An S.U.V. rolled up to an Upper East Side townhouse, two groggy teens squinting as they emerged. Jane and Jennifer, both 14, both students at the Horace Mann School, hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, but managed to catch a few winks on the way back from Fire Island. Jane pushed the bell for No. 5 and, a flash later, an older woman with the glamour of an aging movie star air-kissed and welcomed the girls. She was Camille Lavington, etiquette teacher extraordinaire.
A generation ago, lessons like these were pretty standard stuff for girls who were either born into, or aspiring to join, New York society. Back then, they called it charm school or finishing school, and it would often be part of the standard curriculum at all-girl private schools and colleges. These days, the term is “etiquette coaching,” and it’s becoming a popular extracurricular activity for some Manhattan teenagers.
Inside Ms. Lavington’s apartment, the two girls, still with the smell of beach on their North Face fleeces, hunched uncomfortably on back-crunching antique chairs. “So why are we here today, ladies?” asked Ms. Lavington. In her black evening gown, she could have been headed to the opera. Jane yawned and then told a story about how she exploded some ketchup packs in the microwave. “I think my mom wants me to learn how to act properly.”
The agenda that day: to learn a thing or two about standing when someone enters the room, the proper way to cross legs and shake hands, what to do when a boy asks you out last minute, general table manners and even a wine-tasting simulation using lemonade (the good stuff, not from powder).
“And when you meet strangers,” Ms. Lavington said in her stately tone, “never talk about personal health, politics, religion or sex.” The last word, of course, woke the girls up a bit and evoked giggles.
Although Ms. Lavington doesn’t focus exclusively on training teens, she said she’s seen explosive growth in demand for teens recently, and has been trying to update her curriculum to be a tad hipper, doper and more super-fly. She still teaches the old-school Pretty Woman fork-location stuff, but now covers cell-phone and e-mail etiquette and even warns students about boys who might try to slip roofies into their mojitos. Meanwhile, teen enrollment at both Ophelia DeVore School of Charm at 350 Fifth Avenue and Etiquette International on East 68th Street has increased about 40 percent in the past year.
“You want to say your child is perfect just the way she is,” said Jane’s mom, Regina Weinstock. “But Jane could benefit from learning some etiquette.” (Jane agreed: “I hunch, I keep my legs wide open, I’m a total barbarian.”)
And it’s no secret that etiquette might give a girl an edge in the increasingly competitive college-admissions game. To get into the top schools, kids must give good interview. They have to be civilized, even likable.
And many parents, of course, are concerned with how their kids’ atrocious behavior reflects on them. Mean kids, ratty kids, goofy kids, potty-mouthed tweaked-out snots-ultimately, it’s all a reflection of the upbringing. “Look at what the Bush girls did-they almost ruined their father’s reputation with their drinking,” snorted Ms. Lavington. “Horrible!”
But parents don’t necessarily want their friends to know that the kids have been sent for a tune-up. “When you get into the elite crowd in Manhattan, it’s a pretty closed-door operation,” said veteran etiquette coach and former Dalton School teacher Christina Collins. “People don’t want to admit you’re not born with etiquette.” The assumption is that, by high school, all the polishing has been done. The fact that it’s happening with teens is a bit hush-hush. “We wouldn’t know anything about that. Good day!” said a spokeswoman at the Spence School before hanging up the phone.
Though the clientele is a bit younger (10- to 13-year-olds), Barclay’s Etiquette Classes at the Abigail Adams Smith Museum at 417 East 61st Street remain a staple of the Manhattan private-school experience. The evening mixers may seem like just a bunch of awkward prepubescents getting together to dance awkwardly and prepubescently, but through ballroom dance, the kids are supposed to learn proper introductions, greetings and social graces. “It’s about teaching the children how to be at ease,” said Lois Thompson, director of Barclays. Barclays did try to groom older teens in the 70’s, but it resulted in mild disaster. “We tried classes for teenagers, but spent most of our time policing the bathroom stalls for booze, pot and sex,” said Ms. Thompson.
Back at Ms. Lavington’s, the meal portion of the lesson had ended. She distributed homework: diagrams depicting the location and purpose of a mélange of superfluous silverware.
A couple of days later, chatting on the phone, Jane said that despite zoning out for large portions of Ms. Lavington’s lesson, she enjoyed it and intended to go back for more. It was surprising, she added, how nice Ms. Lavington turned out to be: “I totally expected her to have more of a stick up her butt, but she really wasn’t like that at all.”
On a recent Saturday night, when the wait for a table for two at Haru on Amsterdam Avenue was 30 to 45 minutes, complete with a 30-person white stretch Lincoln Navigator idling curbside, there was plenty of room at the sushi restaurant across the street, Roppongi.
The principle of opening a restaurant to capitalize on the overflow from other popular dining spots is nothing new-many a restaurant row has been spawned from that approach. But on this corner of the Upper West Side, and elsewhere around Manhattan, a pattern like the Roppongi-Haru duel has taken hold. For every highly rated but still reasonably priced sushi hot spot like Haru, there exists one right across the street, or around the corner, pandering to diners for whom sushi is sushi is sushi.
Second-choice sushi: It’s a tangible acknowledgment that for many New Yorkers, any restaurant with a fistful of consonants will do. After waiting 15 minutes in a slow-snaking line, many will shrug their shoulders and walk across the street or down the block, where, more and more, there’s likely to be another sushi restaurant, often with a slew of empty tables.
“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a huge difference in food quality-certainly not enough to justify waiting 45 minutes for sushi,” said Larry Goldstein, 34, a bond trader sitting at one of Roppongi’s outdoor tables. He’d been to Haru two weeks ago, and had waited three-quarters of an hour for a table. “I always just go to Roppongi now, because I know I’ll be in and out without an ordeal.”
In 1999, three years after Haru opened, Jenny Nguyen opened Roppongi, with spicy tuna rolls for a dollar less and waits much shorter than those across the street.
“We talk about Roppongi quite a bit,” said Seth Rose, corporate manager for Haru Holdings, who added that Haru owner Barbara Matsumura is still smarting from being outfoxed by Roppongi. She had wanted to open a second Haru in that location, as she did across the street from her Haru branch on the Upper East Side, where the lines were so long that the community board complained they were obstructing sidewalk traffic. But Roppongi’s Ms. Nguyen beat her to it.
“Haru sort of occupies 76th and Third,” said Mr. Rose. “I don’t think anyone would want to take a risk to open up a Japanese place on that corner. We occupy those two corners to keep other people out.”
Indeed, defensive tactics may be necessary. If you sit at the table in the window at Kirara, a cozy sushi spot on Carmine Street, you can see the French windows of the West Village branch of Yama, whose highly rated and gargantuan sushi pieces provoke loyalty and debate. And just two blocks north of Yama’s branch at 17th Street and Irving Place, there’s Choshi. Meanwhile, Totoya at 63rd Street and First Avenue is cater-corner to Sushi Seki. Two doors down from Hasaki on East Ninth Street is Sharaku, housed in a prominent greenhouse.
“Sometimes we’re packed before Hasaki,” Sharaku manager Nitta Atsuo said. “Sometimes they get our benefit, I believe-so nobody can say who is depending on other.” Though Sharaku opened a few months before Hasaki in 1984, Zagat doesn’t include the restaurant in its guide, while Hasaki is listed as one of the best eateries in the East Village.
“We were actually at Hasaki, but it was way too crowded,” said television producer Ed Salzano on a recent evening as he and his wife, Carline Ross, dined at Sharaku.
“I used to go to Hasaki, but I got so fucking tired of waiting,” said restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, explaining how he had come to try Sharaku. His review: “It was almost the same, except the cute Japanese servers weren’t there.”
“It doesn’t happen with foods that people are casual about,” he added. “You don’t get a lot of overflow from Eleven Madison Park.”
“When the line gets busy at Yama, people start coming to this restaurant,” said Choshi manager Yasu Hashimoto. “It’s quite different people, those from Yama and our regular customers. People who wanted to go to Yama, they ask for sushi and sashimi. This place has different kinds of dishes. People who go to Yama expect huge sushi. It’s kind of sad, because I don’t think they understand the differences between this restaurant and Yama.”
Waiting on line at Yama was what drove Mas Hashimoto (no relation to Yasu Hashimoto), a director at a bond-rating agency, to Choshi in the first place. “There were too many people, and I was hungry. The wait was just a little bit too long,” he said. Someone on the line mentioned Choshi. He fled.
Now it’s his first choice. “The sushi’s definitely gotten better over time,” he said. “I’ve been going to Choshi first recently.”
“I am glad now when customers say this sushi is better than Yama,” said the manager, Ms. Hashimoto. “I like to hear that. I’d like to hear that more often.”
“These restaurants are small. That’s the primary reason” for this pattern, said Tanya Wenman Steel, the New York editor at Bon Appétit . “They think: Sushi is sushi is sushi. Which it’s not. Japanese restaurants have never been more dissimilar than they are now, but I don’t know if New Yorkers recognize that.”