Where You Can Get Anything You Want

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.






13 responses to “Where You Can Get Anything You Want”

  1. rosy Avatar

    Happy 2007 to you too, gal!

    I couple years ago, I was walking down a street in Provincetown, MA, and walked into a house that had a sign saying it was an art gallery. Turned out it was Alice Brock’s place. Her work was around the room and she was sitting at a table painting on small rocks. She was just as nice to my friends and me as she was to you. A truly delightful person.

    I enjoy reading your blog regularly. Keep up the good work.

  2. Faded Avatar

    Your Rainbow room story brings back a couple of memories for me. I had dinner there once with my family. It was to celebrate my older sisters’ engagement to her now husband.

    He was a professional singer at the time and had a beautiful voice. When we came for an early dinner, Count Basie was to perform later that evening.

    Unbeknown to new fiance and the rest of the family my father had arranged for the Maitre’d to “invite new fiance to perform on stage with the Count.” Poor fiance was dumb struck. The Maitre’d really laid it on with the following line, “Count Bassie had heard you sing and likes your sound. He would be honoured if you would perform with him.” New fiance politly refused so the Maitre’d offered to have the grand piano brought to the table so new fiance could play and sing from the comfort of his table.

    The topper for the eveing was an accident by my oldest brother. He ordered escargot in butter for dinner. He was working on getting the snail out of the shell using a set of spring loaded tongs when we all heard a smart little click. We looked up and saw a jumbo snail sail across room hit the curtains on the other side of the room. There was a wonderful circular splat mark and streak down the curtain.

  3. Jenne Avatar

    I grew up in the hospitality industry too, in fact we lived in some of my Dad’s hotels. My favorite memory was going down to the restaurant every morning in anticipation of what the chef packed for my school lunch. Choc. covered strawberries and croissants were often in the brown paper bag.
    You are very lucky to have such vivid and special memories of your childhood.

    I really enjoy your blog, Happy 2007!!!


  4. shakennotstirred Avatar

    Great hearing a personal story about your upbringing!

    “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.” Very well said!!!

    Happy 2007 to you Gal! May you make many “just folks” feel special this year!

  5. mozaix Avatar

    thanks for sharing all the great stories.
    happy new year gal!

  6. marie Avatar

    Happy New Year to you, Gal!
    I’ve been reading your blog regularly for a few weeks (albeit silently) but I thought today special greetings were in order 🙂
    Wonderful reading, as usual.
    Your heart is in the right place.

  7. Heather Avatar

    I love it restaraunt gal! I will think of this blog every day when I go into work. This is just what I needed. Thank you 🙂

    Bartender from Southern Oregon 😉

  8. m Avatar

    RG, your words transported me to another place and time! Thanks for a well-written story about your experiences. It causes me to think about some times I had with my father long ago. We stayed once in the Fairmont in San Francisco, where Red Skelton waved at me. I was about 15 years old and thought I was so cool. Another time we stayed at the Shamrock Hilton (Houstonites will remember it from looonnng ago) in the penthouse suite (dad briefly had a job that provided such perks). My brother and sister and I ran from room to room, but didn’t dare touch the Dr Peppers in the fridge for fear we might be charged for them.

  9. Kim Ayres Avatar

    Happy New Year, Restaurant Gal!

  10. Former Hostess Avatar
    Former Hostess

    love the story, RG…Happy New Year!

  11. Alice Brock Avatar

    Dear Restaurant Gal,
    Thank you so much for your birthday
    memories of dinner at my restaurant. It really makes me feel good to know that I was able to create those kinds of experiences.
    Nourishment is much more than consuming calories and vitamins.
    I wish you all the best, this is the
    first “blog” I have visited. I’ll be back. Peace, Alice

  12. restaurant Gal Avatar

    Alice–Thank you!

  13. cagirl Avatar

    Beautiful story of days gone past; brought up a few for me as well. You are an amazing writer! Happy New Year RG!