Peter Pringle's America: The philanthropic dining experience

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It was a great relief to find Manhattan's politically correct restaurant. Dining out can be so hazardous in America, you just never know whether you have been supporting the wrong team - indirectly patroniing the Mafia, the IRA, Americans for Toxic Chemicals or Donald Trump. The annointed place is called the Union Square Cafe, a lamb chop's throw north of Greenwich Village in a square that used to be seedy and run-down and filled with drug dealers, but now has a strong injection of publishers and advertising companies and natural food stores, making the whole 'dining experience' beyond reproach of President Bill Clinton's new society.

Actually, it's not hard to find, all you have to do is watch television. The cafe's youthful owner, Danny Meyer, has been the star of a television commercial paid for by American Express, and whether you are watching the news or sports, there is his smiling face saying what a fine bistro he runs, and what a great company American Express is.

What is different about the ad, and what puts it into today's politically correct category, is that Danny insisted he should not be paid by the credit-card company to say negative things about other credit card companies - which is what most other American Express promoters have done. Nor was he willing to warn viewers that they should never leave home to eat at his restaurant without the green plastic card. He made the company agree to let him talk about hunger relief.

In the ad he explains how restaurants such as his, and companies such as American Express, are involved in feeding America's hungry by supporting a national organisation called Share Our Strength, which sponsors hunger-relief agencies. The toll-free telephone number of Share Our Strength was in the ad.

On the commercial level this was self-serving, of course, for both Danny and American Express. Most people in the United States, which wastes 20 per cent of its food in one fashion or another, would more easily digest their two-Martini expense account lunch (yes, such things are back), or their fine wine dinner if they knew that whatever is left over at the end of the day is rushed round to a soup kitchen on the other side of town. Self-indulgence isn't taboo in the Clinton days, but it should be guilt-free.

Danny estimates the commercial caused a 40 per cent increase in business at his cafe, which now requires reservations six weeks in advance for Saturday dinner. The restaurant, with its huge paintings of nudes and nature, had been collecting accolades as fast as any of its Manhattan rivals anyway, but the response from the ad prompted Danny to draw up plans for another place nearby.

On the philanthropic level, Danny did a good deed for the hungry. Absurd as it always is to find people going hungry in a country that produces so much food, recent studies show the problem continues to grow.

Last December, the country's mayors reported an 18 per cent increase over the past year in the number of requests for emergency food assistance. Two-thirds of those seeking help were families. In September last year, 26,400,000 Americans relied on government food stamps to receive adequate food, the highest number of food-stamp recipients ever reported and an increase of almost three million over 1991.

Public response to the ad for Share Our Strength was equally overwhelming. The thousands of calls show Americans were genuinely moved by the needy among them. Californians showed the greatest compassion. A large hotel, a Beverly Hills store and Weight Watchers shops in the southern part of the state wanted to know how to donate excess food. A restaurant chain wanted immediate advice on how to dispose of 110 cases of frozen steak. The meat ended up feeding 10,000 people in Washington DC.

No good deed goes unpunished, however. The commercial gave Danny such high visibility that a local gay-rights group noticed he planned to attend an annual conference in Aspen, Colorado, sponsored by Food & Wine magazine, which is owned by American Express. The problem is that the Colorado legislature recently overturned anti-discrimination laws for homosexuals.

American Express's defence for holding the conference in Colorado was that it was basically a travel company and 'as such cannot boycott any destination'. Danny, on the other hand, was in a bind. He had forged a profitable link with the credit card company and did not want to be ungracious by refusing to go, but at the same time he had some gay waiters in his bistro. Soon he also had some gay-rights picketers outside the door. 'It was a pain in the neck,' he said. 'I came to understand that the Union Square Cafe was a lightning rod for all the gay community's justifiable anger.'

A group of gay activists called NY/Boycott Colorado let Danny know its position, which was: 'If you take money from gays and lesbians (and he had done so by serving them in his restaurant), then you should be responsive to their political needs.' They didn't get around to suggesting a boycott of the Union Square Cafe, but some things in the restaurant business don't need to be said. Danny didn't go to Colorado.

Danny is a good businessman who knows a political opportunity when he sees it, but he's also something of a commercial revolutionary in America. When I met him in the bistro, he was talking about the end of the era of selfishness and the dawn of something else, he wasn't quite sure what. 'Prestige is not interesting anymore,' he said at one point, using the American understanding of prestige-equals-money. 'We (that is, restaurant owners) have reached our time.' Being the 'best' is not being the most expensive but being enthusiastic about your product - in his case wine and food - and 'sharing that love' with the customer.

My wife and I had lunch at the Union Square Cafe to test Danny's theories, and at the end of a long meal we did indeed feel warm inside and good about ourselves and the world. Maybe it was knowing that we had done the right thing. Then again maybe it was the braised cutlets and two glasses of white wine.