Here is something my husband likes to poke fun at: I am hopelessly obsessed with “Mad Men.” I’ve watched the series dozens of times. If an episode is on television, I cannot not watch it. I recognize all the icky parts of the ‘60s and ‘70s revisited through the show — the abject sexism, the racism, the ego. Still, there’s an element of nostalgia that I feel for that era, even though I never actually lived through it.
I’m nostalgic, I think, for steaks and oysters and martinis, for formal meals in dark restaurants, for life before cholesterol levels.
All of this brings me to Bobby Van’s, the restaurant in Bridgehampton (there are others across the country too) where I often pay homage to an era I never knew. I do this in the plainest way possible: by ordering a steak (rare) with French fries (thin, crispy, and salty), and a martini (dirty, vodka, extremely cold).
There is an indescribable pleasure that I still find in the consistency of the American steakhouse. Are the prices needlessly high? Maybe. Are the steaks of the finest quality? Not always. That’s what New York Times food critic Pete Wells was trying to say in his recent takedown of Brooklyn icon Peter Luger Steak House. But I would argue that a steakhouse is more than what it delivers in food. It is, in some ways, an American birthright, an exemplar of our particular brand of cultural capital. Sometimes, an experience exceeds its parts.
That’s what I always think when I visit Bobby Van’s, which remains, for no good reason, one of my favorite restaurants on the East End. It is, by all measures, a chain restaurant. The service is never particularly excellent. The prices range from the sane (at brunch and midweek in the offseason) to the very-much insane. The steaks are satisfying in a deeply carnal way, but they surely aren’t the best I’ve ever tasted. And yet, everything about this restaurant brings me joy.
I was thinking of this elation on a recent afternoon, whilst I ate at Bobby Van’s, an objectively terrible tuna tartare paired with a very good steak and some excellent fries. My martini was cold. The dining room was cheerful. The noise from my children seemed to bother no one in particular. There was a tablecloth beneath my plate and no real sense of urgency, which is to say: we could have lingered as long as we liked.
That’s the magic of restaurants that we don’t always talk about. They can be transformative by providing no more than a place that’s a worthwhile departure for us for an hour or two of our lives. Not every restaurant has to provide the best food, or the best service, or the best pricing. Not every meal needs rise to the level of excellent. Some of the best meals of my life have had nothing to do with the food, actually.
For me, Bobby Van’s scratches an itch. It takes me back in time, my own real-life version of “Mad Men,” minus the office politics and cigarette smoking, and gender inequality (not that we’ve entirely solved that problem, but you get my point). On a cold autumn afternoon, I can fall into a different version of my own life, where steak arrives with a crackling brown exterior, where a martini is so full it splashes out of the glass when placed down beside me. A restaurant is an experience, and the experience I have at Bobby Van’s. . . well, it’s perfect, every time.