James Beard enjoyed eating out – in fact much of his life revolved around restaurants. When he was a child his mother often took him to places such as the Royal Bakery in his hometown of Portland OR and Tait’s in San Francisco (pictured). Although he was an accomplished cook, cooking teacher, and author of over 20 cookbooks, like many a New Yorker he patronized restaurants frequently, including Maillard’s, Longchamps, and the Automat. At one point, when he had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops. One summer in 1953 he managed a restaurant on Nantucket.
He preferred restaurants that were “homey” and where he was known and liked, such as the Coach House and Quo Vadis. At the latter he became good friends with owners Bruno Caravaggi and Gino Robusti with whom he shared a love of opera. As a young man (pictured, age 19) he prepared for a musical career at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He said that his early performance training helped him with radio and TV appearances.
In 1956 he issued his list of the country’s best restaurants, revealing a fondness for clubby male establishments and for places that were friendly — though usually expensive: Le Pavillon, ‘21,’ Quo Vadis (NYC); Jack’s (SF); Locke-Ober (Boston, pictured); Perino’s, Musso & Frank (Los Angeles); London Chop House (Detroit); and Walker Bros. Pancake House (Portland).
Restaurants also figured prominently in his professional life. He served as a consultant for restaurants in NY and Philadelphia, including the Four Seasons. For years he wrote a column on restaurants for the Los Angeles Times in which he touted places as diverse as Quo Vadis and Maxwell’s Plum in NYC and the Skyline Drive-In in Portland OR (“they make a whale of a good hamburger”). Despite occasional harsh opinions expressed about women in his 1950s barbecue cookbook days (“They should never be allowed to mix drinks.”), in later years he hailed Berkeley CA restaurateurs Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Suzy Nelson, co-owner of The Fourth Street Grill.
He advised men on cooking and ways of suavely handling their culinary affairs, being careful, even when promoting French cuisine, to keep a down-to-earth tone. He disavowed the term gourmet, claiming he was definitely not one. In a review of Maxwell’s Plum he declared, “Not being a highbrow about food, I appreciate a really good hamburger or chili as much as a velvety quenelle or a rich pâté en croute.”
In a column he wrote for the National Brewing Company of Baltimore he urged discontented diners to stand up for good food, suggesting, “The only way to combat the stupid treatment of food in many restaurants is to be firm about sending food back to the kitchen whenever it is not right.” If asked how your dinner is, he insisted, do not say (if it was bad), “Oh very good, thank you.” In another piece he chided “mannerless” diners who make multiple reservations with the intention of deciding later which to honor. “When you dine out you have a certain responsibility to the management,” he wrote, explaining that no-shows seriously undermine small restaurants.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009