Monday, April 15, 2013

Girl Bites Boy; Eats Alone: Breakup Food 101

One Friday night in the not too distant past, I was blithely getting ready for a date with a guy I had been seeing for a few weeks. There was the enervating rush of trying to repair the ravages of a day’s work when unable to go home and freshen up, because rush hour traffic will make me late. It’s a mission not unlike storming the beach at Normandy: you have only one chance to make a good impression or to protect Western Europe from the Axis forces.

Finally satisfied with my efforts at personal renovation – which included a new hairdo and a mad dash to Zara for a more “datier” top - I made my way to my destination, anticipating the evening ahead. However, about two hours later, I was on my way to Canters solo, in search of comfort food.  

Not such a neon jungle: Canter's glowing refuge on Fairfax Avenue.

While the name of this blog may imply a carefree, unfettered female who lives only to eat, nothing could be farther from the truth. I do make an effort to have an actual love life. I am not one to kiss and tell, but I do enjoy kissing and eating (armed with Altoids, of course). A handsome face across the table is always the best sauce, I say.

I am pretty used to eating alone most of the time. It’s just what happens in a busy life, with the demands of a schedule filled with work, exercise, and various social and cultural interests. Sometimes I look forward to a table or counter to myself, eager to dive into a good book and a good meal, feeling both comforted and empowered in my solitude.

Then there are times when being alone at the table is a damning, painful feeling. This often follows the demise of a relationship. To combat this, I have a rotating prescription of feel-good foods, many of which lean toward the carb-y and chocolately. Even if the end of a relationship is for the best, there is still a feeling of loss, embarrassment, and inadequacy. Ironically, these emotions seem keener when one is the breaker-upper rather than the break-ee. But I digress.

Dorothy Parker was attributed with saying,
“Where’s the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?”
She was only partly right – what could be better than
a rainbow cookie from Canters that coordinates
perfectly with my backpack?
It’s so strange to realize that Canters has a Website, as the restaurant belongs to a period in my life when the Internet was still science fiction.  and the reality of three-dimensional objects like old diner booths and neon signs had more value than the same environment in HD brilliance.

I’ve been eating at Canters since shortly after high school, which is so long ago that I have no recollection of how I found the restaurant in the first place. I’ve gone there with large groups of friends and co-workers, back in the days when I ran in a youthful, noisy pack. Shelly gorged herself sick once on the dishes of pickles that appear on the table in the interim time between arriving and being able to order your meal – which used to average about 40 minutes. We accepted much abuse over the years from the gruff staff with good nature and grumbling stomachs. An impatient friend asked twice for a glass of water from a waiter who we dubbed “Houdini” because of his leonine but aging good looks. The waiter snarled, “I’ve only got two hands!” This same friend earned a dirty look for our somewhat loud and rowdy table from Rodney Dangerfield, who was dining nearby with his daughter (at least, we thought it was his daughter) when his frantic “Where? Where is he?” startled the comedian. We all laughed and told our friend to pipe down, but we weren’t as embarrassed as we probably should have been.

Canters is the closest thing I have to “A Clean,Well-Lighted Place” when I’m blue. It is one of the few places where my urban survival mode shuts itself off and once again, I’m a snarky, nerdy-cute teen with a new drivers’ license. I feel about the place like Holly Golightly did about Tiffany’s – nothing bad can ever happen to you there.

The d├ęcor, which has remained nearly unchanged in the last 30 years or more, is mid-century cozy, with roomy booths, a neat screen made of colored glass discs meshed together by a fisherman’s net of thick chain, and an overall golden haze, much like the hue crust on a potato knish. There are lighted cases with sliding glass doors that contain mysterious halves of cantaloupe and slim quarter slices of watermelon. I have never seen anyone order one of these slabs of fruit and always had wondered if they were real.

The ceiling in the first dining area is covered with acetate “tiles” that are lit from behind, each one featuring a quarter-paneled photograph of autumnal tree branches against a Technicolor blue sky. This always makes me think of walking home from school with Greg Brady. Peter was cuter, but Greg was the oldest and thereby, a catch in my mind. Any guy with a kidnapped goat in his room can’t be all that bad. 

Another Rodney – Bingenheimer, that is – has been at Canters nearly every night that I have ever been there in the last three decades. The New Wave impresario of my teenage years still has his show on KROQ FM in the wee hours of the morning, as he continues to celebrate new talent on the L.A. music scene. He also has his own special soup at Canters, a hearty concoction of beans in a savory broth that is kept to thicken on the back of the stove for him all day. Over the years, I would see him sitting with an entourage in his regular booth next to the staircase. Lately, I have seen him alone or not at all. This is probably due more to my self-imposed curfew of more recent years than to his seniority as the gracefully aging Mayor of the Sunset Strip.

Bingenheimer wasn’t there the night I sought solace in this safe haven of my teen angst and hope. I felt like something out of a 21st Century version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” sitting at the counter and emailing Alice, who would totally understand my random message about eating after a failed evening out while waiting for my order. Amusingly, my big news to her was not that I had broken up with yet another misguided suitor, but that I was eating stuffed cabbage after breaking up with ----------.

Take another little piece of my heart – or my stuffed cabbage.
Heartbreak and hunger cut like a knife at Canters.

I’ve taken many dates over the years to Canters in much the same spirit that one would introduce a guy to Mom. While almost all of them have liked the food, I personally did not always end up with five stars on Yelp. But no matter. In the proper frame of mind, knishes can sometimes be better than kisses.

A few days later, Alice shared the link to Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” While I will never experience the therapeutic qualities of ice cream as Viagra (at least, I hope not), I have to admit that a toasted Black Russian slathered with whitefish salad from the Bagel Factory is not a bad way to bandage a bruised ego and achy heart. Nor is a half a cantaloupe from a glass case, my equivalent of really breaking loose when having lost at love. (Now you know why I’m single.)


  1. Is it wrong that all I took from this is that there's a Zara near you? KIDDING! A perfectly seasoned soup, if I may be so cornball. It's rich with personalities, times, tastes and feelings we all can savor.

  2. Yes - it's actually just down the street from Canter's, at the Grove on Fairfax!... You can get both your schmatta and your schmaltz on, in less than a mile!...

  3. I have no idea what schmatta and schmaltz are but I'm picturing us arm-in-arm singing it 'Laverne & Shirley'-style real soon.

  4. Hahahaha!... "Hasenpfeffer, Incorporated!"

  5. Hi Joanie. I haven't looked in on your blog in quite awhile and really enjoyed this. I miss your writing!

  6. That makes two of us, Brenda - I miss my writing the blog!... But getting back into it lately, thank you for your kind words!...Hope all is well with you, your family, and the office at CSUDH!...