A Restaurant as Old as a Memory

We visit our old stomping grounds in NYC a few times a year. Last month we made a quick trip into the city, and my husband and I had an evening alone. We walked the increasingly unfamiliar streets. Shops and restaurants have a short half life, and the meat packing district we strolled was almost unrecognizable, with its hipper-than-thou shops replacing, well, meat packers. 

"It's still here!"

So it was surprising to me to see the Mesa Grill sitting staunchly in its place on 5th Avenue in the Flat Iron. We went inside to have a drink. It was a Wednesday night, and happy faces in summery business attire crowded the tables. One time, that was me.

In the spring of 1994 I received a sudden promotion on the trading floor where I'd worked. The boss had quit, and the company was struggling with a scandal. And a 21 year-old college grad was handed the reins to a multi-billion dollar portfolio of options trades.

"Listen, Missy."

Overwhelmed, I worked many hours but still managed to feel outgunned all the time. One afternoon I was chatting with T.J., one of the interdealer brokers with whom I traded. Into his end of our direct phone line he said, "Listen, Missy. It's getting late and I'm tired of hearing you bitch into the phone. I'll pick you up in half an hour, and you can complain over dinner instead."

I didn't know T.J. very well, but his job (literally) was to change that. Making himself useful to my partners and I in the markets--and at the end of long days--was a broker's way of earning business for his firm. 

Too tired to argue, I went outside to find him waiting. I was young and completely oblivious to the NYC restaurant scene. But T.J. knew what to do. Over the next several years I would follow him into new '90s dining adventures, and taste the cooking of Bobby Flay, Danny Meyer and (T.J.'s favorite) Larry Forgione.

But that first night, I probably didn't even read the sign MESA GRILL over the door. I don't remember what I ordered, but it surely wasn't very adventurous. T.J. talked me out of my misery somehow, but not far enough that I would order dessert. "Okay," he said to the waitress. "The chocolate and raspberry thing, please. And two spoons."

And...wow was it good! We fought over the last few bites, and finally I laughed. At the time, I thought life was so difficult. But that was only youthful folly talking.

I'm older and (a bit) smarter now, at least wise enough to no longer count opportunity as a burden. What a lucky time it was to be young and so gainfully employed in the magical place that was NYC on the upswing. T.J. helped me find the fun in it. For more than seven years he was my friend--he and his wife Patty. And my husband was added to our dinner parties. There were many other business dinners, but those were the fun ones.

That was until 9/11, when he was stolen away from his family and his many work friends. I was only a couple of hundred yards away ("on the other end of our Habitrail" as he used to say) when the plane hit his building. The lives of so many of my colleagues--and all of lower Manhattan--were rendered unrecognizable that day.

But somehow our banquet is still there, against the northern wall of Mesa Grill. Last month my husband and I sat on barstools sipping champagne (a favorite beverage of T.J.'s) just a few yards from where he and I first sat sparring for raspberries. There is still the clatter of savory dishes set upon gleaming wooden tables, the sound of the cork pulling loose from a bottle, and the laughter of the young and well employed. Maybe levity comes to them naturally, but on that evening in 1994, I needed a friend to teach me how to lighten up.