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Sipping, Supping in Style

September 17, 1993|ANN CONWAY and PATRICK MOTT

S he gets too hungry for dinnah at eight ... He likes it laid - back, always comes late ...

What's a couple to do when their dining styles are about as similar as Escoffier and Ronald McDonald?

Compromise, you say? Well, we're working on it. Take last Saturday night ... (Please.)

SHE: You want to go where? After I made reservations for two in that cushy booth at the Ritz? It's been ages since we dressed up, sipped bubbly and ate in style. I'm tired of takeout and I've had enough teriyaki rice bowls from Trader Joe's to last me 'til Christmas. Give me hovering waiters, candlelight and salmon en papillote.

HE: Well, there goes that operation I've been needing. There's still a recession (read: immense worldwide fiscal catastrophe) on, and if we start taking out second mortgages to pay for dinner, the neighbors will talk.

OK, I understand your need to be stylish. But why not throttle the style needle back a bit and head for some cozy little bistro? You can trot out your Bohemian chic, and I can tie a sweater around my shoulders and pretend I'm still living in San Francisco. I'll be Jack Kerouac, and you can be Sylvia Plath. You can wear a beret. We'll drink coffee and put our heads together and talk a little treason and act like we don't have any money and don't care.

I promise to take you to the Ritz the moment the federal income tax is ruled unconstitutional.

SHE: OK, forget the bubbly and the salmon. I'll take a Ritz salad--hold the nuts--and a glass of sparkling water. Just give me ambience. Truth is, I'm a fool for posh surroundings. It's not just the food, it's the people you get to watch. The Ritz--along with other fashionable dinner spots such as Diva, Topaz, Pascal, Antonello, the Golden Truffle and Gustaf Anders--are great for people-watching. And for people watching you . I mean, what did I buy this crushed-grape, fox-trimmed suit for? To pretend like I'm Miss Bell Jar in a bleak coffeehouse? Not.

HE: Geez, you're making my point for me. If you want ambience and a real melange of people to stare at, you can't beat a good bistro or cafe. Go to a posh joint and everybody looks and acts just like everyone else: dressed to the nines with their Sunday manners on their sleeves.

Upper-crust dinner houses are for display purposes. Bistros are for prole style and my favorite across-the-table sport: conversation.

I got invited to one of the newer Cafe Classico places in Orange County a few days ago, in Anaheim Hills, and I began to get that old feeling--the same one I used to get when I haunted places like Cafe Trieste, Tosca and the Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco.

Everyone was doing something different: a student in the corner bent over a textbook and gnawing on a croissant sandwich, a couple by the window with their heads together over some sort of exotic coffee or other, me spooning down a little cup of gelato.

There's real, crackling life in a place like that. I don't deny the charms of the four-star eateries of the world, I just feel more connected to the world around me in a cafe.

SHE: Go ahead, cafe drop. I'll have to admit I spent two of my most wonderful Sundays at cafes in Venice and Rome. I liked the intimacy, the history. They were places where great writers had sipped and supped. But I doubt that Goethe's ghost is hanging out at any of your beat cafes.

I'm talking Saturday night dining at a civilized kind of place, the type that helped inspire Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." Elegant dinner houses are not about pretense. They're about beautifully prepared food courteously presented at tables bedecked with silver, fresh flowers and fine linen.

HE: No arguments. I love that stuff. I have wonderful gustatory memories of places like that. But fonder memories appear when I think about sitting at the corner sidewalk table at La Peregourdine in Paris, with a small salad and a glass of wine, staring at the best street-level view in the city. Or across the street at the St. Severain, watching those two gorgeous women sit down at the table next to me, open their oversize wicker bags and pull out a pair of small dogs. Or at the Cafe de Paris in Geneva, gnawing on perfect entrecote and translating jokes into French.

My theory holds that you have to prepare, both mentally and sartorially, for a trip to La Tour d'Argent. If you want to go to St. Severain, however, you just . . . go.

SHE: Go ahead, country drop. I'm getting the feeling that you cafe crawl just to talk about it.

OK, OK. How about this: I toss on the fox cuffed suit with a black body suit underneath. I stash some jeans and boots in the back seat of our car. After we do the Ritz, I change and we hit your favorite cafe for a caffeine fix.

But, one thing. Promise me you won't mention "cafe" once .

HE: Not even when I order that hot, dark brown beverage that comes in a cup? Maybe I'll just have a double espresso . . . .

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