(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears on this blog. Have a great weekend.)
When I opened the front door of Allen´s on the day it was to make its premier I felt as though I had come of age. Without any prior dining room experience, I had managed to BS my way into a waiter´s position at a neighborhood restaurant on New York´s Upper East Side. I was going to become an opening team member in a club of culinarians who had blazed the burger trail from mid town to Third Ave. a decade before. They now had their sites set on Second.Conversation echoing from the back of restaurant seemed frantic. The yelling, which came from the kitchen, was my first introduction to how dysfunctional a restaurant could be. As I panned the room, I realized nothing was set up. The tables and chairs were naked- no tablecloths, no silverware, not a glass in site. Worse than state of ambiance, was the state of staff. I was the only person in the room, except for one older guy, standing at the hook in the bar, his hand grasping a small snifter of brandy. His hat, slightly tilted, capped his face as though he were doing a Sinatra impersonation. He stood feet from the new jukebox which I later learned had been delivered with a bag of cash from the family that bought the Juke´s new location.
“I´m Bill Capra. I´m the manager. You must be Foley”, the guy said as he stepped from his position at the bar.
"I am. It´s a pleasure to meet you." I said.
"Well, the boss said we´re opening tonight so you better get the dining room set up. There´s another guy coming in to help. Eric worked with me in my place in New Jersey. A real pro. He´ll be in at about 3:00. We´ll open at five. I have some errands to run, I´ll be back in an hour or so." he said as he began walking, with a quickened step, towards the door
"Oh, do you know French service?" he asked as he turned back towards me.
"No, I have never done that." I said, assuming it was my last shift.
"Good, we don´t use that here," he said and then disappeared.
Having just been instructed to "set up the room", without any idea what the command really meant, should have left me feeling professionally inadequate. However, I immediately interpreted that as a promotion.
Hesitantly I ventured through the pair of hinged, wooden, swinging doors leading to the kitchen. Complete with windows blurred from fingerprints and scratches, they led into heart of Allen´s. Cobb and Kelly were in the midst of a discussion over that evening´s menu. I stood there, quietly observing, seeking direction to road never traveled.
"Are you the chef, Mr. Cobb?" I asked as I noticed an apron covering his preppy attire.
Without looking up from the paperwork spread over the stainless steel prep table, Cobb, sans Wasp diction, snapped.
"Please, we´re trying to get the menu straight for tonight. Did Capra tell you what to do? Get it done. We open in five hours."
Suddenly I saw the light. I was brought into a soon to open restaurant to set up a room in the middle of the most affluent Upper East Side neighborhood all the while unsure of which side of the plate to place the fork. I quickly learned that in the restaurant business you just do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I were the guy they hired to help them, they were in serious trouble. And, since I was the newly appointed room-setter-upper, so was I. Not a good sign.
I took an inventory of tables and chairs clustered throughout the dining room. Haphazardly, I turned the room into a dining room.
Within a few hours, the tables and mahogany chairs with red vinyl seats looked like they belonged. Finally the room looked presentable enough to host those dining on the Veal Picata, Steak Au Poivre, Burgers, Chicken and Pasta that would soon make their way to the red checkered table clothes covering the deuces and four tops. The checkered tablecloth was, I would soon learn, the attire of the day for the café set of the Upper East Side. J.G. Melon´s opted for green checks, Martel´s chose blue, and Allen´s always had red checks. Elaine’s, white linen.
Eric, "the real pro", still hadn´t shown and although the room would have garnered approval from my co workers, if there had been any, it still looked bare without plates, glasses, or silverware.The table settings presented a bit of a problem. I had set the table numerous times before when my mother was running the "room" at home, but who could remember that lesson with less than two hours before curtain and no other stage hands in site. I didn´t want to go to kitchen again. Nothing was even close to being prepped and the menu discussion continued as the pontification on the art of chicory as a garnish had been debated for almost an hour.
Looking for support, from someone, in this small cubbyhole of culinary tomfoolery, I ran across Second Ave., to the Beach Cafe, to check the silverware and glass setting style the neighborhood café used. At the Beach, Whip Hubley, came to my rescue with a bit of support, a shot of Tequila, and a quick course in table setting.
Hubley´s tutelage gained praise from Capra upon his return at about 4:30. Eric didn´t show on his first day, or his second for that matter, proving to all in Sirloin Tip trenches that he had some of the qualifications of a waiter, boosting my importance simply because I was there. Being the only student in the drink service, tray handling, and order taking course Capra held just before opening, I managed to finish at the top of my class. Something I seldom cared to do. However, it was very important to me on this day as the lonely lint in the pocket of my polyester waiter´s pants was desperately seeking the companionship of currency.