Liz Smith: A Tribute to the Magical, Marvelous Elaine Kaufman

Liz Smith and Elaine Kaufman

Our Gossip Girl fondly remembers one of New York City’s most beloved restauranteurs

“If you can’t eat a Dove bar now and then, life isn’t worth living!”

This is an Elaine Kaufman truism direct from the famous café owner who left us bereft last week as she ended her legendary saga. I continue with my report on the late Elaine from a book I wrote in 2005 called Dishing.

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“I KNEW Elaine Kaufman back in the early fifties, when she was a waitress at Portofino in Greenwich Village. She was then in love with the café owner, Alfredo Viazzi, a charming Italian guy who was soon outstripped when Elaine left him and became a restaurant legend of her own. We have had many adventures since 1953 , or was it 1954?

“I have enjoyed a lot of caviar and smoked salmon from Elaine Kaufman over the years but it was a Tex-Mex evening that almost did us both in. Elaine and I once left the confines of New York to go to Fort Worth, Texas, where our pal, former TCU beauty queen June Jenkins, was opening a restaurant in the downtown, newly refurbished by Sid Bass, which is fondly called ‘Cowtown.’  (June is wed to the writer Dan Jenkins, who I call ‘the chicken-fried steak novelist.’ All of his wonderfully funny books contain prominent mentions of this Texas delicacy. His wife’s restaurant at the time also featured C.F.S. but leavened in some hot Tex-Mex.)

“This was a great night for me. I had been born only a few miles from downtown Fort Worth … June’s restaurant opened with a highfalutin bang because of the backing of the Midas-like Bass family. At the opening, I ignored social climbing and simply ate everything in sight: tacos, hot jalapenos, enchiladas, lashings of chicken-fried steak and gravy, buckets of margaritas. Elaine was more reserved. She was fascinated that the café had no desserts – only massive frozen Dove bars. As the TV genius Chuck Barris says, ‘A balanced diet is a Dove bar in each hand!’ Anyway, Elaine’s resolve crumbled. She ate two—or three.

“The next day we were two very sick puppies. ‘Bad idea to come here,’ moaned Elaine. I said, agreeing with Tom Wolfe in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again … So we went back to Manhattan on our shields, so to speak. Then we made a pact. We’ll only go back to Texas to rodeo, not to eat!

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“Now, there are several things they always say about Elaine…Here’s cookbook maven Barbara Kafka:

‘Well, what about the food? It isn’t fancy but if one stays within the strong points of the kitchen, it is possible to have a really excellent meal. The steaks are good, particularly the T-bone, the spinach is impeccably clean. A first-rate Caesar salad or roasted peppers with fresh anchovies or try an artichoke. There is an ample chicken-vegetable soup. There is a good Oreo cheesecake. There are splendid wines.’

For a while, a friend of mine – Elaine Stritch – tended bar at Elaine’s because she liked to be around booze and theater life was slow in the summer. Elaine Kaufman attracts show biz types. She once had Jackie Gleason do his bartender number behind her bar.

“It was in Elaine’s, just as the documentary ‘Pumping Iron’ was being released, that I met the young Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those were less PC times and I asked if I could sit on his lap and feel his muscles. He naturally said yes and now every time I see the governor of California, I find myself inappropriately feeling him up. It’s a tradeoff. It just seems silly to stop now.

“It was in Elaine’s where one night I sat between two VIMs (very important musicians) at dinner and both were blessedly much older than I. So it was great fun to be flirted with and treated like a kid by Skitch Henderson and Isaac Stern.

“And, oh yes, lest I forget. I love the waiters at Elaine’s. Most of them have been there for years and they are great.

Now, for tourists, wannabes and celebrity chasers – you can get into Elaine’s. Just make a reservation. But don’t expect to sit at the best tables along the wall. Actually, all of the tables are perfectly fine. Behave, don’t table hop, don’t annoy the lions. Leave a good tip. Don’t ask for hamburger – Elaine doesn’t like it. She doesn’t serve them.

She’s the queen and that’s that!”

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So, farewell to Elaine Kaufman, a woman who lived her legend. I felt privileged to have been a very small part of observing it.

One Response so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    So, farewell to Elaine Kaufman, a woman who lived her legend. I felt privileged to have been a very small part of observing it.

    I suspect after 50+ years you were a very large part of living it along with her! You were blessed to have known her and she you no doubt!