Pour another glass of beer, turn up the heat a little, and settle in front of your television for the Olympics. And every time you begin to wish you were there, let me remind you of what you are missing. Here are the scenes the cameras are not catching at Lake Placid.
Normally Lake Placid's population is 3,000. More than 25,000 spectators a day are expected. TV and press people will add another 3,000. For sponsors add 2,000. The athletes and team members number around 2,500. Olympics support personnel -- security, transport staff, snow packers and the like -- will be 3,000. Add maybe a thousand dignitaries and their staffs (this is, after all, an election year). Then include the townspeople's extra guests and all the workers that are being imported to help run the town's businesses, a figure estimated as high as 15,000. All this is in a town with 3,000 restaurant seats.
But it is not as bad as those numbers make it sound. The Olympics facilities include 2,600 seats for feeding the Olympics family. Lunches during the Olympics will be mostly box lunches. Most of the people staying in town will be fed where they are being housed, and those coming by bus for the day will probably eat box lunches on the bus.
Concessionaires and some restaurateurs don't even know whether they are going to be empty or swamped. The rest of the restaurateurs have already reserved all their tables ahead. Numbers and seats and reservations aside, the crucial factor is that Lake Placid is COLD. Last winter, -50* temperatures became familiar. Restaurants and bars will be nearly the only places to stay inside and try to get warm.
With the uncertainty, the real challenge may be not on the slopes or the ice but in the kitchen. Here are the feeding events:
Concession Team: Forget hot dogs. This is an international event, and the word is knackwurst. World's records are not only being made on the slopes, but in the convection ovens. Sanders Affiliates is planning to serve 9,000 people an hour. It's single giant among its snack bars can handle over 3,000 people an hour, each buying for several eaters. The thousands -- 40,000 a day, Sanders predicts -- will be eating knackwurst at about $3.50, including side dishes like German potato salad and sauerkraut. They will be having chili and stew and clam chowder at about the same price, or a platter of roast beef sandwich or chicken legs with vegetables at about $4.75. A cup of coffee will cost them 90 cents. And if they really want to warm up, they can get a jumbo size hot buttered rum or Irish coffee for somewhere around $4.
Box Lunch Events: That brings us to box lunches, the predicted major source of food in Lake Placid this week. Tour operators are dispensing box lunches to their customers. The Olympics support staff is getting free box lunches.
Acquiring a box lunch in town -- or even a snack -- will not be easy, however. Lake placid is hardly a deli capital. Main street has a couple of delicatessens about as big as gas station vending machine corners. Cap't. Billy's Whizz Bang doesn't live up to its name, but it sells big, klutzy subs, hot or cold, along with chili and pizza. Mr. Mike's Pizza is self-explanatory, but should be noted as a landmark because it is across from the single Main Street supermarket. Farther along Main Street -- a ride, actually -- is the Corner Grocery (everything in Lake Placid is self-explanatory). At the other end of Main Street, the Hilton or uptown end, is Potluck, the local outlet for Haagen-Dazs ice cream, along with bagels, simple groceries, sub sandwiches and imported cheese, sold in handy snack-size prewrapped chunks. One of Lake Placid's least heralded assets is its homemade soups, and they are as prevalent as Olympics souvenirs if you know where to look. Ringer's Ice Cream, for instance, is so far back in the Alpine Mall on Main Street that you might even enjoy your soup and bagel in relative quiet. On the street side of the mall is Helmut's Original Austrian Strudel, just the warm, sweet, greasy treat for a sub-zero day.
Restaurant Teams: Spectators with penchant for phoning ahead will be eating in restaurants, and whatever the experience, it will be appreciated as two hours in a warm place.
Lake Placid has more than 50 restaurants of sorts. The surprise is, given the erratic and transient dining population, that some of the restaurants are very good. Lake Placid is a town where the restaurants tend to do a little more than you expect.
What does Steak and Stinger conjure up? No, it is not a swinging singles mass-feeding steak joint, it is a large Victorian restaurant with -- like most local restaurants -- homemade soup and salad bar as part of every meal. And among the kitsch of newspaper menus and fake pewter plates are several homemade breads and fresh fish brought in three times a week. The vegetables are all fresh, and "all" includes a choice of a half-dozen. Charcoal-grilled meats -- thick, juicy, rare and rubbed with garlic butter -- vie with sole and crab in champagne sauce or veal with morels. Homemade applesauce, and the best french fries a potato might dream of becoming, such amenities, along with authentic Impressionist art works and candlelight and a greenhouse for a cocktail lounge, generally total less than $20 with wine and tip. This is the kind of restaurant where, though the two-person loin of lamb costs $29, a cup of coffee still costs 50 cents. As for the Olympich, the three seatings a night are mostly booked, with a $5 deposit. But tables will be held only 15 minutes, so some walk-ins will be accommodated. Most remarkable, though, is that the Steak and Stinger is maintaining its normal prices for the Olympics.
Frederick's, Interlaken and the Alpine Cellar are all local favorites in and around Main Street. Most locals would like to keep Interlaken their secret, for it is tiny and cozy, with wicker chairs around the fireplace and African violets on the tables. Although Interlaken's food is good -- particularly pork chops with Dijon mustard and buttery roesti potatoes -- the Swiss hospitality is even better. A glass of champagne by the fire while your dinner is prepared can improve even a misguided daily special. Ordinarily such coziness costs less than $15 even with wine and tip. But Interlaken will be $25 a head -- without wine, tax or tip -- during the Olympics, in three seatings. And most of those have been booked months ahead, though some space is being kept for walk-ins.
Much bigger is the Alpine Cellar, and newly redecorated with a hand-painted ceiling and picture windows overlooking the lake and -- until spring -- festively lit outdoor Christmas tree. Although the food can be stolid, the portions are wondrous. Wienerschnitzel is a safe choice, with tongue salad to start. For the Olympics, prices will be higher than the usual $10 to $15 feasts, but the menu will remain a la carte, and reservations will not be fitted into specific seatings.
Frederick's, with colonial formality and a menu heavy with tournedos and precision decorated pastries, is a restaurant that goes a bit too far. The charcoal-grilled lamb is rare and crusty, but swamped with a harsh brown sauce. Like the Steak and Stinger, a meal includes soup and salad bar, and the fish served is fresh, as are vegetables. But the efforts sometimes stumble into awkwardness -- starchy sauces, ketchup served in a lettuce-lined bowl. No awkwardness, however, is in the pastry-making. Hazelnut torte and blueberry napoleon could thaw the coldest Olympian's heart. During the Olympics, however, the menu will be abbreviated, the seatings crowded to three a night, and the $25 flat rate paid in advance. The 130-seat restaurant's kitchen will stretch to 400 meals a night in the dining room plus banquets that corporations have booked in advance for every night.
Mirror Lake, the town's central body of water, is not much of a seafood source, but fish and shellfish are nevertheless local specialties. The Harbor Restaurant is nautical in dress, complete with a Chris-Craft sitting in the middle of the dining room. Tanks hold live lobsters, and the menu holds excellent inventions such as scallops wrapped in bacon and coated with sesame seeds. During the Olympics, the usual $16 dinner check will jump to a $25 fixed price, and the 600 reservations a night will probably be filled by corporate sponsors.
As the largest public dining facilities in town, in the Lake Placid Resort Hotel, they happened to be closed during my visit. Cited for health violations last fall, the hotel has paid its fine and cleaned its premises, and its dining rooms are open under careful supervision of state health officials.
Other restaurants that locals praise are the Villa Vespa, Mirror Lake Inn, Jimmy's, the Ancient Mariner, the Artist's Cafe, the Charcoal Pit and Chair Six in town; the Hungry Trout in Wilmington, the Lodge at Lake Clear, Casa del Sol and Chopsticks -- the area's first Chinese restaurant -- in and around Saranac Lake.
All-Night Events: You can even eat in the middle of the night. And might be advised to do so. For, proud as locals are of their mountain and lake, they really beam when they talk of their Howard Johnson's. What other Howard Johnson's is decorated with barn siding and picture windows overlooking a garden? Does any other have a little old lady who comes in to make the soups for lunch and jams for breakfast? Where else in the Howard Johnson's world is steak teriyaki a Saturday night special or Swiss Bratwurst brought in from New York? Owner-operator Ron Butler plans to be open 24 hours and serve up to 5,000 people a day. Prices will be up 10 to 15 percent, but 13 waitresses will be ready around the clock to bring a fresh pot of hot coffee.
Seranac Lake, too, will have a major all-hours feeding station, the Hotel Saranac, which serves as the laboratory for Paul Smith's College hotel and restaurant school. The menu will be steak and seafood, and the price was still unsettled at last check. The students are said to be able to handle up to 2,000 meals a day.
Olympics Teams: The heavy feeding challenge, however, is the stomachs of the athletes, as filled as they are with butterflies and foreign predispositions. Everyone needs to feel at home, with food that tastes like home. Teams are bringing their own chefs along, but they will not be cooking, but merely adding their voices to the din. The athletes' caloric needs have been calculated by activity and weight, averaging 3,300 to 4,500 calories a day. The menus were devised to cover 21 basic nutritional elements, strong on carbohydrates. And special requirements were taken into account, from the hockey players' pre-game steak to kosher restrictions. The five-day cycle of menus starts with breakfasts of borscht, potato and leek soups, finnan haddie and sunny-side-up/over-light. The breads alone must include pumpernickel, egg bread, Italian loaves, French baguettes and brioches. To start. Each team had a chance to approve the menu. Still, teams are bringing their own favorite wines, cheeses, perhaps caviar. And whatever they don't work off at the rinks or slopes, they can dance off in the Olympic Village disco, open daily from 4 to 10 p.m. and billed by its "official host," Washington's Mike O'Harro, as "The only disco in the world harder to get into than Studio 54."
Corporate Teams: As the athletes peel their official Olympics bananas and spread their official Olympics grape jelly on their croissants, the Olympics sponsors are running their own little private Olympics Villages. Houses in town have been rented for the month, readied with new walk-in refrigerators and many-burner stoves. Chefs have been hired for the month to cook for waves of visitors -- top salesmen and major customers who are being given bonuses of Olympics vacations. The larders are stocked, the ovens are going. And cooking teams are ready to meet the challenge. As one contender, Ruth Bronz of Miss Ruby's Cafe in West Stockbridge, Mass., put it, she is ready for anything the Lake Placid winter Olympics demands. "If my stove breaks down, I'll build a fire."