No Sparklers at Ducasse!

  John Witt was sitting at Da Silvano eating sea urchin and avocado pasta with friends on a recent Thursday


John Witt was sitting at Da Silvano eating sea urchin and avocado pasta with friends on a recent Thursday night when there was a sudden commotion and a sparkly candle.”There was a sort of happy-birthday ‘Hurrah!'” said Mr. Witt, 30, a Columbia law professor. “All the lights went off for a moment. It was over very quickly, but I was startled. People seem to be so concerned with being cool in Da Silvano, and the birthday seemed to jar with that.”

“It was disruptive-a little distracting,” said one of Mr. Witt’s dining companions, a corporate lawyer named Matt Elkin, 33.

Da Silvano manager Giovanni Zini has been buying the sparkly candles at a party store near his house in New Jersey for a couple of years. For birthdays, he said, “we put on the special song-sometimes Stevie Wonder, sometimes Marilyn Monroe.”

It’s a nice gesture, but Manhattan restaurant history shows that such gestures come at a price. Could Da Silvano, which the 2002 Zagat Survey described as a “‘trip to Tuscany’ by way of Vanity Fair ,” be in danger of becoming a “birthday restaurant”-a place you remember more for the little song-and-dance routine that takes place at the end of the meal than the food?

L’Orange Bleu, a Mediterranean restaurant at the intersection of Broome and Crosby streets, is one such place. When it opened in those hazy golden days of 1997, reviewers were pleased with the restaurant’s endive salad, salmon tartare and cod wrapped in parchment, and it seemed Soho could lay claim to another “solid corner bistro.” A recent visit, however, found L’Orange Bleu fully transmogrified into a “birthday restaurant”: dimmed lights, shimmying patrons and a sputtering cake, which a waiter proffered to several different tablefuls of celebrants before snatching it away in a “psych!”-type motion (not your turn yet, ha ha ). The food was still good, and the movie star Liv Tyler was there, but who could concentrate?

Owner Vincent Vega, who used to have French friends smuggle in sparklers but has since found a distributor in Florida (Sparktacular), said he sometimes hosts 25 such celebrations per night. “The American public is very wanting to celebrate the birthdays in restaurants, you know?” he said.

Of course. Examples of established “birthday restaurants” in Manhattan include Rose of India and its neighbors on East Sixth Street, better known for their strobe-light shows than saag paneer ; Fujiyama Mama, a disco sushi joint on Columbus Avenue (“The waiters form a row and everyone holds candles-kind of zany,” remembered one visitor); Mama Mexico, further uptown on the West Side; and anywhere with a drag-queen wait staff. These places have reached the point of no return; they will never be mere restaurants again.

Ditto their more expensive yet equally gaudy brethren: Does anyone dispute that Tavern on the Green, the Russian Tea Room and Le Cirque 2000 (which encases its birthday guests’ desserts in sugar-blown colored cages) are now little more than high-end Chuck E. Cheeses? Or-a corollary-that Lot 61, Eugene and the Hudson Cafeteria gave up on being restaurants long ago and are now nightclubs with food? (Time elapsed between New York Times critic William Grimes slapping the latter with a “Poor” rating and Page Six spotting Sting there at Moroccan Night “playing tambourine” and “capering with the belly dancer”: approximately 15 months.)But there’s still hope for La Caravelle, Cipriani, the Water Club, Chez es Saada, Montrachet, the Tribeca Grill and Mesa Grill (the word “Grill” may be, in its way, as perilous a signifier as “Mama”)-though in this queasy economy, jumping the shark in one way or another may be a prerequisite for survival.

Danny Meyer is the man responsible for classy joints like Tabla, where they give birthday guests a discreet gold box of truffles, and Union Square Café, which is so resistant to jumping the shark that, as one visitor put it, “The waiter’s temples just throb in tempo to ‘Happy Birthday.'” But Joe Neumaier, a 34-year-old freelance copy editor, was startled when he took his wife to check out Mr. Meyer’s newest venture, Blue Smoke, and encountered what he termed a “to-do”-waiters serenading a boisterous table. “It frankly killed the whole dining experience,” he said. “Everyone around had to stop. And then there’s that awkward moment: Do we all clap? Should we clap? I don’t want to clap, but if everyone else starts clapping, am I going to look like a bad sport?”

“We do sing if people want us to sing,” countered Blue Smoke’s general manager, Mark Maynard-Parisi, “but it’s not like we have a policy-‘O.K., it’s your birthday, we all sing this song.'” He recommended his establishment’s custom devil’s-food and coconut-layer cakes. “There is nothing like giving people a cake,” he said. “This is a place to eat and have fun; it’s not a place to intellectualize our food. We want to be that place. We need to be that place.” 

No Sparklers at Ducasse!