I don’t think these people really meant to be rude, to intentionally look down their noses, but that’s the way it came off when first we met. They were the new guys on the block, the next big thing in New York cuisine, who happened to open their doors right next to ours. Now contrary to popular belief, dear reader (and lest you think this story is born of jealousy), when someone new drops anchor nearby it’s in no way a source of competition, it’s instead a financial boon for both establishments. For it brings new people onto the street who, on their way to “fine dining”, will look in our windows and think, “Let’s have a drink there!” And we’re not losing our customers to them, they’ve been with us too many years, though they might jump ship for a visit or two just to see what the hell “Macadamia Crusted Sea Bass” even looks like! It’s win-win.
So this “fancy schmancy” parked its big ass right next door to ours… haute cuisine meets New York speakeasy…. and the relationship at first was anything but easy. Here’s what I mean…
It was a relatively quiet Thursday when this happened (unusual for us on that night) and the woman who was playing the piano was doing Cole Porter. She only worked for us one night a week and this was her night to shine, until she received what I’m sure was a first time request. It was from the chef next door who entered the room in a panic. “Could you get her to stop her playing,” he said, bouncing up and down like he had to pee.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s the problem?”
“No problem, I just have a strange request, that’s all,” he said. He wore a sheepish grin.
“Well go over and ask her yourself,” I said, “she won’t bite.” I thought that maybe a birthday person was coming in behind him, and he wanted that person to be greeted with the birthday anthem. People do that.
“Ah… no, you don’t understand,” he went on, still giving off the ovine, “I actually want her to stop her playing completely.”
“Why? You don’t like Cole Porter?” I knew that wasn’t the reason of course but I wanted to lead with a jab.
Dripping with false modesty he said, “Well, ya’ see, about five minutes from now I’m going to be reviewed on New York One and… ah… since we don’t have TV next door (of course you don’t have TV, chef, how plebeian would that be?) we were wondering if you could put the review on here. With sound of course!”
Wow, that takes balls, I thought, shutting down our room for his own aggrandizement. But hey, if the piano player’s cool with it so am I.
So I went over to said musician, a lovely gal who is loaded with talent whom I knew would acquiesce, and I put the request to her squarely and hopefully with warmth. I said, “That guy at the bar who’s grinning like a nut is the chef from the place next door and he has a request. (Oh yeah? said her pearl white grin.) He’s about to get reviewed on New York One and he wants you to stop your playing so he can watch it. (Exit grin!) Now I know that’s not the usual request, like Fly Me To The Moon, but it’ll probably take about ten minutes tops and I’m sure he”ll do the right thing as far as your tip bowl goes. Whaddaya’ think?”
She looked at me kind of dead pan at first, shocked I guess is more like it, then she smiled and answered,”Fine, you can put it on.” But it wasn’t fine, I could see it in her eyes, musicians have egos too just like chefs. (Well, almost… chef’s are now the real divas of New York.) So she pushed away from the piano and joined me at the bar.
“Thank you, thank you,” said the chef when he heard, then he ran next door and returned with a gaggle of staff people. It was after eleven so their dinners were pretty much over.
Well at least I can sell some booze, I thought, as I watched them all roll in and eat up my bar space. But, alas, I was rendered useless just like the piano player. All they ordered were two damn glasses of tap water. Balls indeed!
Well apparently the review got a whole bunch of stars (I hadn’t been paying attention), because the gaggle of geese let out a “Hoo-rayyyyy!” then jumped up and down like children, reminiscent of a Yankees World Series or better a Miley concert. And then as an added bonus to the act, exactly on freaking cue, their manager came running in with a bottle of Dom. He must’ve heard the shout and that was his cue.
“We did it,” he screamed, “we did it!” holding the bottle aloft like a goddam Oscar. “And now let’s hear it for our chef who made it all possible.” Everyone of course applauded like mad, the females showered him with kisses, while I kept thinking that Johnny Carson line when someone like Don Rickles hijacked his talk show… “Does anyone know at what point I lost control here?” So I walked back up to the group to regain control.
“Hmmm, let me see,” said the chef, heading me off at the pass while counting heads. “Let us have… ah… yes, let us have eight chilled champagne glasses if you would, Sir.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, near apoplectic. “You want eight of our glasses to drink your own champagne? Hey, man, it’s bad enough you…”
He headed me off again. “No, no, you’re right,” he said, “we’ll drink it next door.”
“No, Numbnuts,” I wanted to say, “put that bottle away and buy one from us! Don’t you get it? You took over our room, we let you do your thing, based on the review that just went down your rent is probably paid for the next full year, and no one has spent a dime since you walked in the door. And in spite of what you may think, Herr Chef, we also sell Dom Perignon right here!
But of course me being your friendly bartender, I obviously thought not said that, I just watched as this gaggle of geese flew right out the door. And not for nothin’, (and I really do mean nothing) not one of them dropped a sou in the piano player’s fish bowl. Nada… zilch… not even a proper thank you.
Now cut to two days later when their sommelier jumped in the soup, when he happened to stop in our place for a late night wind down. He took a seat, ordered a Cab, and after taking his first dainty sip he laid out this gem. “Mmmmm, this is quite good, I’m surprised.”
I let it slide. It was late, I was tired, and I didn’t feel like pulling out my sword. I’d rather the man just sit there and sip his “surprise”. But then, as is their wont, he took it a step further. “You know I stopped in for lunch yesterday, I had the chicken pot pie and it was really good. I was surprised!” (All right, that does it… where the fuck’s my sword???)
“What’s with all these surprises, pal?” I blared, having had enough. “The wine’s a surprise, our food’s a surprise, what did you think we were a fucking diner? We’ve been here since the nineteen twenties, my friend, we must be doing something right all this time. Christ!”
His eyes got about as wide as the diameter of his wine glass. “I didn’t mean it like t-h-a-a-a-a-t,” he mugged, his face now turning the shade of a fine Cotes du Rhone. “I meant it as a compliment.”
“Well think about how you worded it, man,” your un-friendly bartender said,” it sounded like you were surprised you weren’t poisoned. You guys kill me!”
“Hey, I’m sorry, guy, honest!! It’s been a long day and I’m not really thinking all that clearly right now. You know how it is, you’re in the business. (No shit, Kowalski, but even though I’m in the business and get stressed from time to time, I wouldn’t bite into your Moose Almendine or whatever the hell you serve over there in Valhalla, and go into the kitchen and tell the chef how surprised I was. I’d eat it and know that I’ve found another good restaurant.)
When he finally finished his glass of wine it was time to give “last call”, so I decided to pass the peace pipe with a little humor. After all, we were neighbors. “Would you like another shock,” I said, “I mean another glass of Cabernet before we close?” He smiled, the peace was made and the lesson learned.
Snobbery is served in all kinds of restaurants and so is the dish called Comeuppance, which I like to serve with vinegar then a little syrup! It’s the right thing to do.
Their restaurant went on to have a brilliant run and their customers often dropped by as well as their staff, but with a little more respect. They got to see what we do and grew to appreciate it. They closed their doors about a year ago but only to move across town to a bigger location, because they’re still a big hit. And the chef (who turned out to be a pretty nice guy once he got used to his fame and all that went with it) went on to even greater glory with three or four places of his own scattered around the country. And he even shows up on television now with the big boys. As for the sommelier? Good question. He’s probably sitting in a diner right now getting yelled at by a Greek waiter, shocked that his “eggs over easy” didn’t come out “runny”!
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end!
PS: If you happened to enjoy this post, I hope you weren’t “surprised” let alone shocked!