The thrice-scrubbed look of dairy restaurants, with their glazed white tile, was distinctive — modern, healthy, optimistic, shorn of old-world associations. These sanitary interiors were borrowed from those of milking houses. Health and good digestion were seemingly on offer. About dairy restaurants in midtown Manhattan during the middle of the last century, Katchor writes: “Homesick Jewish businessmen with peptic ulcers were the perfect customers.”
Many of the best moments in this book are stray gleanings. Katchor writes, for example, about the two months Leon Trotsky spent in New York City in 1917. Trotsky was a vegetarian who ate most of his meals in Jewish dairy restaurants, his favorite being the Triangle Dairy in the Bronx. Katchor notes: “He refused to tip, considering it an insult to the dignity of the waiters, and the waiters retaliated with poor service, accidental spillings of hot soup and insults.”
Katchor investigates the eating habits of Edward G. Robinson, Franz Kafka and Emma Goldman. He packs avid indoorsmen like Theodore Bikel, Arthur Miller, Bert Lahr and the staff of the Partisan Review into the various iterations of Ratner’s, where Frank Zappa, Leonard Bernstein and members of the band Chicago also shared a meal. Zappa tasted gefilte fish for the first time and pronounced it “pretty good.”
During the McCarthy era, blacklisted screenwriters, their souls strengthened on sorrow, met at Steinberg’s, scenes memorably recreated in Martin Ritt’s movie “The Front.” They were trying to recover through food what they had lost by circumstance. Katchor notes how, in the 1970s, the editorial staff of Screw magazine were regulars at the Palm Tree Dairy on Broadway near 17th Street.
What happened to these restaurants? Katchor puts one part of their fate bluntly: “Six million people with a taste for the Eastern European dairy dishes mentioned in this book were murdered in Europe during World War II.” A great deal of memory, and a vast number of potential emigrants, were wiped out. He also blames high rents, worries about elevated cholesterol and some cultural embarrassment. He adds: “With access to the world’s cuisine, in all its glorious variety, what chance does a plate of egg noodles and farmer’s cheese have?”
There is a moving memoirish aspect to “The Dairy Restaurant.” A perambulator, Katchor has always been expert at capturing the texture and sociology of vanishing aspects of city life. Here he also shares his memories of restaurants he mostly visited in the ’80s and ’90s, when they were in sharp decline. At a restaurant called the Famous Dairy, he ordered a “wonderful” gefilte fish and dipped it into the communal jar of horseradish. He reports: “The bitter flavor reminded me of the suffering of my ancestors.”