[ also posted on my sparse blog, www.milquetoast.us]
I ate at Norman's for the last time last night. I don't think I've ever eaten at a restaurant on its last night in business, though I suppose a few could have closed the next day without my knowing it. There’s something very uncomfortable about eating in a place that’s about to close. A good restaurant exists outside the normal boundaries of time, because restaurant experiences are inherently repeatable – on a future day, I have the option of enjoying this same dish in this same room with these same people. I remember Ernest Becker’s great book, “The Denial of Death” which makes the point that a human being’s greatest fear is his own death, and to “deny” one’s death, one looks for sources of permanence in one’s life that offer a glimpse of “eternity.” The restaurant experience is one such source of permanence.
All restaurants do ultimately die, however, and the good ones presumably take a little piece of their customers with them. Norman’s certainly left with a piece of me. I loved Norman’s, and I often said it was my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, but I had to admit the place was commercially inept. The idea of a quiet, refined room on the Sunset Strip was a bit of an oxymoron. No one ever quite understood the “new world fusion cuisine” they served there. The execution was so labor intensive it seemed unlikely it could be profitable: the early menus there had a density reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s aptly named musical piece “The Black Page,” and I remember that they would painstakingly flambee the bananas table side for the New World Banana Split. Every time I went there it seemed that one little element of detail would be removed, an indication that the place was probably on a death spiral that could not be stopped.
Still, this was a place that exuded a lot of care, and I wondered what the last night there would be like. I felt it could go in one of two ways. Either the staff would pay respects to the final devoted customers coming through its doors and deliver the best night the restaurant had ever seen, or the place would die with a whimper. From a narrative perspective, I certainly prayed for the former. But the sad fact is, Norman’s felt like it did on just about any other night. The service was quite good but about 10% less impeccable than it normally was. The food was about 10% less perfect (my grits cake, a highlight of the roast pork Havana, was surprisingly dense and lacked the fresh corn whollop it has delivered in the past). There was no drama, there were no speeches, no mention that we were there during the final hours, no thanks for the support as we left. It was just like eating at any other place, with the slight difference that the next day it would all be dark.
One of my dining companions is friends with Nancy Silverton and she suggested we try to get a preview pizza from Mozza before that restaurant’s official opening on Monday. And so, after our dinner at Norman’s , we drove to Mozza to see day negative one of a restaurants life. We got there at about 10:30. Sadly, they were just cleaning up so we didn’t get a chance to try the pizza. But Nancy was there, sitting at the bar, clearly pleased with her new creation. And I realized that with the death of a piece of permanence in one’s life comes the birth of the new. And so I watched with some emtion as the staff of Mozza cleaned up the restaurant for nearly the first time, just as those at Norman’s locked the doors for good.