Making a last-minute, Saturday night dinner reservation was no small order. The assignment was for “upscale, casual” in a bustling, tourist-infused, Downeast town with which I am only remotely familiar.
The conversation went something like this:
“You’re the ‘sponteur,’ so why don’t you find us someplace for dinner,” The Weatherman said.
“Sponteur?” I thought. This must be more of a fun, new game we play bastardizing words. “Does that mean I’m spontaneous as a rule? Good one.” I replied.
‘No, I meant to say, ‘restaurateur,’ because it’s kinda your thing. So, you find us someplace you’d like to go,” he said, as the pressure mounted.
For the record, I don’t think of myself as a restaurateur. I’m not an owner or an investor, just a long-time participant who has worn a lot of hats in different places. But, as a result, I have a far-reaching network and am not afraid to use it.
The advice from James, a homeboy, was “go to (insert name of award-winning place mentioned in every travel article about this stunning coastal town). But you have to get there very early. Sit at the bar and ask for Chip. He’ll take good care of you.”
Appreciative of his insight, it sounded more like a drug deal than a worry-free reservation, so I decided to check out the Open Table, online restaurant reservation service. “What awesome place worth going to is going to have availability at this final hour,” I thought to myself.
But, find a place I did and from the outside it looked perfect. Built in 1901, the sprawling B&B had been well maintained with many obvious, costly enhancements. Since the former window of “very early” had been replaced by a siesta, I was ready for a drink and a dining adventure.
Here’s where the whole thing gets a little weird.
The inside of this stately, turn-of-the-century inn was confusing to my senses. I didn’t get the decor or the theme. It felt out of place. I can best describe it as part-wild West, part-futuristic, and just plain random at every glance. It was the epitome of all that’s wrong with the urban, tragically chic spots one expects in Portland, all the way down to industrial lighting fixtures and skinny, uncomfortable bar stools.
What did work for me was a familiar face behind the bar. A veteran of the area, James has said repeatedly (much to my fragile ego’s dismay) that this man is the best bartender he’s ever known. “He makes the world’s finest Manhattan,” is usually the opening line when his name comes up.
What also worked was the food. We ordered in courses, and despite the oddity of the surroundings, were hoping for a relaxing evening.
Then, the innkeeper came over.
One glance at the guy and I knew he was flying. As in drunk, high or a combination of both. That, or he was very ill, or, best-case scenario, simply socially inept. Regardless, conversation with him was difficult, as I pressed for rhyme and reason behind the interior decorating.
Calling it “mischievous,” he was able to rattle off a standard spiel about the ownership group, but little more. Clearly uncomfortable, he left the table mid-sentence and we watched him pace the same path back and forth between the bar and a server station.
As stated, the food was delicious. Our young hostess-turned-server was eager to please and brought out the second course too quickly, but that didn’t matter. The weirdness-fog had covered everything. Making knowing eye contact with the bartender, he just shook his head.
In this situation, it turned out, The Weatherman was right in labeling me a “restaurateur.” I have seen so many wonderful, talented hospitality people fall into the abyss, overshadowing all that is good about them. Along with their lives, the restaurant feels the pain.
Such was the case with our innkeeper. Making me sad and grateful at the same time, I was happy to leave the twilight zone.
To my hospitality brothers and sisters, forgive me if I’m being preachy, but take good care as you unwind after work, and as you play in general. You have a lifetime of fireworks ahead of you. Celebrate them mindfully.
It isn’t unreasonable to expect good in-suite coffee in an elegant hotel or B&B. Surprisingly, at pre-sunrise, I was recently faced with an old, automatic instant drip machine that produced a transparent brown liquid. (Not the B&B mentioned above.)
At breakfast, the celebrated chef/owner took the suggestion to revisit the early morning coffee problem, acknowledging that no matter how accomplished, we all have room for improvement.
I hope to go back there someday, regardless of the wee-hour java crisis or dreadful leopard-print bathrobes.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.