By Allyn Freeman
As years go by, we recall impressionable experiences from past times, those singular events that remain celebratory today. Recently, I remembered when, as a sixteen-year old, I enjoyed a first ever restaurant meal in Greenwich Village, which also turned out to be my earliest dining out evening unaccompanied by parents.
The formative dinner of long ago needs an introduction. Return to South Side High School in suburban Rockville Centre, Nassau County in the mid-1950s. The few, aging male instructors—who taught classes for decades—wore old-fashioned, double breasted, drab brown or gray suits, starched white shirts, and non-descript ties.
At the start of the 1955 school year, students experienced a culture shock when James Perrone arrived to teach the new, advanced English (Journalism) Class to the two upper grades. He was mid-thirties; reed thin; a saturnine, angular face; pencil moustache; long, thinning black hair; and full bushy eyebrows. He was dressed in a jet black mohair suit with a double European flap vent, a pale gray dress shirt flecked with a repeating pattern of fleur-de-lis, white collar, and white French cuffs enclosed by black onyx cufflinks imprinted with the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy. He wore a knitted black wool tie and shined and pointy black leather Italian shoes. It seemed that a sartorial Satan had ascended from Hell, and now stood menacingly at the blackboard, writing, “If I had more time, I would have written more briefly.”
Mr. Perrone turned out to be bona fide bohemian, a one-time Bleecker Street coffee house denizen, who had studied theatre and ballet. He arranged for a small group of seniors (three girls and I) to travel into Manhattan to see our first Shakespeare play. He also selected for us a continental restaurant in Greenwich Village named after its address, the eponymous 17 Barrow Street. In 1973, the space would welcome the romantic One if By Land, Two if By Sea.
That autumn Saturday night, we entered the Federal style brick building on Barrow Street through massive double wooden doors, set under a white arch bas-relief showing a faux coat of arms. Inside, a darkened, expansive room lit solely from tables set aglow by candles inserted in wine bottles, and dripping vibrant rainbows of multi-colored wax. I learned the building’s history decades later: The house was built in 1834 by Thomas Cox as a combination residence and carting business. Years after, it became a horseshoeing and blacksmith’s establishment. But it was never, as rumor and the Zagat Guide have erroneously asserted, the one-time residence of the maligned politico Aaron Burr, or, reputedly, a house haunted by his ghost forever more. (I digress; if Burr wants a domain to spook, his phantom apparition should follow its historical legacy to frighten Hamilton theatre goers into giving up seats to those of us who do not want to wait until the end of this century to see the multi-Tony Award musical).
To order from the menu, we deferred to a classmate who had toured Europe the prior summer, having sampled authentic French cuisine. “Oh look,” she exclaimed, “They serve aubergine lasagna.” The girls responded with excitement at identifying the French word for eggplant. I, a Latin scholar, had never heard the word and remained silent. In my traditional meat and potatoes household, no eggplant had ever been seen or mentioned. Occasionally, summertime avocados appeared on the family table— referred to as “alligator pears”—but nary a morsel of their mushy greenness passed into my adolescent mouth.
The waitress delivered the first course, individual portions of imported French paté that came with tasty cornichons. We praised the baguette-styled bread cut into many pieces. Next, the aubergine dish appeared, a hollowed out shell resembling the matching ellipse shape and dark purple hue of a horseshoe crab. Inside, a cheesy parmesan yellow filling layered in lasagna sheets, the aubergine strips replacing the pasta. Delicious!
For dessert, I tasted that first custard tart flan, the most perfect circle of syrupy yumminess I had ever encountered. I realized then, that I never could go back to lime Jell-O with sliced bananas, or ready-to-mix tapioca pudding.
We paid the check and headed by subway uptown to the Jan Hus Playhouse in the same-named Presbyterian Church on East 74th Street. Here, in the basement on wooden benches, we saw Macbeth. Decades later, someone remembered that Harve Presnell, noted Broadway musical and film actor, had starred in the title role.
We decided to return by taxi to the Long Island Railroad at the old Penn Station. Then, I made my sole contribution to the evening, saying, “Let’s wait for a Checker cab.” The girls sat in the hailed taxi’s spacious rear, while I faced them in the distinctive pull down seat.
On Monday, Mr. Perrone asked me what part of the Manhattan outing had interested me the most. I thought for a moment, and although I wanted to say the Greenwich Village 17 Barrow Street restaurant eggplant or flan, decided it was scholastically more to my benefit to mention the astonishingly theatrical appearance of Banquo’s ghost.