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VOL. 126 | NO. 241 | Monday, December 12, 2011

Lunchtime Provides Gateway to the Sublime

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Iwouldn’t have reviewed and written about restaurants for 23 years if I didn’t like eating out, but what I really love is dining out for lunch.

Eating dinner in a restaurant has an air of the official about it, of preparation and planning, of rituals that must be attended to, while lunch feels more spontaneous, almost illicit in its manner of getting us out of the office and away from people feverishly wolfing down food from a paper sack at their desks.

Lunch – and I don’t mean 15 minutes at McDonald’s – provides a break in the day, a respite from care and toil, some moments of calm conversation, because lunch needs to be a shared moment out of time, and a satisfying sense of returning to work happier and better prepared to grasp the afternoon’s knotty issues.

Sometimes a terrific lunch experience comes out of nowhere, as the day that we had been shopping in New York and came out of the subway just as a thunderstorm struck. We dashed into the nearest restaurant, Le Madri, on 18th Street at Seventh Avenue – alas, now closed – and proceeded to have one of the most charming and delicious lunches we had ever had, with simple yet impeccably prepared northern Italian food, glasses of wine and espresso to conclude. After lunch, by the way, is the only time that I drink coffee, preferably espresso, a shot of which sends you back into the world alert and gratified.

As you can tell, part of a great lunch is the atmosphere or even the barometric pressure. Coming in from the pouring rain, sitting in a warm restaurant being coddled and cosseted by a well-trained staff, partaking of fine and unpretentious food, well, you can see, readers, that a great deal of what I’m talking about here involves the civilizing influence of food, wine, proper ceremony and companionship.

Another terrific Italian lunch, a real one, that occurred by happenstance was in the lovely and picturesque old city of Perugia, in Umbria. We were visiting friends in the countryside one summer in the late 1990s and took a day to drive around by ourselves. Walking the cobbled lanes and alleys, we realized that lunchtime was almost over. We entered a restaurant that was empty except for the proprietor, sitting at a desk going over accounts. He welcomed us, slipped on his jacket and proceeded to be our waiter. The restaurant, whose name I cannot recall, specialized in traditional Perugian fare of past centuries, and under the owner’s tutelage – we spoke rudimentary French since he did not speak English and our Italian was shaky – we partook of a two-hour feast of unusual food and wonderful wines. We left astonished and awed, and naturally we raved about the place to our friends. When we saw them several years later, they said, “Hey, we went to that restaurant you recommended in Perugia. It was terrible, one of the worst meals we’ve ever had!”

Probably my first great lunch occurred – yes, it would be this – in Paris in March 1990 at Jamin, a small, enchanted candy-box of a restaurant where even in daylight the waiters were attired in black tie, while the maitre d’ actually wore tails. Despite the formality, the food that came from Joel Robuchon’s kitchen was simple yet intense, provocative, deeply flavored. I was traveling through France for The Commercial Appeal’s coverage of Memphis in May that year, so I was with a photographer and accompanied by a friend from Memphis, and the three of us spent almost $300, a sum that still seems mind-boggling even including a bottle of splendid wine.

Believe me, I know that lunch does not have to be that elaborate or extravagant, and we’ll come down from that sublime empyrean to more realistic but still honorable and happy notions of lunch.

When I worked at The Commercial Appeal, for the years that it was open for lunch, my canteen, as it were, was Cielo, just a few blocks away in Victorian Village. In that decadent goofy-romantic dining room, where Sleeping Beauty’s palace met Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, I scarfed down many orders of roasted sea bass with bok choy and basil. Now, of course, it’s Mollie Fontaine’s. When Cielo closed for lunch (and then closed), I switched to Café Society in Midtown, where rain or shine the diffused light streaming in the plate-glass windows seems to make everything and everybody look attractive. There I worked my way through various versions of seared or roasted salmon with a glass, usually, of sauvignon blanc. (Now that I work at home, I rarely get to Midtown.)

I always loved lunch at KoTo, where Bari is now, and I regret that not long after opening that restaurant Rebecca and Jason Severs decided to close Bari at lunch. I’m sorry that Felicia Suzanne’s is open for lunch only on Friday. I’m happy that The Elegant Farmer, with its herb-and-flower strewn patio, is not far from our house, though the weather is getting too cold for that indulgence. And I’m glad to sit in the easy elegance of the light-filled dining room at Acre, between, say, 12:30 and 1:30, to see what changes the kitchen has made to the risotto.

You can tell that I love lunch. I love the now sadly disappearing white table-cloths, the set table; I love a little vase holding a few blossoms; I love one glass of wine to inspire and whet the appetite; I love good service, that agreeable compact between the diner and the staff. You see, we eat to live, but we dine to live humanely.

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