Is the New York dining scene better than ever? The question seems to our dazzled senses like a no-brainer, but it was the source of almost rancorous debate last night at a 92nd Street Y panel discussion which featured New York’s Gael Greene, famed chef Jacques Pepin, Über-restaurateur Michael Whiteman, and New York food historian Arthur Schwartz. “Food Talk” host Mike Colameco chaired the panel — helplessly, as the debate raged to his right and left.
“The New York dining scene was great in the eighties and early nineties, but now it’s turned into a monster,” Schwartz said, growing more agitated and visibly reddening as the debate went on. “There were more ethnic restaurants, and more chef-owned restaurants where I could get an affordable meal.” Greene went along with Schwartz for much of the program, decrying the evils of molecular gastronomy, celebrity chefs (“children 10 and 12 years old are addicted to the Food Network!”), bloggers, and, worst of all, the dreaded $44 lamb chop, her symbol of modern menus gone wild. Whiteman took the long view, retaining a calm, almost Zenlike tranquility as he explained the economic realities behind high prices — “There are a lot of people here whose real estate has gone up in proportion to the $44 lamb chop” — and expressed a fixed opinion, which Pepin supported, that New York’s dining scene is bigger and more interesting and creative than it has ever been, owing to competition, “enormously educated customers,” and “vanishing transport costs” that bring the best ingredients in from all over the world. Whiteman didn’t have to argue long to convince us, of course; New York’s restaurants seem to get better by the month. But then we don’t have Greene or Schwartz’s vantage point — or, for that matter, their investment in a past which may or may not have existed.