About a year ago, not long after I returned from Uruguay, my post-adventure malaise and the growing concern for where my next paycheck might come from was interrupted by a call from my old pal Alexander Olch. We met at Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street. I ordered a Hendricks martini, cold up and with a twist, and Alex ordered latkes with salmon roe and sour cream. Given that I was melancholic and that Alex keeps kosher, we had a unspoken predetermined agreement that I would get his caviar and crème fraîche to cheer me and with begged for blinis from the kitchen, we embarked on our supper.
Over the course of the meal, Alex alluded to his new project: he’d found the space in which he would realize his 6-year dream of opening an independent cinema.
A bit of background: I met Alex on Halloween 2005 at the annual Accompanied Library party in that wonderfully louche back room at the National Arts Club. I was dressed as a 1960s Pill-Popping Housewife (think Mrs. Robinson on painkillers): vintage slip, vintage Pucci housecoat, blonde bob wig and every piece of jewelry I owned. I carried around a martini glass filled with Good & Plenties, which I rattled menacingly and said,”Fetch me another martini!” to pretty much everyone I encountered. Evidently I was his dream girl. I have no recollection of what he was dressed as, except that it involved a necktie and eyeglasses.
Alex was finishing his film, The Windmill Movie, which, at this point, he’d already been working on for 5 years and would be released in 2007. Alex’s life was centered on Mott Street where his editing bay was a few doors down from his apartment (he has a predilection for arranging his affairs so that he never needs to cross a street). When he wasn’t editing and I wasn’t auditioning, we had good times together. Alex came to opening night of a play I was in at the Cherry Lane in which I played a goth lesbian collegiate. He avoided my dear dachshund, Lola, at all costs (difficult in my Chelsea studio apartment), and we carried on as such until my departure in September ’06 for Los Angeles, where I was determined to take my dramatic inclinations to the next level.
Alex finished his film. He’d never showed me a single frame, and when I attended the premiere at MoMA my heart swelled with pride. Unbeknownst to me, Alex had collaborated with programmer Jake Perlin, who distributed the Windmill Movie, and a friendship had blossomed over their shared love of cinema, native New Yorker status, and desire to create a new and different forum for the film-going experience. Just 9 short years later, Metrograph was born.
So returning to last year at Russ & Daughters: as Alex told me reverentially about a few youthful visits to the Ziegfeld and Paris theaters as a child, he explained that he wanted to bring magic back to movie-going. I listened and tried to ask intelligent questions; thanks to Alex’s inspired reverie, my cold gin martini and several mouthfuls of caviar my spirits were soaring. I was imagining myself at the opening of Alex’s cinema, standing akimbo in a Katherine Hepburn-esque white silk gown, flashbulbs popping! No, really I was wondering why Alex had chosen to tell me all this; he’d preemptively warned me that everything he was about to say was strictly confidential, so where was this going?
“In order to do this right,” Alex eventually said, “there needs to be a food aspect to it, and of all my friends, you know the most about food and restaurants.” Aha.
In the months that followed, I would come to understand Alex’s vision for The Metrograph Commissary, named for the restaurants of the same name that resided on Old Hollywood studio lots from the 1920s to 1950s, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard supped next to a stagehand and a gaffer. The restaurant would be elegant and refined, yet welcoming and relaxed. There would be something for everyone on the menu. There would be simultaneously a sense of occasion and egalitarianism. Like Metrograph as a whole, there would be an eye to service and decorum, but always with a sense of fun. Prestige without pretension.
This was all music to my ears. I hail from a long line of ladies who politely said Good afternoon to each person they cross paths with after 12pm; my mother believes in wearing one’s best clothes on airplanes; and few things put me in a better mood than getting gussied up and toeing the line. In other words, I am a throwback and this would be my kind of place, and, in fact, an historic endeavor that would give back enormously to our community of cinephiles and New Yorkers.
In the 13 months that followed, my role as a consultant evolved. I helped to create the menu, which then got re-written, and re-written again (as menus do), but which, thanks to a group effort with chef Dennis Spina eventually became the concise collection of classic dishes with thoughtful sourcing and creative accents that it was always meant to be. I learned more about fire inspections than I ever expected to know. Need a plate engraved? I’ve got just the guy for you. Want to put your entire bar offerings into Revel? I’m your gal. 300 glasses need washing? No sweat. Having not hostessed since I was in college, I was reminded of what a thankless job it is as I sat guests for our Friends & Family dinners…and how far I’ve come. Teaching new servers how to be great servers, no problem. Being a great server myself, no thank you. I’ve waitressed enough tables and am quite happy to have graduated.
The Metrograph Commissary has been open a month now. We’re finding our rhythm. We’re about to launch brunch. I am preparing for my next adventure, one that surely demands its own dedicated post. But as I scramble to pack and try to leave my baby in the best possible stead, I realize how much I shall miss this place that in some small way, I helped to build. I’ve long joked that I like to get baby restaurants born; I like to care for them and coddle them–there’s nothing I won’t do for them when they are babies, but then I like to ween them and let them have their own, hopefully long, lives. I’m a governess, there to clean scraped knees and keep peace in the nursery, but ultimately to teach them how to thrive on their own. There’s no exact title for this role, but like many of the most interesting and rewarding jobs, the prerequisite is love.
All images by Mirella Cheeseman.