We hate to use the phrase, but if there were ever a renaissance man, Hal Rubenstein would no doubt be one. Rubenstein seems to have an extensive history in every industry (including food). One of the most esteemed restaurant critics for two decades, Rubenstein’s worked alongside luminaries such as Michael White, Sirio Maccioni and Steve Hanson. We recently caught up with Rubenstein in light of his new book which came out this month, The Looks Of Love, which highlight seminal moments in fashion that have forever changed the way we look at romance…
TNP: Tell us a bit about the concept behind your new book…
Hal Rubenstein: I think the success of the 100 Unforgettable Dresses book kind of caught everyone by surprise. We used the dresses as a jumping off point to discuss moments in our time, moments in our culture, and moments in fashion. Nothing exists in a vacuum, because fashion is related to politics; it’s related to our social life; it’s related to movies. That became a catalyst. Forget about one dress. There were moments in time that were bigger, that changed the way we looked at fashion or clothing. Clothing to me is all about attraction, which led me to the thing that matters the most to me, which is love and romance. I always say I’ll never write the great American novel because I’m the only writer I know who had a happy childhood (Laughs). I really did. I loved my father; I loved my mother; I loved my sister. Nobody was an alcoholic; nobody beat anybody; there were no divorces; there were no affairs. I wasn’t even bullied that much, for Christ’s sake. I really can’t complain. Because of the life that I’ve led, many of these things [in the book] really are almost personal experiences. I was at Woodstock. I was at The Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. I was at John Galliano’s amazing fashion show at the Palais Garnier and the one where he basically said “screw you” to everybody at Versailles. I saw the ramifications and the repercussions of these people who got inspired, or fell in love with a city, or a person, or a movie, or with fashion.
TNP: What are some specific moments that you recall vividly?
HR: I remember going to see Two for the Road, one of the great love stories of all time. There was a sneak preview that night. When that sneak was over, nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to Two for the Road. I don’t even remember seeing it. Why? The sneak was Bonnie and Clyde. It was riveting, terrifying, romantic, and shocking. It freaked the shit out of everybody watching it. They were gorgeous; they were ravishing; they were wearing clothes that none of us were wearing — the long skirts when everyone was in minis, the three-piece suit when everybody was dressing kind of hippie. And then they got shattered with a thousand bullets, and you just sat there with your shoe in your mouth.
The only thing more beautiful than that was Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. The book is so badly written. When Erich Segal pitched the screenplay to Paramount, he must have done it with magic markers on flashcards. But it’s young love! Look at them; they’re so ridiculously beautiful! He looks like somebody drew him. To me, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, J. Crew — everybody owes everything to that movie.
TNP: Is there one moment that you feel really set the tone for the rest of your career?
HR: I can’t say there’s one there. The introduction is about my Mom and Dad. They probably set the tone for my life. My father just adored my mother. They loved to go out dancing. My mom didn’t consider herself a very sexy lady and my father saw something she didn’t see. The thing is, the people who love you see you in a very different way than you see yourself. Very often they see the beauty you don’t. We all want to fall in love the way they do in the movies. It’s really that simple. If I had one line about the book, that is it. If you think about it, there are moments in your life when you’ve had heated discussions, both good and bad, or passionate moments, where you pull yourself out of it and go, “This is like such-and-such movie!” We all do this.
TNP: Do you feel like with all of the technology and the way that we communicate now, we’ve lost a little bit of that romance?
HR: I think we’ve screwed it up. I think you have a generation that is brilliant at communicating via text and email. We all make jokes now about how millennials won’t talk on the phone but they’re great at email. That’s a problem. If I speak to you on the phone, you hear what I have to say in my voice, in my cadence, in my humor, in my intonation. When you read an email, you read it in your voice. And that’s why if you’ve ever tried to send an email with irony, humor, or sarcasm, it always falls flat. You’re putting stupid emojis and things like that, which I won’t do. You screw it up.
Our sources of communication have changed, but the way humans respond to emotion, to passion, to need, to yearning — that hasn’t changed one iota. Zero, zip. Nobody wants to fall in love now any differently than they did before. If you can find me another three words in the English language that are more powerful than “I love you,” go knock yourself out.
TNP: In terms of fashion and these very iconic moments that you talk about, do you feel like they exist less and less because so many things now are inspired by moments from the past?
HR: I think in some ways, yes. I think the problem is also that things need time to nurture and build in order to become a movement. We’re so connected now that nothing gets a chance to build. Everything is viral the moment it happens, so there’s no mystery. There’s no prioritizing. It’s information thrown at you with no hierarchy. You go on Huffington Post or Facebook and everything has the exact same amount of space and it’s all on a constant roll. Because of that, we don’t highlight that some moments in time are more important than others. I think it becomes harder to sift out the romance and see magic – because magic is a little bit based on mystery – and nothing is mysterious anymore because everybody just dives into everything, tears it apart, and overanalyzes it. It’s like we’re forcing buds to open, and I think it does make life less romantic.
TNP: In New York, are there places that you feel are still very romantic?
HR: I think New York is an incredibly romantic city. I love New York at 7 o’clock in the morning; I think it’s kind of glorious. It’s funny, we have so many popular restaurants in this city, but I don’t think there are enough romantic ones. I think that’s because we use food in New York for so many different reasons. In other cities restaurants provide food and a place to sit down and talk. For us, we don’t play tennis, we don’t play golf, we don’t belong to country clubs, and you’re not coming to my house for dinner. Eating out is our most important social function. And we all do it, regardless of how much money we make. It doesn’t matter if we’re eating at Panera or Per Se; we have to go out to eat to create our social world. So very often restaurants do lose a bit of the romance to them, but there are still some that are there that matter.
Peasant, to me, is the most romantic because of the lighting. It has an element of modern romance. What else do I love? It’s funny; I think Bar Pitti is romantic. It’s one of the few outdoor cafés where you are not accosted by passersby because the street is so incredibly wide. I love Le Bernardin’s Wine Bar, Aldo Sohm. I don’t even think the room is that pretty, but it’s charming because the people there love wine. Aldo, the sommelier, could make me drink Windex. There is nothing this man recommends that I will not swallow to measure.
There’s a pizza place called Luzzo’s on First Avenue and 13th Street. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, owned by young Italians. You walk in there and you feel a little bit like you’re somewhere else. And for me, that’s romantic. That’s romance by design. Real romance pushes certain buttons because it triggers things that have happened or things that you love. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. That’s the great thing about romance — you really can’t understand what pushes your buttons. When you’re in love with somebody, you can talk about all of his or her really good qualities, but why does that person push your buttons in a way that nobody else does? You honestly don’t know. The best part about love is its mystery. And if you’re really smart, you will never solve it.
*Hal Rubenstein, photographed at Tavern on the Green in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann