Do people get along better when they don't have too many decisions to make? I wondered about this during a trip to New York this weekend; some of my most enjoyable moments were in places with limited options.
There was McSorley's, a bar that serves no spirits, no wine, and only two kinds of beer ("light" and "dark"). I may write more about McSorley's later, but I suspect that the limited menu had something to do with the bonhomie of the crowd on Saturday night. No agonizing over wine choices! No fear of picking a passé cocktail! Five bucks gets you two mugs of beer. No other options.
Like most true urbanites, I have a low tolerance for places where people are packed so tightly that one can hardly move, but the mood at McSorley's was so convivial that I never minded being hemmed in. And it was a perfect example of an urban phenomenon: One of the best things about a big city is that it has room for places that each do one thing well. (If you don't like it, go find the nearest Olive Garden.) I think most cities could use more of these.
Another example: On the way down from Boston, my friend and I stopped in New Haven to check out Louis' Lunch, a 116-year-old diner that claims to have invented the hamburger and now cooks nothing else. We were there at the height of the lunch rush on Friday, and it took more than a half hour to get my burger "with the works," which came between two pieces of white toast and was dressed with cheese, onion, and tomato. (Ketchup and mustard, never mind "special sauce," are forbidden here.) It was so rare that it tasted more like a very good roast beef sandwich than any hamburger I'm used to, and the thin white bread cut down on the empty calories that buns usually provide. (Photo from Roadfood.com, which has a review of Louis' Lunch and a gallery of images.)
As at McSorley's, it was too crowded to move at Louis', but we eventually snagged two of the barstools. The photo below, from Louis' website, shows about half of the whole place, and the three things on the left that look like big bottles are actually the grills in which vertical racks of burgers (six each) are cooked. But it was amazingly quiet, with little of the shouts for attention and rising chatter one would expect in Boston or New York. I don't know if this was a New Haven thing or if the historical setting prompted church-like reverence, the calm friendliness of the two guys behind the counter set the tone (no Durgin-Park vibe here!), or everyone was simply mesmerized by the process of toasting hundreds of slices of bread (on a Ferris wheel-like contraption) and grilling dozens of burgers without a pause.
I'd love to have something like this in Boston, but I'm not sure it would work. We're probably not patient enough for it; hungry people constantly demanding how many burgers are ahead of theirs on the handwritten order sheets would crash the system. And even in New Haven, a sizable minority of customers ignored Louis' preference for rare meat and gave their own cooking instructions, which I consider unforgivably rude. (It's like demanding a specific tempo from a jazz quartet.) I'm sure it would be worse in Boston, with people whining about the ratio of onion to tomato and thinking that if they just ask enough times, the place will break down and put out a basket of ketchup packets. And, yes, maybe it would kill them to do that.
Like McSorley's, Louis' Lunch is an example of how nice it is to enjoy a tradition instead of trying to impose one's own preferences on everything. And I can't think of a better way to spend a vacation in a big city.