A Virtual Tour of Panama, France, and England

Through this newsletter, we have been offering our supporters and friends episodes of armchair traveling by following Cabot Yerxa’s journey to Europe in 1925. In our current day, with restaurants closed since mid-March and reopenings just now starting with limited service, we thought we would put together some of Cabot’s dining-out experiences as related in his journal. Bon appétit!
IN COLON, PANAMA

I ate fish for dinner: head, eyes, and fins. This fish, plate of plain boiled rice, 1/2 roll, and black coffee was my dinner at 11 a.m. … This place is a mere hole in the wall in the working-class section of Colon, patronized only by a few Spaniards. I am the only white man in sight for blocks. When a barefooted boy (he’s the waiter) put this darn fish down in front of me, with that fixed stare of a dead fish eye looking up out of the middle of my dinner, … I looked over at a man just starting his dinner, also having a dead fish, eye and all, on his plate. I lagged behind him to see whether he put the fish on the rice or rice on the fish or trimmed up his fish first. He kept eating fish and rice about 50/50, picking out the bones from his mouth, reserving the fish head for last. With one continuous movement he slid his knife under the fish’s head and swung it into his mouth, eye end all. He chewed happily for a few moments and then deposited a few bones on his plate. I did not eat my fish’s head, and that fish eye looked at me when I left in vague surprise.

Go down side street and stop when you see two flowers planted in two standard oil cans on the sidewalk, near which is a box. On the box is a cage containing two small green parrots with yellow heads. The owner is Spanish, and the patronage is Spanish. In the door sits a glass case homemade. Three feet long it is and contains rolls, fried bananas, and fried pork scraps. Behind it is a jar containing melted butter in which a knife stands on end. Two tables each seating four people on wooden benches nearly fill the room. In the corner, Conchita has two fires of charcoal, on one coffee, on the other is cooking the 11 a.m. meal. Steam from this kettle smells of peppers and garlic. On the wall are two guitars which belong to the place, and anyone at all plays them before or after eating. They belong to the guests to use. So most always there is music in Conchita’s restaurant.

IN PARIS, FRANCE

Today noon I went into cheap place to eat on rue St. Michel near jardin du Luxembourg. Had cold potatoes, fish in vinegar, olive oil over all, next mutton stew, next French fry potatoes, bread (no butter), next custard, next glass vin rouge — for five francs. Served absolutely one thing at a time, only very, very small portions. It would all go on one plate in American style. But it is enough and is 25 cents U.S.A. This same meal with music and served where tourists go would cost $1 to $1.50 American money.

The other day in a restaurant came an American man and woman. They could not talk French. And they tangled up the whole room trying to get things as they were in America. No, they did not drink anything but water. Then they wanted all their meal at the same time, which of course is out of the question. Because following the custom, you eat only one thing at a time. Even if you order pickles, you eat pickles and then order potatoes and so on. The tables are not large enough to put more than one dish down at a time per person. … When [the couple] paid their bill, there was a charge just to sit down and an extra charge for drinking water instead of wine — new things to the Americans. The French were highly amused and said Americans are funny people. Well, I understand how the French looked at them, and I know just the thoughts the tourist had.

Le Petit Vatel was started by an artist and a musician. The name is “little Vatel,” meaning that in a small way they will try to make the cooking good. Street singers stop outside and sing for pennies. Wandering or broke musicians play for hat collection and then sit down to eat. The food is fine and very cheap. Soup, meat, vegetable, dessert, and bottle wine, all of this for 24 cents with tip to girl.

Three of us, strangers to each other, sat in the back room of the Petit Vatel Restaurant. The waitress is very busy. Strolling players, a violin and flute, are playing a lively tune. French shop girls, eager for amusement, are singing or tapping plates to keep time to the music. It is late. The first rush is over, and the tables are covered with bottles and dirty dishes. Menu cards on the floor, table papers soiled or discolored with spilled beer or wine. Some diners tarry and smoke. One girl has to wait on 28 people here, and our chance for service looks slim indeed. One of the three of us is a French woman with good jewelry and a diamond or two. No doubt she is used to better surroundings. She shouts at the waitress and makes claims for attention. The waitress smiles and promises “half a minute.” The other of the three of us is a poor, pale, hunchback girl. She knows the restaurant and its system. So she gets up and brings a clean table cover, three glasses, three bottles of wine, and three sets of eating tools and a basket of bread from somewhere back of the scenes. And so we start our meal and get along very well.

 IN LONDON, ENGLAND

Bertorelli’s Italian Restaurant in middle of foreign quarter; went to supper here with M.P. and found a very excellent meal. Bohemian atmosphere and everyone knows the waitress, a very quiet Italian girl with plain combed hair who says goodbye to the regulars who eat here, a few Hindus, Italians, students, and nondescripts. Cigarette smoke and garlic. Closes at 10 p.m. Only warm room I have found in London.

 

Our thoughts are with those who own or work in a restaurant. We know that this has been a particularly difficult time for you and wish you a bright future no matter what you decide to do moving forward. We further hope that people particularly patronize locally owned dining venues when they reopen. Restaurants play an important role in our communities’ economic welfare and fill us with delight through tantalizing dishes, a variety of ambiances … and, typically, a shared experience.