Last Supper at Norman's
[ also posted on my sparse blog, www.milquetoast.us]
I ate at Norman's for the last time last night. I don't think I've ever eaten at a restaurant on its last night in business, though I suppose a few could have closed the next day without my knowing it. There’s something very uncomfortable about eating in a place that’s about to close. A good restaurant exists outside the normal boundaries of time, because restaurant experiences are inherently repeatable – on a future day, I have the option of enjoying this same dish in this same room with these same people. I remember Ernest Becker’s great book, “The Denial of Death” which makes the point that a human being’s greatest fear is his own death, and to “deny” one’s death, one looks for sources of permanence in one’s life that offer a glimpse of “eternity.” The restaurant experience is one such source of permanence.
All restaurants do ultimately die, however, and the good ones presumably take a little piece of their customers with them. Norman’s certainly left with a piece of me. I loved Norman’s, and I often said it was my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, but I had to admit the place was commercially inept. The idea of a quiet, refined room on the Sunset Strip was a bit of an oxymoron. No one ever quite understood the “new world fusion cuisine” they served there. The execution was so labor intensive it seemed unlikely it could be profitable: the early menus there had a density reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s aptly named musical piece “The Black Page,” and I remember that they would painstakingly flambee the bananas table side for the New World Banana Split. Every time I went there it seemed that one little element of detail would be removed, an indication that the place was probably on a death spiral that could not be stopped.
Still, this was a place that exuded a lot of care, and I wondered what the last night there would be like. I felt it could go in one of two ways. Either the staff would pay respects to the final devoted customers coming through its doors and deliver the best night the restaurant had ever seen, or the place would die with a whimper. From a narrative perspective, I certainly prayed for the former. But the sad fact is, Norman’s felt like it did on just about any other night. The service was quite good but about 10% less impeccable than it normally was. The food was about 10% less perfect (my grits cake, a highlight of the roast pork Havana, was surprisingly dense and lacked the fresh corn whollop it has delivered in the past). There was no drama, there were no speeches, no mention that we were there during the final hours, no thanks for the support as we left. It was just like eating at any other place, with the slight difference that the next day it would all be dark.
One of my dining companions is friends with Nancy Silverton and she suggested we try to get a preview pizza from Mozza before that restaurant’s official opening on Monday. And so, after our dinner at Norman’s , we drove to Mozza to see day negative one of a restaurants life. We got there at about 10:30. Sadly, they were just cleaning up so we didn’t get a chance to try the pizza. But Nancy was there, sitting at the bar, clearly pleased with her new creation. And I realized that with the death of a piece of permanence in one’s life comes the birth of the new. And so I watched with some emtion as the staff of Mozza cleaned up the restaurant for nearly the first time, just as those at Norman’s locked the doors for good.
You're right. First time I had dinner at Norman's on Sunset was in March 2004, what an experience! The bar was everything I want in a bar, it felt like you're drinking at Frank Sinatra's hang out. I ordered a martini I had in New York a couple of months ago called Vesper and for my second drink the bartender (never saw him there again), made up a martini with Ginger Gelato and called it the Jennifer (he thought my name was Jennifer!). We had the tasting menu and by the time they brought desert (something with a strawberry infused foam they called the cloud), I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Our next dinner there was not as great, one of the dishes was too salty but the next time we sat at the kitchen table and Michael the chef that night brought so many amazing and creative dishes that made us bring our friends and book the kitchen table for the party. This time however there was none of that flair or excitement. I figured the chef was having a bad day. Overall though, the restaurant seemed out of place and it had not captured the right clientele. Every time after the first visit we wondered how it's going to make any money and how long it would survive, I guess now I know!
Very unfortunately, Norman's was a place I did not get around to trying, but had been wanting to and then I heard it was closing.
Your post is a lovely eulogy and gave me a real sense of what I and many others obviously missed about this place.
In LA, the death of a good restaurant is like the death of a good film; why? what happened? what didn't happen? why now? why so soon? Norman's sounded like a really good restaurant that just ran into bad luck. Maybe if he'd called it van Aiken, instead of Norman's...who knows?
I've closed down and locked the doors on the final nights of 3 restaurants for a once major chain in this town and it isn't a pleasant experience for anyone. You bid farewell to the regulars who are there to support and reminisce and its no party, more like a wake (not an Irish one).