For my birthday last week one of my friends told me he would take me to dinner anywhere in San Diego — with two stipulations. It had to be a place I had never been and it had to be extravagant. The deceision was simple. The Fontainbleu at the Westgate Plaza Hotel. The Westgate PIaza may only be a block away from Horton Plaza, but it's classes apart, so far apart, in fact, that last year Esquire named it one of the three best hotels in the entire world for its extraordinary elegance and luxury. The lobby is modeled on anteroom in the palace Versailles, the paintings are attributed to Velasquaz, and the furniture is authentic period from Europe. We have, in other words, in downtown San Diego, a living museum which, although open now two years, few still know about. One warning. Make sure you wear shoes. The other afternoon I was wearing long pants, and the doorman, evidently taking me for riff-raff, stopped me to make sure my pants didn't conceal bare feet.
Take the wide and curving stairs up to the dining room on the second floor. It doesn't matter if you can't afford to eat here — who can? — because it's a pleasure just to look at the dining room: the supreme rectitude of Louis XV and XVI in ice-blues and blue-grays is upset only by the, yes, red plastic of the carnations at each table. Allow fifteen minutes to read the menu, French and opulent, which is placed on a stand just outside the coat-check alcove. And if no one's looking, pick it up. Just touching the velvet of its cover and the crisp parchment of its pages is a sensual pleasure. Hidden in one of its comers are three complete dinners, reasonable but boring (coq au vin, for example, at $6.50). The rest is an almost bewildering collage of a la carte riches. There are ten soups including "L'Avocado Glace" ($1.25) and the "Potage de Maison," a cucumber soup which is served in a pineapple shell ($1.75), six salads, twice as many hot and cold hors d'oeuvres (Quiche Lorraine, $2.25), seven fish dishes, specialties of the chef ("I.es Crepes Maxim," thin pancakes filled with crabmeat in a light brandy sauce, $7.25), and on and on and on.
We ordered a la carte prudently, not like gluttons, but the bill still came to $32.00 without the tip. Dubbonnet mist as aperitif, a split of champagne, Caesar salad for two ($3.50) which one of our waiters prepared, of course, at our table then "Filet of Sole Waleska" (sole poached in white wine with truffles and lobster, folded in a Mornay sauce, $6.25). The flesh of the fish was firm, the sauce so distinctive in flavor that every bite had a slightly different taste, and the portion generous. But the rest of the portions were aristocratic. With the fish came exactly five overdone Brussels sprouts, which were small to begin with, a minor mound of scalloped potatoes, and two pieces of bread offered to us just once. No need to worry about overeating here. For dessert, "La Mousse au Chocolat," genuine, from what they call their sweet trolley. Such splendid food.
Like the decor, the service is truly aristocratic, not colored by condescension. The waiters wear white gloves, hand your napkin to you, and deftly warm brandy glasses over a gas flame which is wheeled to your table. A piano and bass play smooth music from another time and place — "September Song," "I Could Have Danced All Night." And you begin to think you could be Zelda and Scoll Fitzgerald at the Plaza Hotel in New York in the twenties.
This fantasy is reinforced by the other guests who, fortunately, can be seen clearly because the dining room is well-lit, and whose conversation is easily overheard. Sitting in front of us was a sedate, older married couple who by the end of their meal, and wine, had become lovers again. And sitting just in back of us at a large table, were five male members of an obviously closely-knit family. With their wide pin-striped suits, hair combed back, and accents, they talked impatiently about plane connections, amphetamines, and when the General, who was an hour late, would arrive. He finally did and proceeded to monopolize the conversation from then on. Ninety per cent of a man's health problems come from a poor diet, he lectured, I'm a man of compassion, he said. Then, as if this were not enough to feed my taste for fantasy (or reality, I'm not sure which), "Gigi" yielded to, incredibly, the theme from "The Godfather." That evening we didn't simply eat dinner, we were part of another world.