On Becoming Bogiesque

Or, how this restless food writer learned to relax and say, “I’ll have the usual.”

Alan Schwartz
My uncle, Alan Schwartz, holding his customary Red Reuben at our customary table at our customary lunch spot, Grasshopper Off the Green in Morristown.
Photo by Eric Levin.

My Uncle Alan is a Humphrey Bogart type. In terms of restaurants, I mean, though in other ways as well. When Alan finds a place he likes, he sticks with it. That’s how Bogart was. In Hollywood, Bogie hung his hat at the Brown Derby. In New York, his haunt was the 21 Club. At 21, he so favored Table 30 (which he often shared with his wife, actress Lauren Bacall) that it became known as Bogie’s Corner.

Probably unlike Bogart, Alan judges an eatery by the number of pages in its menu and the size of its salad bar. More is more. Where this inevitably leads is Charlie Brown’s. And diners.

I like diners for omelettes, rice pudding and revolving-stool atmosphere. But I tiptoe away from menus that try to be all things to all people. Years ago I read a newspaper story about a guy who was eating his way alphabetically through every single restaurant in the New York City phone book. He had been at it for years and was, like, up to the B’s. He was clearly off his rocker, but I understood the impulse.

I see the world as so packed with passionate people going out of their way to create food worth going out of your way for, food so good your knees might buckle, that I have never had the least desire to be led to the same table in the same place all the time, even if Lauren Bacall were sitting there waiting for me.

Or so I thought until recently. Alan’s Bacall was my late, beloved Aunt Gladys, my mother’s younger sister. The first person in my family to go to college (Rutgers, Newark), Gladys became a Veterans Administration lab technician and, in her early 30s, met Alan Schwartz, an accountant and fellow Rutgers grad. During their long, happy marriage, Gladys was the outgoing, vivacious, funny one.

Alan was the quiet one. But like Bogart, when Alan has a point to make, he speaks up and gets right to it. He is not just an accountant, but an auditor. And not just an auditor but for 30 years a Defense Department auditor. Eventually he retired and now, at 83, works every Monday through Wednesday helping Kearfott, a defense contractor in Little Falls, deal with government auditors.

Gladys died of cancer two years ago this spring. In bereft solidarity, Alan and I began having lunch every other Thursday or Friday. The lunches have taken on a life of their own. Alan comes to NJM’s offices on the Morristown Green, where there are many good choices in walking distance. At first he indulged my wish to show him around. We did Italian, Chinese, Thai, Indian, burgers…but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. One day I suggested we try Grasshopper Off the Green, the Irish pub just down the block. We have been going there ever since.

The Grasshopper has no salad bar, and its two-page menu is as static as holy writ. Even the sheet of daily specials barely changes. But once Alan locked on to the Red Reuben, he was set. Made with red cabbage, it’s a “combo” (I love the word, if not the concept) that includes soup and fruit—a deal his inner bean counter can’t resist.

When I was a kid, my mother always told me I was a “picky eater.” I still am. At the Grasshopper, there is always a salad special topped with chicken or fish. Early on I asked the waitress to ask the chef to cook the protein medium rare. (Fat chance, right? Imagine the lawsuit over undercooked meat.) Pushing my luck, I asked if I could have a bunch of lemon wedges (ever present in the iced tea) and olive oil instead of dressing.

She scribbled everything down. Amazingly, both my requests were fulfilled, and now that Alan and I are regulars, I barely have to ask. After just a few visits, the staff started leading us to one of our favorite tables by the windows and even bringing us our customary drinks (hot coffee for Alan, iced coffee for me) without our saying a word. Some days I feel like starting with an iced tea, but I don’t. Showing the servers that we know that they know what we like—and that we appreciate it—completes some kind of circle I am reluctant to break. Bogart, I tell myself, surely felt the same way.

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