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Thursday, October 19, 2006

The edge of eating

Evan Sung for The New York Times

2:40 a.m. - Sam Talbot's cart.

Dinner, With Dawn as a Chaser

Published: October 18, 2006

UNDER a nearly full moon, a small crowd was clustered around a street cart that spewed charcoal-scented smoke into the night air. It was 4:30 in the morning, and customers were clamoring for the kimchi hot dogs, kalbi burgers and other Korean-accented bites that Sam Talbot, the cart jockey, was dishing out on the Lower East Side.

Once the glassy-eyed gentleman in line ahead of me had secured a marinated and grilled short rib sandwich, agreeing enthusiastically to Mr. Talbot’s offers of additional kimchi, he turned to his more lucid companion and asked, “What is this?”

But such late-night revelers, out to blot up the evening’s sins with whatever sustenance is at hand, aren’t the only ones looking for dinner after dinnertime. Scores of more sophisticated diners — many of them the cooks, waiters and workers who make the city’s restaurants run — are out on the streets around midnight and later.

Some notable restaurants that have opened in the past couple of years keep hours that cater to the late, late crowd, and this fall even more places will let you sit down to dinner well into the morning.

Momofuku Ssam Bar, which opened in the East Village last month, serves a full dinner menu from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. five nights a week. When Marc Murphy opens Landmarc in the Time Warner Center he will stay open until 2 a.m., just as he does at his downtown restaurants Landmarc and Ditch Plains. And Columbus Circle diners won’t be limited to just one late-night option when Bruce and Eric Bromberg’s first uptown venture, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill, opens on West 58th Street.

Each restaurateur has his own reasons for drizzling the midnight oil. But all share an affinity for the crowds, customs and vibe of the late-night scene.

Sam Talbot said he left restaurant kitchens for street corners to get closer to his customers and because he’s a “super-late-night type of guy.”

Thomas Wilson said he and his partners at Mas (farmhouse), a luxurious little new American nook of a restaurant in the West Village, wanted to open a place that offered fine dining until 4 o’clock every morning.

“What happens when the prep cook, who has been working over a hot stove all night, finally works up the courage to ask out the beautiful hostess, and she says yes?” he said, sketching out a romantic, if hypothetical, reason to keep his restaurant open so late. “We wanted there to be an elegant place for them to go.”

A few weeks ago a friend and I tried to hash out which of the restaurant’s American caviar offerings we preferred. A moment after we had settled on the hackleback, our waiter visited the table and cheerily concurred. Then, with the same white-gloved grace he had shown during the entire meal, he told us that since it was nearly 4, it was our last chance to order another glass of the wine we had been drinking, which was far too nice for the hour.

Beyond hypothetical line cooks and well-heeled waiters, Mr. Wilson said, the late-night crowd is made up of musicians, travelers just in from Los Angeles and “all kinds of people who don’t have to wake up at 8 a.m.”

I met a member of the last category, a 20-something blonde named Kitty Lyons, during a late dinner at the Spotted Pig. She had left her job at Condé Nast the week before and was hanging out at the Spotted Pig because she found that dining alone at the bar allowed her to meet “some of New York’s most interesting people.”

Late night dining?

Yeah, let me tell you about late night dining.

Either, you've gotten laid, will get laid, or are drunk. I've never seen rational, sober people eat at 4 AM without a fishing rod or a rifle in their truck

Who wants frou-frou food in the dead of night? Marrow and some concoction? Please. Back in the day, it used to be Kiev, with matozah brei or challah french toast and kielbasa, maybe a fruit compote or borscht. Heavy food, real food, washed down with coffee.

That scene in Heat, when DeNiro and Pacino are talking to each other in the diner, that's late night eating. Either you're alone or with someone you know well, maybe too well. And the night has kicked your ass but good.

My favorite late night/early morning meal place is the Spa Diner in Hoboken. It's well-lit, real bright in fact, but dingy, the way some places in old towns can be.The stuff that doesn't change.

The place specializes in two things, food you shouldn't eat, but like anyway, and food you shouldn't eat but like even more. Eggs and burgers. Eggs with Taylor ham, a North Jersey speciality, in South Jersey, it's scrapple.

But you're sitting there, discussing who you didn't hit on, or what fuck up your friends made, and as you talk, the sun is slowly rising. Normally, sunrise is when you sneak, not stagger, home. Or swagger.

Anytime you see a guy walking with a tie on at 6 AM on a Saturday, you know his Friday ended well. It's not the same as waking up early or watching a romantic sunrise, it's the opposite. It's the end of the night, you reek of beer and you're listening to your best friend tell you something or make a plan or decide you want to sleep the rest of the fucking day. You try to get home before light, so you don't feel like a vampire, or not, depends on who you're with. Some people, a mid morning departure is the goal.

But this idea of having a civilized meal in a restaurant, well, maybe if you work in one. The rest of us like confronting the world through a haze of shots and beer and coffee to create the coda for a less than healthy evening.

Those late night conversations mean more. You're usually drunk, so you can be honest, painfully honest as the world wakes up. Because you left all the bullshit in the bar with the booze. No point in lying over coffee in the bright light of a diner.

posted by Steve @ 2:22:00 AM

2:22:00 AM

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