was rumored to become the chef of the Sony executive dining room. She seemed to remember us – I suppose we made a memorable couple, being in our early 20s and conspiratorial in only the way gay men and their best girlfriends can be – and promised we’d be her first phone call if someone cancelled.
Someone cancelled. We got the phone call. And we took a taxi to Midtown to see what Barry Wine had in store for New Year’s Eve.
We were at the final seating, which meant we were there for midnight. A jazz trio with a middling singer accompanied us into 1993. Everyone ordered the beggar’s purses. And after the final dishes were served, the staff relaxed and it became as much of a party as it could have been, given its private booths and sleek design.
First came the liquor off the shelves of the service bar; a bottle was placed on each table, and everyone peeked around to see what everyone else had received, and the kind of trades and toasts and transactions that only rich white people can do were done.
At some point a server took us on a tour of the kitchen. Even on this last evening it was spotless and for my friend and me, foodies before the word was invented, it was like a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel. And then when we got back to our seats, an incredible thing happened: Barry Wine, the man himself, came around the dining room with a large Tupperware container and handed out the coveted beggar’s purses like a generous mother on Halloween.
Finally the night was over, and we felt we had achieved something great. As we waited for the girl to get our coats we chatted with Susan, so gracious, so lovely, and when we were ready to go she presented us with yet one last incredible thing: a large box from Tiffany’s, wrapped in its signature white ribbon. She thanked us for our patronage and we were equally effusive as we bid her a fond farewell.
And then we went outside, got into a taxi, and FREAKED OUT. Did that all really happen? Were we really at the last seating ever of The Quilted Giraffe? Did we really take a tour of the kitchen? Did we really eat beggar’s purses out of Tupperware? And did Susan Wine really just give us a ginormous Tiffany’s box?
We opened it and inside was a gorgeous charger plate. At the top was an etching of the iconic architecture of what is now the Sony building; Barry and Susan’s signatures; and something along the lines of, “I was there.”
As my friend was often fond of saying, we died ten times.
For many years we shared custody of the plate, always in its beautiful blue box along with a copy of the menu. We’d each keep it for a year at a time. It’s been several years since I’ve spoken to this friend, but he has the plate, and I know he’s keeping it safe.