FOR A GERMAN boy brought up on gooey porridge, breakfast was one of the wonders of America. (The other wonders were skyscrapers, Sunday newspapers and the open double-decker Fifth Avenue bus.)
The regular 15-cents breakfast, when I arrived in New York City in 1936, consisted of freshly squeezed orange juice, cornflakes with sugar, real cream and sliced bananas, bacon and eggs on toast, jam and good coffee. No cellophane, silver foil or little paper bags.
Lunch and dinner, however, were pretty awful; all greasy-sloppy, unless you ventured to one of those little Italian places in Greenwich Village or had sweet-and-sour pork in Chinatown.
How America has changed!
Today you find pleasant restaurants for lunch and dinner almost everywhere in this country. But try to find a decent American breakfast. Croissants, maybe. The rest, particularly the coffee, is likely to be some "food substitute," or taste like it. Even in the most expensive hotels "fresh" orange juice means fresh out of the can or freezer.
American food after 11:30 a.m. is no longer merely fast or junk food. American restaurants are no longer places with uncomfortable booths, formica topped tables and paper napkins where the help calls you "buddy" or "honey."
The new American restaurants, like fine California wines, are beginning to rate with the best imports. They combine a new cuisine as American as cornbread (or fresh orange juice) with a new style of decor as American as Frank Lloyd Wright.
Gastronomically, in short, we are developing a New American Taste.
This taste for home baked virtues must not be confused with mawkish sentimentalism for Ye Olde Early American past that never was. Outside Colonial Williamsburg, where the effort to re-create history is honest, the colonial ambience is conjured up with candlelight, artificial worm holes in factory-made Shaker furniture and bonnets on the waitresses who serve technology-inspired products.
Much as the sudden enthusiasm for preserving old buildings in our cities is a reaction against the blandness of most modern architecture, so is the New American Taste in cooking a reaction against the blandness of processed food and bland, fabricated restaurant decors to match.
This is not to say that our new enthusiasm for old buildings or pure food reflects some Luddite anti-technologism. Not at all. Good historic preservation honestly employs sophisticated new building methods and materials. The new American restaurants inevitably sport some high-tech chic. Technolog is used, however, to serve our needs and wants, rather than to dictate how we live or what we eat.
In restaurant design, the approach to the menu is generally the same as the approach to the decor. Form follows food, as it were.
Thus in French restaurants, the heavy sauces and elaborate food preparation of classic cuisine are more often than not served in a setting of heavy drapery, dim chandeliers and elaborate interior decoration. Italian, Chinese, Mexican or other ethnic restaurants try to reflect their nationalities on the walls as well as the plates. The authenticity of the one is usually a good clue to the authenticity of the other.
In the new American restaurants the fare is simple, so the interiors are simple. The menu stresses natural food, such as crisp, fresh vegetables, so the interiors feature natural materials such as ceramic tile, plain wood and exposed brick. The cooking is plain -- what you eat is not disguised by thick sauces or mashed into intricate concoctions -- and the place is well lit so you can see what you are eating.
If other types of restaurants, particularly restaurants in the French tradition, aspire to the fanciful -- to contrast luxurious eating out with plain eating at home -- the new American restaurant intends to be wholesome. The idea is to give us not sophisticated sybaritic pleasures so much as the simple joys of nature's flavors, smells, textures, colors and a quality of sunny freshness.
As befits the product of a pluralistic society, the new American restaurant is unabashedly eclectic. The menu is likely to include freshly baked bagels as well as brioche, chili as well as California salad with avocado and alfalfa sprouts.
The decor is likely to mix Victorian stained glass windows with modern industrial light fixtures, Marimekko with Queen Anne.
An outstanding local example is The American Cafe in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. "The emphasis," its owners say, "is of fresh, natural ingredients, attractively arranged and presented with imagination and style." The same words could be applied to Charles Morris Mount's interior design, which I find refreshing, particularly on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Hill branch of the Cafe is built into the shell of an old town-house on Massachusetts Avenue. It emphasizes fresh, natural ingredients by selling some of them on the premises. The "market" is a white-tile walled, fragrant little shop, open to the Cafe's vestibule, that could be a boucherie on Montmartre. It is packed with meats, fresh bakery products, cheeses, herbs, prepared house salads, special seasonal fruit and such. The cheerful help will make you a sandwich to eat outside if you get too hungry to wait for a Cafe table.
The Cafe itself is spacious and cheerful and immensely simpatico. I am not sure what makes it so emphatically American. It is surely not the neon light star in the entrance hall, although that is a nice touch. I suppose it is the informal and unpretentious atmosphere created by a combination of lighting, handsome oak furniture, abundant flowers and spiffy attention to every detail of tableware. None of this is original or artsy. It all has quality.
What is original is the bar, which is located in a two-story loft space in a gutted part of the townhouse. The old brick walls are held together by an intricate steel structure that hovers over the bartender and looks as "high-tech" as the web of a spider from outer space. Mount has hung light fixtures and an over-the-bar glass rack on it. Nice.
The new Clyde's at Tysons Corner, in contrast to this studied artlessness, is delightfully and skillfully artsy-crafty.
At Tysons Corner, this Georgetown-based "American Bar" is totally out of context of a city. It has its own building and parking lot somewhere in that embarrassing hodge-podge of vulgar emporia, office slabs, neon, freeways, ramps, overpasses, underpasses and parking lots.
It is an outpost and lesser men than architect John Richard Andrews and Clyde's owners Stuart C. Davidson and John G. Laytham would have done as the suburbanites do. They would have erected the flimsiest shack permissible by the building codes, wrapped it in neon and a lewd facade and concentrated on an interior conducive to the maximum amount of consumption at the minimum expense. That's how suburbia was built.
Instead, they ventured to bring civilization to Tysons Corner. And, they did it!
Andrew's building, set on a platform, or stylobate, and held in warm brick and limestone with a prominent copper roof, could also be a small museum. bIt has that dignity. It also has the inviting charm of a restaurant -- a restaurant worthy of a more attractive location -- along the Potomac, say, or in the Bois de Boulogne. But then, when landscape architect Lester Collins' Bradford Pear Trees and other greenery are further along, the building will be more suitably framed.
Andrews' interior architecture more than keeps the promises of his exterior.
It is full of surprises and clever ideas. Beginning with an Art Nouveau Revival brass and glass revolving door, it is also a treasure of Art Nouveau and Art Deco collectors' items and commissioned arts and crafts pieces.
This wildly eclectic and massive accumulation of arty objects -- to say nothing of full grown palm trees, marvelous wrought iron railings and trellises or superb woodwork -- may sound like a lot of clutter. It isn't. Andrews has neatly arranged it all into separate but open compartments -- two bars, four dining rooms, a foyer and, of course, a kitchen. Altogether, the restaurant seats 400.
Each of the bars as well as the Palm Terrace, the Oyster Bar, the Cafe and the Grill, has its distinct decor, art, custom designed and hand-made furnishings, color scheme and ambience. Yet, as Andrews designed the place, all these spaces flow effortlessly into one another. Andrews works this magic of transition with the help of slightly differing levels, carved glass panels, well placed art works, planters and other happy tricks.
The largest commissioned work at the new Clyde's is 75 feet of frolicking young ladies and gentlemen without their clothes on, painted with lusty realism by William Woodward. To me, the most attractive work is a collection of bird paintings by Robin Hill. And the most impressive single accomplishment in this symphony is "the Clyde chair" of walnut with leather seats designed by Peter Danko, faintly Art Deco in its lines.
There are at least a dozen more worthy artists and craftsmen who have contributed to a restaurant design which I find equal to the best in New York -- The Four Seasons in the Seagram Building, the Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, the Ground Floor in the CBS Building as Eero Saarinen designed it (it has been altered since) and the Tavern on the Green.
The foremost tastemakers, both architecturally and gastronomically, of the new American style of restaurant, however, make taste in Boston. They are Jane and Ben Thompson, she a designer planner and former editor, he a prominent architect and good cook.
Thompson rose to prominence when he worked with Walter Gropius, one of the founding fathers of the Modern movement. He headed the Harvard architecture school and founded Design Research, the store that introduced well designed European home accessories and Marimekko fabrics to America.
Thompson's most important accomplishments are his brilliant redevelopment of the old Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and his design for the recently opened Harborplace in Baltimore.
Faneuil Hall, Thompson decided, needed certain kinds of restaurants, American restaurants. None came forward. None existed. So Jane and Ben Thompson launched their own and gave a boost to the new American gastronomy.
The grandest of their four establishments is the Wild Goose at Faneuil Hall. Your goose is cooked over wood fire, which is how everything is cooked in the Thompson home. Never charcoal, never gas. All the guests in the Wild Goose can watch the giant rotisserie from their tables. Jane Thompson calls this "visual involvement." You can also order venison, pheasant and even wild boar.
Ben and Jane Thompson also put their magic formula of combining good simple food with good simple design to work at Baltimore's Harbor-place. gThe two market pavillions along the Inner Harbor, with its ships and bustle, are a modern reincarnation of the Greek Revival Quincy Markets in Boston. While the Thompsons do not have a restaurant of their own at Harborplace, they and the developer, the Rouse Company, found some very good surveyors and some leading eateries to open branches there. Among them are Pronto of New York City, The Black Pearl from Norfolk, Phillips from Ocean City, Md., and the American Cafe -- all in the best American taste.
But still no decent American breakfast.