I spent a number of formative years living in Northern Virginia and looking at art in Washington with an artist boyfriend for whom an ideal weekend outing was an afternoon in a gallery followed by dinner and drinks. Of the many galleries and museums we visited, my favorite was the Phillips Collection, where I spent many happy hours gazing at Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. I didn’t know then that the faces in the painting are portraits of people Renoir knew, and I certainly did not have the historical context to realize that the painting depicted an emerging French social structure—accepting of the French Revolution’s liberté, egalité, fraternité. But I did know that sometimes, rarely, one experiences a feeling of existing without self-consciousness, of being in harmony with everything and everyone else, of being completely in the moment, which is what I saw in the painting. At the time, based on limited experience and a religious upbringing, I described such moments as “a state of grace.” If you had asked me to explain it any further I’d have muttered incoherently about how a clear night sky or a perfect autumn day made me feel connected to… something.
I think I understand the elements that spark off these feelings a little better now. I think I know that it’s a combination of intangibles and dim memories combined in some individual and serendipitous way. I think I also know that it’s different for everyone and probably impossible to adequately describe. This feeling of delight and connectedness can happen in all sorts of circumstances, but for me it's most frequently associated with food and good company-- and it's in that context that I came up with the phrase "the Boating Party effect."
It was at Allioli (now closed), in 2001, that I mentioned the Renoir painting in an attempt to describe my delight. A small tapas restaurant here in Williamsburg, Allioli managed to hit on all of my senses in just the right way. Delicious and innovative food (they were to achieve a 27 from Zagats within the year), friendly staff who seemed delighted to be a part of something special, and a warm inviting interior. Nothing so unusual about these things in and of themselves, but taken as a whole they became something special. Remarkable, even.
The first time we had the tasting menu at Tocqueville (how I miss their old cramped but cozy dining room!) we experienced the same magic in a different package. Artfully composed food, attentive but not obsequious service and an intelligent wine steward encouraged us to wallow in the experience. We loved the place, we loved the food, we loved each other.
Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road in London had us nearly gibbering with unselfconscious delight. The food was heaven. The dining room was formal, but comfortable, with tables set discretely far apart from each other. The service was impeccable, but not stiff. Everything was perfect, from the moment the maître d offered to arrange individual tasting menus for each of us to the moment the young man in charge of the fromage trolley sighed with pleasure when I pointed to the runniest, stinkiest-looking cheese, round to our reluctant last tastes of coffee and cognac. We were in the moment.
There is a magic difficult to describe when everything is perfect in a dining room. The Boating Party effect is elusive. We did not find it at The French Laundry, though we adored the food. As delighted as we were to be there, to finally taste the famous Oysters and Pearls, we did not lose ourselves. The evening was hot and the dining room a little warm. The heavy table linens bothered my legs, the other diners did not seem as happy as I would have expected, the service was a little remote and cold. In contrast, we had dinner at Gary Danko’s just a few nights later and again found the magic. The food wasn’t better, but it was very, very good. The combination of food, service, atmosphere and who knows what intangibles were just… there. At La Bernardin the food knocked us out but we found the dining room a bit fussy and the service, while correct, somewhat disinterested.
I think we’ve established that the Boating Party effect is made up of intangibles, yet I cannot resist the temptation to define these intangibles into a concrete list:
The food must be very, very good
The kitchen and the wait-staff must genuinely care about your experience
The dining room must Feel Right
You must be in good company
It helps to be in love
The stars must be aligned