“We can never go back to Manderley. But sometimes, in my dreams, I do go back.”
— the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier
The hearts of diners-out in Boston have been sorely tried since the closing of Brasserie JO after 20 years (!) was announced some weeks ago. Etiquetteer, drowning an eye unus’d to flow, enjoyed one final dinner there last night on its last night*. (Brunchgoers have another final chance on Sunday, as the last service will be Sunday at midday.)
The final night of a beloved restaurant certainly brings on reflection. Over 20 years Etiquetteer enjoyed many fine occasions at B-JO. From the simplicity of steak frites at brunch to an elaborate morning-after wedding breakfast, from a special birthday gathering for a friend in one of the salons privés to a French 75 cocktail after the symphony . . . so many memories of Happy Times With Our Friends, and of new discoveries. It was here that Etiquetteer discovered the delights of oysters Rockefeller and crispy pork shanks. (Not together, of course!) And it was here that Etiquetteer entertained the friends of parents when they passed through town.
This dinner was entirely a whim of Etiquetteer’s. Alone in town late in the afternoon, Etiquetteer stopped at the bar for one final drink, then dashed across the street to the closest bookstore for an engaging tome (Victoria, the Queen, as it turns out), and returned to snag a table shortly after the dining room opened for its final dinner service. There’s a school of thought that it’s not Perfectly Proper to read at the table even when dining alone, and there’s another school of thought that you don’t have any business telling someone not to read at the table if you aren’t at the table with them. You can guess where Etiquetteer comes down on that issue.
And it was an exquisite little dinner, as always: port manhattan, their signature onion tart Uncle Hansi, and pork chops. It would have been impossible at this final dinner to have neglected to order one of their famous, very popular profiteroles.
Now the problem with profiteroles is precisely what makes them so wonderful: all that gooey warm chocolate sauce mingling with all that slowly melting vanilla ice cream. Keeping dark drops from a white shirtfront involves almost as much attention as keeping a moustache out of the soup. Alas, Etiquetteer failed in this important test on this sad occasion. (Don’t make a fuss about any efforts to remove the spot, and remember: a bit of ice water will be more effective than tears.)
What is so very sad about this closure is that Brasserie JO filled a need: a need for an elegant but somewhat relaxed dining room with a superb standard of service and presentation convenient to cultural venues for pre- and post-performance dining and libations. Perhaps not enough people recognized this need? Perhaps not enough people recognize a need for elegance in daily life?
And - and very few people seem to acknowledge this - with lighting that flattered everyone. Once upon a time pink silk candleshades protected us; remember Mrs. Erlynne in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan saying “Oh, I never confessed to more than 30. Twenty-nine if there were pink shades, 30 if there were not.” Brasserie JO’s illuminated bar and clock made everyone look 30.
So often things end because their time has passed, or because transformation is necessary for a changing time. In the former case one has only to think of the traditional London debutante season, now as dead as the dodo. The latter makes Etiquetteer think of the move of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s to Lincoln Center from its original home - and before that, the fall of the old Academy of Music under the hot breath of the New Money who built the “old” Metropolitan Opera House.
A more apt comparison would be the closure in the 1990s of the Ritz-Carlton dining room (stil the most beautiful room in Boston) for luncheon. Etiquetteer will never forget how the newspaper described how the management made the final decision. They asked both patrons who lunched there every day whether they would prefer to lunch in the dining room with a reduced level of service, or to receive the same level of service in the café. Both preferred the latter. And that was the end of luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton.
But Etiquetteer still thinks there is a need for dining rooms with white tablecloths, soft lighting, superb French food, and artfully mixed drinks. While the closing of a beloved restaurant “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Etiquetteer very much hopes that another such restaurant will open soon and - before we know it - become just as much an institution as Brasserie JO was.
* It’s worth noting that That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much had already had three farewell dinners at Brasserie JO with different friends, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that he’s more gourmand than gourmet. Etiquetteer barely stood a chance. #glutton