By Mykle Hansen
Photo by Ross Blanchard
The night my family and I visited THE WOODSMAN TAVERN on SE Division, the waitstaff seemed so attentive, so singlemindedly focused upon excellence of service and attire, that I suspected either they were awaiting the arrival of some august food-press personage with the power to crush their poor lovely restaurant like a bug, or that the chef had slipped Ritalin in the floor staff’s supper. We were seated immediately upon arrival, and visited by two different waiters within sixty seconds. I had a sip of water, and as soon as my glass thunked on the table an arm in a dust-bowl denim shirt sleeve appeared by my shoulder with a carafe to refill it.
We settled in to the vintage wooden task chairs, read the menu and took in the mid-century hunting lodge decor. After the taller and more handsome of our two tall, handsome waiters delivered an Oscar-worthy recitation of the night’s specials, we ordered appetizers: a beet salad for my wife and I and, for my daughter, a roasted chicken wing. This first course arrived almost instantly, laid before us hot, silent, and aromatic on the mirror-smooth wooden table, flanked by spotless napkins and a deluxe compliment of silverware set perfectly straight and parallel as if oriented by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Curiously, we were brought one other item which we did not order: a tiny rectangular American flag, printed on a sugar packet, was laid face-up for us in the very center of the table. The red, white, and blue glare of it clashed so utterly with the restaurant’s Black Forest color palette that my brain refused to see it at first, but there it was: a star-spangled banner with our food.
I detest inopportune flag-waving, but I tried to make sense of it. Clearly this was no afterthought; afterthoughts would not be tolerated in such a restaurant. But why a flag? Was the President coming? Could that explain the heightened readiness of the waitstaff? Picturing Barack Obama seated at the next table I was gripped by the slight paranoia I sometimes feel in really fine restaurants: a suspicion that the food might be too good for me. I pondered my own public role as diner; looking around, I wondered if I might actually be the worst-dressed person in the restaurant. Actually my shirt was fairly clean, but I could remember an even cleaner shirt hanging uselessly in my armoire at home, as if I was ever going to be found in a nicer restaurant than this one. I strained to recall if I had combed my hair that day.
Then, as my daughter—my poor, dear daughter who endures so much from me—reached for her chicken wing, I chided her in my parental way: Nice Restaurant equals Manners equals Knife and Fork. So my wife and I tucked into our salad as my daughter slowly began to dissect the small, complex anatomy of a bird’s arm with the tips of her silverware, a slow and tedious task for a hungry child.
I sipped my water, laid it down—Boom! a lovely waitress appeared, yet another member of our waitstaff who now seemed to outnumber us two to one, and who all seemed to be neglecting lucrative modeling careers, in order to refill once more our mostly-full water glasses. As she departed she subtly reached out and poked the little flag on the table, bumped it every so slightly with a calculated carelessness, as if to say: Please, sir, notice this packet of patriotic-themed sugar we have mysteriously brought here for no reason. She departed, and I wondered: is an FBI agent trapped in the kitchen attempting to communicate secretly with me on a matter of national security?
I picked up the little flag-packet, flipped it over … and learned that it was not a packet of sugar at all. It was in fact a moist towelette—exactly the kind of thoughtfully provided finger-cleaning item that allows one’s daughter to eat a chicken wing with her fingers in an extremely classy restaurant.
Thus defeated at fine dining, I enjoyed my salad in silence, soon cheered up by a friendly pork chop.
On an absolutely soaking wet Wednesday night last September, local writers Kevin Sampsell, Jeff Allesandrelli, and Bryan Coffelt organized an impressively large tableau of parallel readings by local writers in a cluster of drinking holes on the Hawthorne Strip. They called it LITHOP PDX, and it sucked wet audience off the street like sponges. By eight o’clock there was hardly a place left to stand between all six venues. At THORNE LOUNGE, I couldn’t even get in the door; at SEWICKLY’S the regulars from the Nows Ours reading series were stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder in the video poker parlor, sharing a microphone against a backdrop of blinking screens and dollar-denominated buttons. I finally dug in my elbows at BAR OF THE GODS to carve out a seat beside glamorous local author Kari Luna (with a K) as we listened to Emily Chenoweth read a funny story about sex, drinking, and the weather. Sometimes we find things in restaurants.
It’s funny how the haze of a loud, dark bar can clarify the spoken word. It provides a base layer of noise and confusion that makes it easier to yell the things that need yelling. The darkness and the alcohol and the too-close quarters conspire to draw out drama from people who might be spooked into mumbling, if the room were actually quiet. Glamorous local author Cari Luna (with a C) looked glorious under a dimmed floodlamp with the neon beer sign blinking in the rainy window behind her, as she read stories about squat dwellers in New York City—stories to make you appreciate the dry roof over your head. Then came Kevin Sampsell himself, with excerpts from his new novel. Sexy, romantic stuff, perfect for drinking. The bartenders never got a break. The crowds were as polite as bar crowds get—still giggling too loud at the funny bits, still managing to drop and shatter a beer glass in the middle of a poignant multisyllabic word. But what can you do? You can only ever get about half of someone’s attention in a bar after dark; but LITHOP PDX was lovely, electric, and sure to be repeated.
Sometimes we forget stuff in restaurants. Or perhaps it’s only me who dutifully lugs his own earth-saving, tree-hugging coffee to-go mug to EXTRACTO on NE Killingsworth every other morning, to fill it up with drip and grab a croissant to go, to listen to the tiny clicking of a thousand laptop keys, to skim the front page of the New York Times and maybe to exchange a few quick, to-go style greetings with all the other regulars who wake up in the same time slot that I do: Good morning, Chris; Hello, Ephraim; Hi, Ben. Sometimes former mayor Sam is here, looking trim and relaxed, well-treated by civilian life. Sometimes, outside, there are cute puppies … one thing leads to another and, before I know it, my to-go mug has a second refill and I am still here. One would think that after consuming all that coffee I might possess the mental sharpness to tell my own dishes from Extracto’s (mine are black, theirs are white—there’s a clue); but in fact I have so often deposited my own personal to-go mug into Extracto’s bus tub, and had it handed back to me clean and shiny days later, that I probably owe them a box of dish soap.
But bigger mistakes are always waiting to be made. One night last summer, my wife and I, after a discouraging slog up and down NE Alberta in search of anything resembling tiramisu, ended up consoling ourselves with a massive, flaky cannoli on the sidewalk patio of ENZO’S CAFFE ITALIANO. Mustachioed Chef Enzo and his young staff have that classic sense of unhurried hospitality for which Italian cuisine is notorious: they long to keep on serving you. Although he was too brave to show it, our waiter seemed slightly saddened that we could want to depart after just one cannoli. But who’s in a hurry on a Sunday night? An extra glass of wine never killed anybody… I can report that it has led to distress for least one handbag, however. My wife left hers behind under our outdoor table—practically in the middle of the street—containing all the irreplaceable life-equipment one can fit in a purse: wallet, phone, keys, checkbook, credit cards … oh, dear.
The next morning she discovered her mistake and was just googling the Caffe’s opening hours, fighting back panic, when a knock came at the front door. Who could it be? It was Enzo’s son, smiling on our doorstep, hoping he had not woken us, cradling the precious orange purse in his hands while Enzo himself waved from the idling car on the curb. Thank you, Enzo! I wish I could promise we won’t do it again.