Welcome to Sound Cheque, where we sit down with one of our favorite bands to get the scoop on their city-by-city dining picks.
Ira Kaplan, James McNew, and Georgia Hubley [Photo: Carlie Armstrong]
One of the most thoughtful, consistently good, and important bands of the last thirty years, the Hoboken-based Yo La Tengo are soon to be at it again with a new album, Fade, to be released January 15 by Matador Records. Fade, however, was not the reason member Ira Kaplan got on the phone earlier this week. Instead, he used the occasion to talk about some of his most memorable meals and favorite restaurants. He's eaten at elBulli, he's barely met the dress code at Trio (back when a young Grant Achatz was running the kitchen), and he's braved the line at Barcelona's Cal Pep several times. Most of all, it seems, Kaplan did the interview because he wants chefs to know he and his band mates love to eat: "As good as any restaurant is, when they are specifically glad to see you, it's really amazing." And so, here's the proof:
What was the last good meal you had?
I knew that question was coming! But I haven't been eating out so much, since we've been working a lot, the holidays, and everything. But the most memorable meals most recently were in Tokyo.
How do you navigate eating there? It can be a little tricky.
Usually, I just do whatever James [McNew, band member] tells me to do!
What are the places you like in New York City?
Our New York staples would be the Pearl Oyster Bar, which might be where we go more than anywhere else. We also like Northern Spy and Tía Pol. Those are pretty high up on the list.
What do you tend to order at those spots?
At Pearl Oyster Bar, it's rare that we walk out without the lobster roll, the caesar salad, and the oysters. At Tía Pol, it's great to order everything, but the patatas bravas are so great that we're actually able to not order them at other places, since they'll probably be inferior. It frees us at other establishments. At Northern Spy, the one thing we order every time is the kale salad. We try not to be too repetitive.
I would add Prune to that list, too, since we've been going there for years.
Do you do Prune for brunch?
No, I'm not much of a bruncher. I wake up late, and by the time I get myself going, it's not really brunch hour anymore.
Some bands really plan out where they're going to eat when on the road, while others say they just do it on the fly. Which camp are you guys in?
We work at it pretty hard. If we did it on the fly, we'd eat a lot worse. Especially if you consider that I'm probably the person who least wants to eat before we play, so by the time we're done with a show, what's available tends to be very limited. We really do try to do what's best in any city.
On the occasions when you can sit down and have a meal, we've had a few experiences where restaurants stay open past closing just for us. Those are real Elvis moments.
What are some of those Elvis moments, or at least memorable meals on the road?
One reason I'm really happy to do this interview is because it's really great to be known as people who like to eat. I like the attention from chefs!
We did a show a few years ago that was a benefit for KUSF, which ended up getting the rug pulled out from them by the University. They kind of just went to the community, and in lieu of payment, they got all of these kinds of gift certificates. It felt like the whole city had rolled out for us. We got to go to the restaurant Quince, which was amazing. As good as that restaurant is and as good as any restaurant is, when they are specifically glad to see you, it's really amazing.
They're now in a new location, but this was at the original one. We sat at the chef's table. There must have been ten of us or so. We didn't order anything. We just took them up on their offer to cook for us, and it was just amazing. We had a fantastic meal. We've gone back a few times now. We've also gone to Cotogna, their less fancy place next door to the new location of Quince. We already loved playing San Francisco, but that's really made it [laughs].
Any other favorites?
We just recorded our forthcoming record in Chicago. We spent pretty much the whole summer there. Oddly, for as many years as we've been playing there, it's a city that we've rarely spent a lot of time in.
We did really have a memorable day a few year's ago. We drove down to Chicago to go to the last day of Cubs season. Then, we got into the back of our van and attempted to change into nicer clothes, which was almost an impossibility, because we didn't have nicer clothes, really. But we went to Trio when it was still there.
When Grant Achatz was still there?
Oh yeah, yeah. Yes, it was. It was an incredible meal. As I said, we were barely meeting the dress code. We probably were technically. There's that legend about Harpo Marx not being let into a restaurant because he wasn't wearing a tie. Then he put on a tie, took off the rest of his clothes, and was let in. That's sort of how we met the dress code at Trio.
Most people there were instantly so excited and into the meal, that no one seemed to mind, except the host. He wouldn't stop glaring at us. We had to pass by the host stand every time we walked to the restroom, so we'd keep getting the fish eye.
Besides that, how was the experience?
We got to go to elBulli after that, and we've eaten at wd-50. We hadn't really had the twenty-course, bite-size approach to a meal. I had never encountered that before. Just changing the way you perceive taste, flavor, and eating — Trio was something else.
And what about your time in Chicago recently?
I think we went to all of Paul Kahan's restaurants. We went to Avec a few times, as well as Publican Quality Meats. It was great to knock off recording at a reasonable hour to then get to those places.
The first time I saw Yo La Tengo was in Madrid, and you mentioned how you play that city frequently. What are some of your favorite places there?
We spend most of our time in Barcelona when we're in Spain, actually. We've done Primavera Sound a number of times, and we usually spend a few days there, which is perfect. The place that always comes to mind is Cal Pep, of course.
Even with the crazy waits, the crowd?
Yes. We're from New York, so it's not really a big deal. I don't mind a wait, if it's organized. There's a place in the Boqueria Market, for example, where you have to fight for a seat. We had a great meal, but the stress of fighting and making yourself understood has kept us from going back. At least at Cal Pep it's well organized. The payoff is excellent.
Any other particularly memorable meals come to mind?
One came right to mind. We had a great barbecue breakfast in 1991, when we were touring in the South traveling by station wagon. We realized we were within striking distance of this place, where you pulled your own. We took a poll and discovered that everyone was willing to wake up in the morning and drive an hour out of the way to that place. It was called Hook's, and sadly they're not there anymore. You had to walk through a general store to the back, where they'd give you a foam container and a long fork. You'd then go to the pig, which was on the fire, and pull as much meat off of it as you wanted.
I remember that Georgia [Hubley, band mate and wife] was the first person to go up and pay for her meal. They asked her if she would like anything else. She asked, "Do you have anything else?" They said, "No." That was a good meal.
Do you care about the music they play in restaurants, or do you tune out?
Mostly, it's volume for me. I don't need the party atmosphere of restaurants in 2012. It's not just the music — the sound design of choice, where you have to scream to the person next to you — is not my favorite part of going out to eat these days. It's probably more volume than genre.
Any last words?
As a Hoboken resident, I will mention how happy we are to have Thirty Acres here.
From the guy who used to cook at Momofuku? How is it?
Yes. It's really good!
Video: "Before We Run"