My husband Arnie opened the door and I stepped into the small, old-fashioned café. Three old men leaning over steaming cups of coffee at a large table glanced casually at us before returning to their conversation. They were busily discussing how to solve major world problems, such as famine, war and snotty youngsters.
Sliding into a booth, I looked around for Arnie. I spotted him across the room at the cash register sifting through a pile of newspapers. He’d stopped to select reading material to enjoy while he ate breakfast. I hoped the paper he picked had a funnies page. I didn’t like anything too heavy with my jellied toast and coffee.
Arnie loved what he called, “Mom and Pop restaurants”. He’d say, “Those places have homemade food that’s far better than anything you can get at a franchise place.” I had to agree with him.
We were visiting a town neither of us had been to before. How he had spotted this place, I didn’t know. The street facade was unremarkable. I suspected that finding places like this was connected to his uncanny ability of seldom getting lost.
After our waitress, Alice, took our order and Arnie started reading the paper, I looked around more closely. The café looked like a stage set from Mayberry RFD. The vintage décor wasn’t just a decorator’s attempt at inducing nostalgia. I suspected that they had opened their doors four or five decades earlier. Other than keeping the kitchen and dining room clean, no one had thought to update the wallpaper, furniture or anything else. If it wasn’t broken, it clearly didn’t need to be fixed.
A bell jingled as the front door opened. Two elderly men leaning on canes, shuffled in. The three men at the big table shouted greetings to them. By the time the newcomers settled down at the big table, Alice appeared with two steaming mugs of coffee. Familiar with the newcomers as if family members, she knew how they wanted their cuppa joe. She announced, “Coffee creamed for John and black for Bill.”
Through the years, Arnie and I visited many restaurants. He loved breakfasts, so he often stopped for it before seeing his customers during the week. We occasionally ate out in the evenings.
My goal in eating at a restaurant in the evening was to try foods that I wouldn’t ordinarily make at home. Finding a new dish that I loved, would insure many return visits to have it again.
One night my husband and I visited a restaurant that had once been a cheese factory. The crude stone walls were thick, with doorways to the bar, hall and bathrooms roughly jackhammered open. Everything was covered with a thick layer of white-wash paint. Carpeting, candles, dried flowers, twigs with berries and gauzy loops of netting added classy touches.
A lovely salad and a bowl of perfect noodles smothered in a meaty marinara prompted our return time and time again. I told Arnie, “I wonder how they make the marinara. It tastes better than any I’ve ever had in my life!” Alas, the dish didn’t taste the same each visit. Every so often the tomato sauce had a bite to it. I’d sadly look at Arnie and murmur, “I think today is Chef A’s day off. The marinara tastes like Chef B is doing the cooking tonight.”
Niki and Tammie, our children, loved the idea that two different cooks might work for a restaurant, taking turns cooking so they each could enjoy their days off. When Arnie and I ate out together without the girls, the minute we walked into the house, they greeted us with, “Was Chef A or Chef B working tonight?”
The other night I stayed in town to have an evening meal with my friend Chris. I ordered mushrooms with moist slices of chicken breast on a bed of rice, all covered with a white balsamic garlic sauce and accompanied by asparagus spears. It was delicious and I loved it! This was a meal that I would definitely come back for. Like a food critic for a gourmet magazine, I stated, “This meal gets a five-star rating!”
I’m looking forward to ordering that meal again. My only hope is that if Chef B is working when I make my return visit, he makes the food exactly the way Chef A does!