As a young waiter, I loved being part of the faux Francaise world of the Magic Pan, where a pretty girl in a dirndl skirt peeled hot crêpes off a revolving crêperie each night. Serving plates of mandarin-orange-and-almond salad and chicken divan crêpes, I learned that my tips improved if I pretended I didn't speak English. In the disco days a few years later, I got an even more exciting job at a restaurant that was half dance floor, half silver lamé dining room -- and it wasn't uncommon to get tipped with drugs instead of cash. Way too decadent for its own good, the place lasted about as long as an extended mix of "Boogie Oogie Oogie."
Sometime between the crêpe craze and the death of disco was the far-out fondue phase, which entered the pop-culinary consciousness about the same time as orange roughy, white Zinfandel and quiche. Most Midwestern cities had at least one restaurant where melted cheese bubbled in metal pots perched over cans of awful-smelling Sterno or flickering votive candles. But the novelty didn't last. I suspect it's because fondue is a labor-intensive dish that requires skewering, dipping, swirling and closely watching raw meats boil in hot bouillon or wine.
"I just got so tired of having to cook every bite I ate," sighed my friend Marilyn after her first visit to The Melting Pot: A Fondue Restaurant. I had been intrigued and eager for her reaction since hearing that the Florida-based chain was opening a location in a basement on the Plaza.
But Marilyn had more to say about her attractive waiter than about the restaurant's food: "Oh, the food was all right. We had a cheese, a meat and a chocolate. And it was expensive."
That's what all of my trendy friends said after they made their initial visits to the restaurant. No couple is going to fork over less than $60 for dinner, and that's not including a glass of vino from the respectable list of reasonably priced vintages. Even a meal with my nine-year-old goddaughter, Alexandra -- we shared a cheese fondue, salads and a dessert fondue -- set me back the cost of a utility bill. But it was worth it to give the kid a totally unexpected culinary experience. "Melted cheese? For dinner?" she asked, hesitantly dipping a piece of tart apple into a mixture of grated cheddar (dusted with flour to retain its saucy consistency), garlic and beer. ("The alcohol cooks right out of it," the waitress had assured me.) Alex thought the whole interactive concept was too fabulous. And when our server set a match to the Flaming Turtle, she was in chocolate nirvana. But even she had her doubts.
"I think it's the kind of place where you need to take a lot of people with you," Alex said. "We couldn't eat everything."
She was right. Fondue is a collective dining experience. According to a 1969 fondue cookbook by Margaret Deeds Murphy, it began in Switzerland as a way to make use of hardened cheese and bread during the frugal winter months. "Some long-forgotten innovator discovered that [by] melting the cheese in wine, a delicious mix was made in which to dunk the bread and soften it. Each hungry peasant would dip his share of bread in the communal pot," Murphy wrote.