Little known fact about The Gal: I almost grew up in the restaurant and hotel business. I say “almost,” because my family had sold their holdings and moved on by the time I was a teenager.
Still, my formative years were spent playing hide-and-seek in closed off dining rooms, hanging new curtains in redecorated hotel rooms for what seemed like unending days in a row, begging Chef to cook me a breaded pork chop “but only if it’s on the menu today,” and helping the gift shop clerk restock candy.
My stepfather represented the third generation of his family to be in the business, and he married my mom when I was very young. His establishment wasn’t one of the top dogs in my city; rather, it was at the top of the second tier. The place garnered a following, however, and it was located in a prime in-town neighborhood.
At one point, the hotel became almost notorious, when the then-notable men of my city established a private club there, and the requisite scandal ensued a few years later. The club’s decor was heavy into 1960s James Bond-era red-leather banquettes and gold-embossed high-ball glasses; but the scandal was tame by today’s standards.
By the time I was 8-years-old, I had served appetizers to, played backgammon against (and won, I might add), and been photographed with the local history-makers of the day. I didn’t get how special these times were, of course. I was just the owner’s kid who hung around all the time, and the patrons seemed taken with the tow-headed urchin who knew what a doubling cube was and that a dry martini meant swish a dash of Vermouth around and dump it out before adding the other preferred spirit.
Thus, I have always felt at home–literally–in crowded, dimly lit dining rooms, where candles flicker on tabletops and the clinking of crystal and silver provides a kind of cadence to the background music.
A couple of dining-out moments, however–when I was the guest at a table far away from the familiarity of my stepfather’s place–are forever with me. And it’s not so much for the food, although it was excellent each time, but for the vivid memory of the rush of taking in a completely different experience, and of feeling warmly welcomed by total strangers.
When I was 11, my stepfather took me to New York, “So you can have dinner at one of the most glamorous restaurants in the world,” he told me. We shopped on Fifth Avenue for the perfect outfit, and then went out to dinner to the Rainbow Room. He must know everyone here, I decided, as the maitre d’ fussed over us, the servers stood ever ready, and the bartender made a grand production as he concocted my “specialty drink.” My stepfather and I even took a turn on the dance floor, and multiple staff members complimented my awkward box step.
We were incredibly well taken care of, from the moment we arrived to our last goodbye. We wanted for nothing, and it was nothing short of magical in my young eyes.
The next day, my stepfather said I should order room service for breakfast and hang out in the hotel suite “like Eloise” until he got back from seeing his brother in the hospital. I didn’t know how seriously ill my step uncle was, but it turned out to be one of the last times my stepfather would see his brother alive. All I knew was that I was having the weekend of my life in a city that felt light years ahead of mine. And my stepfather let me enjoy it despite what had to be one of the toughest weekends of his life.
Years later, when I was in college in western New England, I pulled a couple of friends together to go out to celebrate my birthday. I had waist-length hair, as did the boys, and I wore my best Indian-print top over faded baggy jeans. One of the boys said he knew a place we should try in a nearby town, so we headed there. It was cozy and charming and eclectic in decor. Frankly, I’d never seen a restaurant like it.
We were welcomed like VIPs, although we certainly were anything but. When someone mentioned it was my birthday, the owner brought over a bottle of wine for the table. “From all of us,” she said. We lingered forever, and I still remember how different and interesting all the dishes tasted, compared to the heavy entrees and cream-based everything I’d grown up eating in restaurants.
At one point, the owner pulled up a chair, introduced herself as “Alice” and chatted with us at length. By the end of that meal, I felt like we’d just dined in a friend’s home.
“Alice,” as it turned out, was Alice Brock of Arlo Guthrie fame, and we were dining in what must have been her second or third restaurant. I will never forget her forward friendliness, her innate hospitality, or that incredible meal. Oh, to work with her today in another incarnation of Alice’s Restaurant!
To fawn over the famous and infamous is easy. To make “just folks” feel like they, too, are famous enough to get anything they want–that’s the mark of providing a great restaurant experience.
I love being invited to be a part of the proposals, the birthdays, the retirements, and the graduations, and I hope I deliver on making those experiences memorable for each guest. But I also enjoy the less special times, when a simple “Thanks, see you next week,” from a regular after he’s finished a solo lunch means we did right by him.
It’s not so much about giving a guest anything they want, it’s about making them feel that a personal, unique excellence will prevail throughout their dining experience–be it at a cutting-edge fine-dining spot, a crowded casual eatery, or a lesser known place in between.
So, on the eve of the eve of a new year, I vow to stress less and smile more, and aim for providing that special touch to every guest–be they angry or happy, rude or accommodating, difficult or adorable. And when the going gets challenging, I’ll always have my blog to come home to!
As for reflecting on 2006? Ups and downs, remarkable bumps in the road, trying moments, self doubt–yeah, that’s all been a part my tiny corner of the restaurant universe, too. But most of it has been incredibly fun. And I wouldn’t change a thing or trade one experience, because it all has led me to here.
And here is fine.
Happy 2007. Celebrate the never-to-be-forgotten moments, wherever you dine.
And may you get anything you want.