We had just gotten out of the subway station, walking on 28th Street and about to round the corner to Park Avenue when we noticed something curious: Why is there water gushing out of that pay pho...oh my God...that's not water! That's some guy pissing into the phone booth!!
It wasn't one those phone booths that Superman would use to discreetly change into his supersuit either. No, this was just a pay phone on a pole on the sidewalk, out in the open at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night. And this dude was urinating into what I presume must be the coin hole, in full view of kids in strollers, business people in suits, a street full of traffic, without a trace of shame.
We averted our eyes and went about our way with the best poker face we could've mustered, trying not to gag. That is to say, we tried to be as oblivious to it as everyone else was. To New Yorkers, a guy pissing into a pay phone on Park Avenue must be as normal a sight as pigeons crapping in Central Park.
But for better or for worse, that image had now become an indelible memory of this visit to New York. It may not have been as momentous as seeing Jon Stewart skewer politicians live a half hour earlier, but so far it's been one the first things I mention to anyone who's asked me, "So what did you see in New York?"
The second thing I mention is where were headed when we saw that, um, performance art piece.
Yes, Les Halles was just around the corner from that now piss-soaked pay phone. It is cavernous and dark and pretty much a tourist mecca more than just a local's joint because of its association with Anthony Bourdain, who cooked here when he wrote the New Yorker article that launched his second career as a food celebrity.
Les Halles--how shall I put this--is no longer new. The dark wood interior seemed dated, the tiles on the floor were cracked where it wasn't chipped. But the servers should be examples of efficiency for the rest of the restaurant world to follow. These guys were old pros. Water glasses were topped off without me even noticing they had been. Our apps came out scarcely minutes from when we ordered it. Dishes were cleared without asking. And the restaurant was packed, with people waiting outside.
The whole room stunk of the dozens (if not hundreds) of French onion soup in fuming pots topped with drum-tight seals of malodorous Gruyere cheese. We ordered our own, plunging our spoons into that steam spewing vessel, extracting a lovely amber brew of liquefied onions, brandy, and chewing on the stretchy cheese as though they were noodles. We also had some deviled eggs, because, well, we're suckers for that dish no matter where we are, be it the Big Apple or Peoria; and we were delighted to see it come out on a dimpled dish designed for deviled eggs. The eggs, we notice, weren't cut in half lengthwise as they usually are, but width-wise, and the yolk was piped into a floret with some pickled mushrooms served on the side.
Soon, I tucked into what I came to Les Halles to eat: steak frites, perhaps the best deal for a meal of this magnitude in New York. For $21, Les Halles offered a thin swath of beef as wide as my keyboard, seared to medium without a drip of sauce but served with a whole mess of fries--curvy, crisp, golden pencil-thick beauts that Bourdain is right to be proud of. On the side, there was a pile of tender leaves in a salad that I thought would be unnecessary but became a welcome respite in between bites of meat and potato.
Yes, that was a great meal and one of many memorable experiences I was lucky enough to have in New York to celebrate another year in the life of me. Call me a glass-half-full kind of guy, but witnessing the reason why the city has a show called Urinetown was also one of them.
Brasserie Les Halles
411 Park Ave S.
New York, NY
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