Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hell's Kitchen

Established routine is a pragmatic and comforting brand of fatalism, a concession I happily make to the rules of daily living - step out of line, try something different, and you'll pay for it, bub. Call it timidity, compulsion, lack of imagination, or just the same geriatric perseverance that causes old people to repeat themselves from one minute to the next. 

 "Jesus, not again already."

The simple fact is that routine works because it delivers the expected. There are no surprises, no comeuppances, nothing is overspiced, too sharp or abrupt. Why go out of your way to meet a rude awakening?

For this reason I generally patronize the same restaurants, Monk-like, over and over. If I want a burrito, I go to Monica's. If I want Vietnamese food I go to Saigon Cafe. For Chinese takeout I call China Village. It's easy, I know what I'm getting, and am invariably satisfied with the results. I fork over my credit card without resentment, without second thoughts. Non, je ne regrette rien. Spare me gastronomic surprises when all I want is what I want.

"Could we maybe just . . . we should leave?"

Last evening, hungry, tired of driving around, finding my familiar haunts closed, I finally halted on the sidewalk beneath an awning emblazoned with "Dat's Italian!" (Diner's Rule #1: if a restaurant has an exclamation point in its name, don't go in.) The "Dat's" was unpromising, and in retrospect the Italian flags, the syrupy strains of Dino piped out into the pedestrian thoroughfare, and the smeary pastry case (empty) inside the entrance should have dictated an abrupt volte face. But, weary and famished, my stomach had already unseated my judgment. I wandered far enough into the interior murk that I was arrested by the quick attentions of a waiter - the only prompt solicitude he would display through the remainder of my "dining experience," as it proved.

Sheeplike, I found a small table at the back and was no sooner seated than new patrons began to file in by twos and fours, until the place was full. I began to suspect that the tables were filling only because it was one of the few places open. The restaurant had been in business for little more than a year but it had the worn, slightly seedy air of an Italian restaurant stranded in a neighborhood the Italians had all deserted to later ethnic pioneers in Buffalo or Pittsburgh. The flocked wallpaper, the plate rails along the wall with plaster cherubs and cheesy crockery, the "autographed" photos of Frank and Dino - cut-rate Neapolitano at its worst.

 "Jesus, not again already."

No one seemed to have any plates of food in front of them, and the tables by now had filled. I noticed off in the distant corner a large family seated at a large table, no food in sight. At last, plates began to come out of the kitchen, shelved on a passthrough conspicuously lacking a heat lamp. The waiters (a lean and disheveled pair of them) rushed about purposefully if empty-handed, as though in a rerun of Fawlty Towers. The plates sat undisturbed on the passthrough. Finally one of the pair noticed them and sauntered over, lifted a lid from one of the servings, and stared at it as though it were a strange and unaccountable thing. He seemed to wonder what it was and how it had arrived there. He replaced the lid, walked to the front of the restaurant, picked up his order pad, stared at that for a longish while, set it on the counter, returned to the plates languishing by the kitchen, and continued to study them as archaic curiosities or academic conundrums.

"Soooo . . . wot I tink is diss?" 

He picked up a plate - a single plate - and carried it to a table at the front of the restaurant. His mate, seeing that between the two of them there were but four hands, picked up another single plate, and followed. Plate by plate, the order traveled to the front of the restaurant. By now plates for the large table were emerging through the passthrough and cooling nicely while the waiters returned with the plates they had recently delivered to the front. The food was (like the Laodiceans) neither hot nor cold.

All this time I had been nursing a single light beer and getting hungrier by the minute. I stopped one of the waiters and asked for some bread. Bread comes with the meal, he said. (He had that manner of some waiters who kneel at the tableside when addressing a diner which always makes me want to roll them over backwards.)  I looked at him and smiled expectantly; the bread eventually appeared. Meanwhile plates were traveling both ways - from the kitchen to the large table in the corner, and from other tables back to the kitchen for reheating. The cook was obviously producing one order at a time - some of the diners at the large table had nearly finished their meals as the last few were served theirs.

On the sidewalk as I exited, Bobby Darin was belting out Volare!  One too many exclamation points for one evening.

(Diner's Rule #2: never eat in a place named 'Pit,' 'Shack,' 'Shed,' 'Trough,' 'Corral,' 'Feedlot' or 'Barn.')

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