I love restaurants. I like the moment I enter and get escorted to a table, or when I’m greeted with a welcoming smile and told I can pick my own. I like the perusal of the menu and the expectation of food. And drinks. Or the anticipation of simple nourishment when I’m hungry after a long, active day. I love being with family and friends. Frequently there is a reason to celebrate, and if not, we can come up with one. And I just enjoy eating out.
If I’m sad or overwhelmed, being pampered and served makes me feel better. I appreciate simple places and fancy ones, brasseries and bistros, fast food joints and upscale restaurants with just a few sophisticated choices on the menu. I respect white tablecloths, crystal and chandeliers. I don’t resent Formica tables with stains, cracks and names scratched on the worn surface.
The other day my wife and I took our nine years old grandson to a fancy Italian restaurant on Coronado Island. We rode the ferry over from the Convention Center, an extra treat in and of itself for the little boy. It was about six in the evening and the sun was setting opposite the San Diego skyline, with most of the tall, modern buildings sparkling with light. Our table, set with a starched white tablecloth, was by the window overlooking the bay. Between us and downtown the water looked like a sheet of silver. Our waiter was a young man from Italy who spoke with the appropriate accent.
Our grandson knew what I expected of him and he was eager to play his part and pass the test, which was to behave like a gentleman. He did. He didn’t jump up and down in his chair, didn’t run around the table and didn’t complain. When it came time to order, he had his mind made up. ‘Pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese and Ginger Ale’ he said sure of himself as if he owned the place. He had the Ginger Ale served in a slender Riedel wine glass. I had seabass with clams and prawns al cartoccio, baked in parchment paper, and a flight of three Italian wines. My wife had spaghetti alle vongole and a glass of Prosecco. We took our time and enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. We talked about movies and, inspired by the Mona Lisa on the children’s menu, which came with crayons, we also talked about Michelangelo, like adults. We toasted, raising our glasses to good times. We played a special game. My grandson had to choose an object from inside the restaurant and we had to guess what it was. He gave us clues, laughing at his grandparents. As we were finishing our food, I told him my two favorite restaurant stories.
When his father and his father’s sister were little, younger than he is today, we travelled to London. My wife, always resourceful, looked though a local guide to find a child friendly place for dinner and chose a restaurant called The Clowns. ‘If it has clowns in the name it has to be suitable,’ she guessed. We took a cab from the hotel. The restaurant was in an unassuming two-story house and when we rang the bell, a young couple let us in. The space looked like someone’s private home. Pictures of clowns hung on the wall. Four dining tables were beautifully set with polished silverware, delicate china and Damask napkins. ‘Yes,’ we were told, ‘that was the right place. More guests were due to arrive.’ The couple we met at the door were the owners, who were also the server and the cook. It became clear we were in for a treat and a challenge. We chose the table tucked away in the farthest corner of the room, which was not far at all. The hosts accommodated the culinary preferences of our children with grace. Ours, too. When the other patrons arrived and sat down, our chairs touched. Everybody spoke in hushed tones. We needed to make sure we kept our children quiet and occupied and so I started telling them a story from The Three Musketeers about friendship, intrigue and war. It lasted through our multiple-course meal and dessert. When the first of the other guests rose to leave, the man turned to our table and thanked me for the entertainment. ‘It was a beautiful story,’ he said smiling. ‘And your children are very well behaved.’
My second restaurant story is a bit more recent, from the city of Copenhagen. My grandson’s father has nothing to do with it. It’s all about manners. It is 1997, and I go to this fancy place run by a world-renowned chef. My company includes several American colleagues. They are effusive and jovial. When the soup arrives, one of them grabs the salt shaker off the table and without thinking salts his soup. As soon as he finishes, the waiter whisks his plate away. My friend is stupefied. The waiter is unfazed. ‘In this establishment,’ he declares in clear Danish accentuated English, ‘the food is seasoned to perfection. No need for extra salt, especially prior to tasting the food.’
My grandson liked the first story much better than the second. Children enjoy tales about their parents as children most of all.
I looked at him. He seemed proud. He sat up straight. He had passed the test.
On our way back to the pier, we walked to an ice cream parlor and he had a sprinkled sugar cone with vanilla ice cream for dessert. After a few licks, he sported a thin vanilla mustache over his upper lip. I could clearly read the sweet contentment on his young face.
On the ferry the three of us sat side by side and watched silently as the water turned dark. A cool breeze blew from the west. My grandson lowered his head on my wife’s shoulder. She lowered hers on mine. I shivered. I remembered when I was my grandson’s age, walking into a restaurant with my mother and father. It was a different time, almost 60 years ago. A different country, too. Nobody was starving, but food was scarce, and our choices were limited. There were very few ethnic places, and the usual fare was soups, grilled or fried meat and fish, polenta, French fries, a salad, a local wine or beer for the grownups and water for me. No Coca-Cola, no Ginger Ale. People smoked. But whether the place was cheap or expensive, bright or dark, well-known or a hole in the wall, my father’s reaction was always the same. He walked in and he owned the place.
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