U.S. News

06.14.14

Michael Hastings' Hunger for Life

For stories, for life, and the amazing meals we shared before his untimely death.

There’s a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood called The Griddle Café.  The great thing about The Griddle is not that it serves pancakes the size of Humvee tires, nor its bacon, which I’ve never tried but understand to be tantamount to orgasm, but that it has the best French toast in North America.  There are several varieties—you can’t go wrong with the simple “Mom’s”—but I prefer the secret cinnamon version that’s not on the menu: you need a password.

On Saturday morning, March 2, 2013, I texted Michael Hastings from the tarmac of LAX: “Wake up! It’s breakfast time!”  Mike had become bicoastal a few weeks earlier to write and pursue film projects but hadn’t yet been to The Griddle, something I assured him would change as soon as I got to Los Angeles.  I drove directly to his apartment in the Hollywood Hills in a rented white Nissan sedan, which appeared rather pathetic when parked next to his new silver Mercedes coupe.  Before long, we were sitting at the restaurant, eating the secret French toast I had been telling him about, agreeing that as far as breakfast was concerned, we had reached the Promised Land.

The Michael Hastings across from me at breakfast that morning was not the Michael Hastings familiar to readers and television audiences.  The intense, combative author and journalist who could not abide spin and reveled in shit-stirring had taken the morning off.  In his place was the joking, smiling friend who glanced at my phone every time a text message arrived, more than once telling me I should sleep with the sender. If people thought Michael was distrustful and angry with the world, it’s because he was, but he was also a sweetheart.

There’s nothing natural about losing a friend at 33.  There’s no silver lining.  It’s unvarnished tragedy.  I’m not sure how long it’s supposed to take to stop missing a person, to stop thinking about him multiple times a day, every day.  Mike would like this, I should tell Mike about that, Mike would fucking hate that guy.

If people thought Michael was distrustful and angry with the world, it’s because he was, but he was also a sweetheart.

Part of me thinks I should remember him in a loftier way.  He was a celebrated war reporter.  He wrote consequential articles and books and would have written many more.  His novel The Last Magazine, published posthumously this month, is just like him:  blistering, fun, insightful, and profane.  And yet I can’t help but remember him through, of all things, food.  He would have just as soon had people think he didn’t need to eat, that his writing and cable news commentary were fueled only by passion and nicotine.  But he liked to eat and we did that a lot together.  I think about him when I walk by the Essex House on Central Park South, because that was where he bought me a Kobe burger and teased me for not knowing what that even meant. He liked the oysters and the Cadillac burger at P.J. Clarke’s near Lincoln Center.  That was our go-to place for occasions ordinary and special.  Mike was back from Iraq, Mike was back from Afghanistan.  Prepping for his Colbert appearance, analyzing his Maddow appearance.  Outside, to the left of the revolving doors, is where he would smoke his after-dinner cigarette.  Sometimes two.

We marveled at the graham cracker-crusted calamari at The Bearded Frog in his beloved Vermont; a dish so delicious that we still talked about it years later.  He took me to Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington because he could not believe I had never been there.  The steak at his bachelor party at Wolfgang’s in Tribeca, the chicken at his wedding in Mississippi.  The lemon squares that his wife Elise would make from Ina Garten’s recipe.  I remember him.

After we finished breakfast at The Griddle, I dropped Mike off at his apartment.  He vowed that we would not be making much use of my mediocre rental car while I was in town.  He was true to his word.  Each day he’d pick me up at my hotel in that shiny new Mercedes.  At the time I knew more about L.A. than he did, so I pointed out important cultural landmarks like the Playboy Mansion and Candy Spelling’s house.  We had brunch at Jar on Beverly Boulevard.  It has the best pot roast on the West Coast, I told him, but it turns out, it was only on the dinner menu.  Instead we had burgers.  We would come back another time for the pot roast.  The sizzling apple pie at Jones on Santa Monica Boulevard was a must.  We ate seafood and French fries at Neptune’s Net in Malibu, after which we walked across the Pacific Coast Highway and looked out at the ocean.  We drove back to L.A. through the Santa Monica Mountains on the Mulholland Highway, portions of which curve along steep drop-offs.  We talked about car crashes.

The last thing I always did before leaving Los Angeles was to have brunch at The Griddle.  As he had four days earlier, Mike sat across from me on March 6, 2013, a plate of the secret French Toast in front of him.  We talked about the things we always talked about.  We talked about the next time we’d go to The Griddle.  It was as typical a meal as we had ever shared.  There was nothing to dwell on because there would be countless more brunches and breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  We parted ways with a hug outside the restaurant.  I had parked in front, Mike around the corner in the back parking lot.  As he walked to his car and I turned right onto Fairfax Avenue, I honked my horn.  He had a cigarette in one hand.  And with the other hand he waved goodbye.