The conventional view is that a visitor to New York should get to know as many places as possible in the city, especially its restaurants, no matter how short their stay. Jason Epstein, gastronome and book editor, wrote in the New York Times some months ago that never before have so many fine restaurants been open at any one time—I can believe him. But eating may not be the reason for your visit, and you tend to see and hear more of New York if you go to one place again and again. Pick one saloon: Take, for example, the Café Loup on West 13th, between 6th and 7th. Here, you're as likely to find interesting strangers who will tell you something of their New York as you are anywhere else. It's an old Village hangout, once located further east, in the days when William Burroughs was a habitué. I've known the Loup for years, and it was, for a time, a second home when my former wife was one of its maitre d's.
Seymour Britchky, a Greenwich Village bohemian, was one the Loup's regular. He died last year, and his absence is now felt at the bar. "Flights of angels," Britchky used to say when waving goodbye—then he'd chuckle at the absurdity of the phrase. "Hello, baby," he'd impishly say to men as well as women and giggle. He liked to make himself laugh, and to see laughter in others, but he could also be a fantastic grouch.
Every year until the early 1990s, Simon & Schuster released an annual edition of his Restaurants of New York, an anthology of pieces he wrote for his self-published gastronomic newsletter. Reading a 1989 edition I found at the Loup one night, I came across restaurants I know, many I don't know, and many I'll never know because they closed long ago. In this edition, a tone of aftermath prevails: The money-sweltering 1980s are as good as over, though at some places Britchky visits high rollers celebrate themselves, gorging on the wine list. Someone at the Loup marked up this edition at some point in the mid-'90s. The word "Gone" is scribbled over entries for restaurants that had shut after the book's publication. Many others are now gone. Britchky has, too.
For Britchky, restaurants were about food, but they were also about interior mood and nostalgia. Don't all restaurants inspire a desire to be at a favorite place, he implies, where food and situation are near-perfect? The occupational hazard for the restaurant critic is believing that where you are this evening is not as good as where you were last night, and for Britchky, last night was never as good as the last time you were at the great Lutece.
Few places relate to the life of New York as well as its restaurants. They come and go, like the city's inhabitants; they break up as fast as many of New York's couples, lasting barely a season; or they survive trying times and perhaps even grow old. There are restaurants for anniversaries; restaurants remembered for a first meeting of minds; restaurants never visited again, poisoned by food or a falling apart; restaurants for making things up after a rough phase. Not so long ago, I went to the Spotted Pig in the West Village at West 11th and Greenwich Street, the most enjoyable new Manhattan restaurant I've been to in an age. Life took an unexpected turn for the better after liver and lentils that night.
Yet no restaurant is forever. That Britchky, restaurant critic and a chronicler of New York, died a few months after the closure of his favorite restaurant, Lutece, didn't seem uncoincidental.
Britchky would arrive at the Loup alone, yet he was rarely without company for long. He was a magnet for strangers, though he had his silent nights and was good at avoiding people he didn't wish to talk to, an essential art for the discerning bar loner who doesn't necessarily wish to be alone all night. One evening, confronted by a bore who asked, "How are you?" Britchky replied, "Exactly the same." The bore carried on, "But how are you?" "Funny you should ask," said Britchky. "Why's that?" "That's all," Britchky replied. "Just funny you should ask."
Christopher Hitchens, in an appreciative piece about the restaurant, wrote Britchky into the fabric of the Loup. Martin Amis considered Britchky a fine writer; many did. Yet Britchky found writing impossibly difficult, perfectionist that he was. In later life, he wanted to talk and to eat, not to write about eating and talking. Still, Britchky wasn't another Joe Gould, the Greenwich Village bohemian in Joseph Mitchell's immortal story about a man who said he was a writer but never wrote a damned word and who inspired the worst case of writer's block known in New York: in Mitchell himself, who wrote nothing after "Joe Gould's Secret." (The story appears in Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell's pieces for The New Yorker.)
Britchky lived alone in a rent-controlled apartment in the Village. In the 1990s he made a living gambling on the horses. He could be abrasive and had fallen out, at some point, with almost everyone he knew. The last time I saw Britchky, I went up to say hello. "Just f--- off," he said. I retreated to the opposite end of the bar.
Some weeks ago, I was at the bar at the Loup and heard some Britchky news. After his death, the city authorities were informed, as you'd expect, and some time later a letter arrived from the Town Hall. The authorities, so this letter said, had combed their files, yet had found no record indicating the existence in New York of anyone by the name of Seymour Britchky.
On the subway journey north later that that night, I thought about the phantom known as Britchky and how had he survived in New York for as long as he did; and I wondered, also, how many other phantoms live in this city, invisible to authority, yet always a presence, even after death, at a favorite bar.