The story below is from our December/November 2015 issue. For the DIGITALLY ENHANCED VERSION, download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
It is of course the food first and foremost. But at least in those dining rooms where you become a regular, it's far more.
I still remember keenly, back in 1995, getting up the nerve to stand up in a completely full restaurant dining room, clinking a knife against a water glass to draw people’s attention, and then turning red in the face as I asked the room to raise a glass to the man who had operated the restaurant for five years.
This was Walter Vanucci’s last night of operation at Vanucci’s, on the downtown corner spot where Thelma’s Chicken & Waffles has operated in recent years.
Gail and I were, obviously, regulars at Vanucci’s, and the host made us feel, on every visit, that we were the most important customers he had.
“Here,” he’d say to us mid-meal, “try this new chardonnay I’m thinking about getting.” Oh, OK, Walter, if we have to, yes, we’ll take that free glass of wine as if we’re experts, which we were not.
Or the host arriving at the table later in a meal: “I think this flan is really something,” setting down two servings. “I want to know what you think.”
And so, whose duty but mine to turn the perfect host’s face red too on his last night before he went off to Greensboro?
Fast forward 15 or so years to another dining room, this one in the Grandin Village and under the precise direction, for the previous quarter century, of Norberto Silva, a shy man who was more comfortable in the kitchen than he was on his occasional visits to our table.
This night we got beyond the usual small talk about old men trying to stay fit, about his wonderful array of waitstaff or the care and feeding of a restaurant operation (“the refrigerator is the most important thing”). Norberto Silva was more hesitating than usual in explaining that he might take a more extended visit home to Brazil than he had over the many years during which he had spent a week or two with his mother.
“Everything is in good hands back there,” he gestured at the kitchen. Wonderful new chef who was at Montano’s for many years.”
This was as close as Noberto Silva could come to telling his regulars he was selling his business.
He did so with high hopes that it would continue as it had, and that he would be able to slink away unmissed, with his namesake restaurant and his consistently light and distinctive dishes carrying on into the future.
It was, given his expertise, his drive and his precision, a complete impossibility.
One more leap forward in time: This time to a Wednesday evening in September, on a walk to a less ambitious dining room than those operated by Mssrs. Vanucci and Silva. But alas, it was dark inside Jimmy Sardines there on Memorial Avenue, with no sign to tell us why. Yes, there had been news of a purchase of the restaurant’s building by the owner of the neighboring Village Grill, but then you’re still surprised when a place you go once a week or so is just not there.