"The Specialty of the House" by Stanley Ellin (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1948) is one of those stories that follows you around and taps you on the shoulder at least expected moments. It's a very short story and one that is deceptively simple with it's plot about two men who frequent an out-of-the-way gourmet restaurant run by an eccentric proprietor who only serves one dish per night, but what at first seems like a '40s version of My Dinner with Andre soon becomes a tale of subtle horror. Indeed, I can't cook lamb or even read about certain dining experiences without having a feeling of cold fingers brushing against my neck.
If you haven't read it, I shan't spoil the surprise for you. In fact, that would be rather hard to do because within the first couple of pages you'll figure out what is going to happen. That is not a flaw, by the way, that is what makes "The Specialty of the House" so gripping. We follow metropolitan businessman Costain as his boss Laffler, a man of solitary habits, invites him to share the unique experience of dining at Sbirro's. We enter the dark, old fashioned dining room that was a rarity even in the '40s. We share Costain's bemusement at the clientele being composed only of men who bend over their plates like solemn worshipers of some pagan god. We feel his puzzlement at the menu that offers no choice and the lack of alcohol or even condiments on the table. We then experience his and Laffler's near orgasmic reaction to their meal that is vivid and just a bit repellent.
After dinner, Laffler explains to Costain why he is disappointed that the rarely served "special" wasn't on the menu that night–a dish available nowhere else on Earth:
'Ah,' said Laffler delightedly. 'And that is only part of the story. You heard me mention the special which unfortunately was not on the menu tonight. What you have just eaten is as nothing when compared to the absolute delights of that special!'
'Good Lord!' cried Costain. 'What is it? Nightingale's tongues? Filet of unicorn?'
'Neither,' said Laffler. 'It is lamb.'
Laffler remained lost in thought for a minute. 'If,' he said at last, 'I were to give you in my own unstinted words my opinion of this dish, you would judge me completely insane. That is how deeply the mere thought of it affects me. It is neither the fatty chop, nor the too solid leg; it is, instead, a select portion of the rarest sheep in existence and is named after the species - lamb Amirstan.'
The air of intrigue introduced by the mention of lamb Armistan is magnified by the appearance of the Sbirro himself, a Cheshire cat of a man who is a restaurateur with a bit of high priest thrown in as well. His explanation of his epicurean philosophy, of how his restaurant is a haven that provides a sense of security and fulfills a human need, and of why lamb Amirstan is so rarely offered only confirms what we already suspect. When a fortnight later a waiter warns Laffler not to go into the kitchen, we realise that the word "lamb" has a particular significance.
The power of the story lies in Ellin's talent for suggestion. Nothing actually happens in the story that would attract a modern horror buff. Nothing overt happens at all. Ellin tells us early on what is going to happen and his steady drip of clues only confirms what we already know. What is maddening is that his protagonists remain utterly unaware of what is going on and we have no way of changing that.
The propriety and quiet of the dining room only makes things worse. Indeed, it is in many ways a very English story. That's probably why when it was adapted for television on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Laffler was played by Robert Morley and two later, and I feel superior, versions were produced by the BBC for Fear on Four and The Price of Fear. Perhaps that's why I always think of the story as set in London rather than New York.
In all, "The Specialty of the House" is a story that works well on several levels and shows what a writer can do when he uses the reader's imagination to do the heavy lifting in a story.
It's also the best argument for dining ala carte that I've yet come across.