Open the Door

In Manhattan, this time, staying at a midtown hotel and reporting a story across the Hudson in Newark. I spent a few hours watching professional martial artists sign autographs and weigh in on a scale, for a series of fights. A predinner interview came next, with a fighter from Omaha who met me in the dim, seedy restaurant of the Newark Airport Doubletree. While other teams of fighters ate chicken fingers and talked to their trainers, and aging Rocky Balboa look-alikes prowled with cell phones (Jersey mob types, with drinkers’ noses and ham-hock fists and greased pompadours and pointy snakeskin boots), this fighter told me a strange and beautiful personal story: six kids all living with him in a small Omaha apartment, one of his kidneys gone to save the life of his eldest daughter. But then, suddenly, I was done and free for the night and reversing the transit cycle: cab to downtown Newark, train back to Penn Station. Emerging from below Radio City Music Hall and into the brisk autumn night—worn out, alone, but satisfied with the work I’d done—I felt ready for a meal and in a curious predicament: right in the middle of Manhattan with it growing late and not a clue where to eat. So I began walking in the bright New York night—the sky black above, the midtown lights pulsing with power and color.

Heading east, somewhere in the 30s—back toward my hotel—I didn’t even bother looking for a restaurant. I’ve had bad experiences with walk-ins, coming across a warm room in a big city and missing the opportunity to enjoy a meal. But then, suddenly, there was a restaurant below construction awnings, and it looked promising. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I asked a couple in front if the food was any good. “Marvelous,” they told me. “You have to do it.”

“Honestly? The food’s for real?”

“Sensational.” They were in their early 30s, I’d guess, and having fun. Not a first date, by any means, but not a last, either. I could see that the man enjoyed giving me this report; we’re all food critics now. We all have opinions, and like rendering them. It’s a new form of civic discourse, so much more fun than politics.

“Really,” the guy said again. “It’s terrific.” And as the pair said goodbye and then huddled against each other, walking off into the darkness, I heard a softer voice say, to me, “Just visiting New York?”

It was a woman of a certain age, standing in a doorway adjacent to the restaurant’s front door. She wasn’t more than five feet from my shoulder, and yet I hadn’t seen her. Had she been here all this time? Or just now emerged? She smoked a cigarette like it mattered, as if that were her primary business in the chill night, and she wore black pants and a black shirt but no coat. Her glasses sat low on her nose, and although she looked at me skeptically, she seemed to care the slightest bit.

“I am visiting,” I said. “I’m here on work, and I’m just dying to have a good meal.” I could see the menu in the window now, and that it was in a very strict French-bistro idiom, with only a few playful adaptations. A big, crowded room lay beyond, bustling with steam and waiters and wineglasses, a nexus of human energy on an otherwise empty block.

“Well, this place is not cheap. But it’s very good.”

I looked again at the menu, at the crowd, and at the cold, quiet sidewalk. The restaurant was called Artisanal, and it sounded familiar, and I also liked the impulse to give a bistro such a nonbistro name. So I smiled to the woman in black, and pushed open the door, and stepped into warmth, and laughter, and the clinking of glasses and glinting of lights, and I knew I’d made the right choice. (To be continued …)

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