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SWAN ON TOAST : A Bittersweet Farewell to Nine Years of Exciting Restaurants and Occasional Blue Skies

September 05, 1993|Ruth Reichl | Ruth Reichl is moving back to her hometown on that little island somewhere east of L.A., where she will be restaurant critic for the New York Times

According to medieval legend, dying swans sing the sweetest songs. I understand this. There is nothing quite so sweet as the place you are leaving--even if you know you are going on to something good.

I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1984 because I was sure it was about to be the best place on Earth to eat. I was right. Los Angeles came of age, in a food sense, in the '80s, and people who went to restaurants indulged in an orgy of eating. It was a halcyon time. I expected to love the food, and I did.

But I had not expected to love living here. Every time I had visited this city, I'd hated it. "All that smog," I said. "All that driving. No culture. Who could live there?" I came anyway--I was hungry--and discovered that while Los Angeles is a bad place to visit, it's a great place to live. And even though L.A., in the wake of riot and recession and in the shadow of an incipient earthquake, has shot to the top of the media's list of least-favorite-places-to-live, I haven't changed my mind.

The smog isn't pretty, but when was the last time you took off from an airport, anywhere, and saw clear sky below you? Think of Christmastime, when the air is clear, the sky is blue, the sun is warm and everybody else in America is shivering--and wishing that he lived here. Traffic can be awful, but next time you find yourself jammed on the 405, think about the overcrowded bus you could be trying to board in some other part of the world. I like driving, and one of the things I'll miss most about Los Angeles is the private time in my cozy moving cocoon, radio on and nobody trying to talk to me. The supermarkets are swell here, shopping is easy, and kids can play outside all year. As for the culture--unlike other cities I can think of, this is a place that honors artists who are still alive.

And then, of course, there's the food. In most ways, the food in Southern California has gotten better in the nine years that I've lived here. The excesses are gone, and there is more good, affordable food available to more people than ever before.

In the beginning, things were so silly that if I hadn't had a real Reluctant Gourmet, I would have had to invent one. "Isn't this great?" I'd cry, impressed by some impossible concoction that the chef of the week had invented; in those days, I was ready for anything. The RG would look at me as if I were crazy. "Take another bite of that duck in chocolate-grapefruit sauce," he'd say. "And then let's go get a hamburger."

He loathed every obsequious waiter and despised every snobbish one. When some oily creature rubbed his hands and asked, "How was our dinner tonight?" the RG reveled in replying, "I ate it. You didn't. And I'm not here to do market research."

He made great copy. But as restaurants became more sensible, and the excessively pretentious ones died off, the Reluctant Gourmet became less reluctant. Suddenly, he liked going out to dinner. This was great for me, but it had one unfortunate side effect: The Unreluctant Gourmet just didn't make very good copy. Two years ago, I found that I had stopped writing about him.

It's not that there aren't things to complain about--if I never meet another waiter who compliments me on my order I will be extremely happy. But for the most part, L.A. has a lot to be grateful for: Wolfgang Puck's restaurants, all of them, which I truly believe serve wonderful food. Michel Richard, who continues to impress me as one of the most joyful, inventive chefs who's ever lived. Dinner at Valentino, always a civilized pleasure. Chinese meals in San Gabriel, Alhambra and Monterey Park. The L.A. Food Court in the new Thailand Plaza on Hollywood Boulevard. The intense joy of eating Jody Maroni's sausages on Venice Beach. Bean-and-cheese burritos at Yuca's Hut on Hillhurst Avenue. Sushi from Katsu, where I've managed to dine regularly and anonymously for almost 10 years. Nancy Silverton's desserts at Campanile. Fresh lemonade and peanut-butter sandwiches at the Daily Grill. Drago's Sicilian food. Bikini's astonishingly eclectic cuisine. Fish enchiladas at La Serenata de Garibaldi.

People are always asking me, "Is your job as much fun as it sounds?" Yes, it is. The food in Southern Californa is spectacular. If you care about eating, it's a reason to live here.

I will never forget the wonder of walking into a tiny Venice storefront--we were the only customers--and discovering the food of Hans Rockenwagner, who was then 24. Or opening the door of an unmarked sushi bar to find the elegant Ginza Sushiko. I'm glad Joachim Splichal has opened the impressive Patina, but I still regret the passing of his Max au Triangle, which was a high point in the annals of American restaurants.

But the great thing about this job is that restaurants go and they come--and there is always something new to celebrate. It's been so much fun that I still have trouble believing people pay me to do it. This is one swan whose song isn't all that sweet--but then, I'm just moving away.

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