A Loss of Elegance

Sort of a Restaurant Review

One of my best buddies walked through my studio door three days ago and it has been all joyful hoopla, forgetting the self-pitying, dangerous, bloodied world around us. Sweet.

We met when she lived in Big Sur and have been friends ever since. She’s got a great joi de vivre and me too. We, who generally eat sparingly, hit every great restaurant in reach three times a day for the duration. Wowsa. We walked bare-toed in lapping Pacific waters, stood in the roaring cliff winds, visited mutual pals and buzzed about our ancient histories. It was so way cool.  I can still move, but am in a happy fogged up reverie of divine food and wine and company and at least one Bloody Mary. And while I was larking about being irresponsible I sold a painting on the internet. 

There was one jarring surprise worth mentioning. And it was Ventana which used to be Nirvana and isn’t anymore. I certainly understand the constraints of Big Sur’s geography with hiring staff. Highway One is unpredictable. The season is short. The housing is impossible.

The spread that crests on the cliffs of the ocean is just plain stunning and Ventana owns a lot of gorgeous acreage, maybe some of the world’s best. The buildings are exquisite, the stone and wood rise from the ground like they’d always been there and have lifted up into the air to match its beauty, ingeniously polished by man.

HOWEVER…something’s gone very wrong. The piped music was below standard elevator, unequal to the place. The servings were stingy. The staff is more MacDonald’s than 21. It led me to thinking about the problems with a really top flight place sinking to that.

Many years ago when I was about 20 I got hired by a four star restaurant in Rockefeller Center called The Swiss Pavillion. I suspect it’s gone now, don’t know. I got an incredible education from them, and it was a thrilling process.

I was the only American, everyone else had been imported from Switzerland by the management, and every one had graduated from at least a year of Hotelier School.  Who knew such things existed. The pastry chef was an 18 year old Olympic Ski champion (and gorgeous). The chef was brusque and brilliant. It was a very good natured group of intense energy and purpose, all determined to make the customer’s time inside those walls the best time they ever had eating superb food. We all had rosy cheeks and wore dirndels. We succeeded.

The managers were Hans, a tall, slimly handsome brown haired Swiss man with a cultured, gentle authoritarianism. The other was Miss Something, a short blond holy terror Swiss Miss who never stopped cleaning and polishing everything in sight and making sure we did the same. I mean daily, including the wood-paneled walls!

The restaurant was a fair-sized room. We did lunch and dinner. There was a small adjacent room to the main dining area that only filled if the crowds swelled. We were always booked and busy. I was taking orders and describing delicacies in fluent French, knew all there was to know about our wines, and got a sophisticated drool out of my descriptions of the ambrosia sauces.

Every day the small room received the same treatment as the main room even though for lunch it was rarely used. The linens were exquisite. We made the weighted silver glow. The crystal was polished until it reflected the beautiful lighting and nearly made music on its own. The flowers in silver vases lit the air. It took at least an hour to set up the extra room.

One day I said to Miss Swiss, whining, Why are we doing this? Nobody comes in, they only walk past. Can’t we just leave the tables empty? What she replied was a great life lesson for me.

“You set up every part of your business as if your best friend or your country’s most celebrated people might stop in. You must be always be ready for that, for total gracious welcome, and not be unequal in every square inch to offering a fabulous experience to anyone walking through your doors.”  Wow. I had no idea.

What is interesting beyond the formula is how it affects the staff.  If, like Ventana was this week, they are only taught to be polite and not spill the soup, you end up with resentment. They’re doing something they have to do to keep the job and any relating to the experience is out of context. 

IF HOWEVER you instruct the staff how to sweep up a customer into the exquisite dance of gracious dining lifted to Cloud 9 and you are their intrinsic guide, then you are accomplished and skilled and irreplaceable PARTICIPANT, and valuable to the employer and yourself. You will have joy in your work. Not just whoever they could get and make sure the apron stays clean.

And beyond that, just think of it, the education of someone in the way to do a first class job that will affect their entire lives for the better. When the places expected to be top flight fall down on the job, they’re making a mistake. Actually, anyone demanding the least instead of the most is dumb.


2 thoughts on “A Loss of Elegance

  1. A couple of years ago I dined with a lady friend at an exclusive country club restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan. At sunset a bagpiper played on the terrace. The vista overlooking rocky cliffs down to the lake was magnificent. Every detail was attended to with class. Including, in an engraved leather binder, the check: 234.00! Never again, I told myself. I had to ‘pat’ my lips gently with a white cloth napkin and wasn’t even allowed to gnaw at the bones like a wolf. 🙂

    • There’s a certain elegance to gnawing at the bones, too. And yes, all that classy ambiance you describe, which does sound pretty fabulous, can cost. But if and when the whole experience falls short, there’s such visceral disappointment. The places with real class let you know you can be yourself and they’ll love you for it, not just for good manners but for being lively and really enjoying what they’ve got to offer.

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