The other day I arranged to have an early lunch with a friend. We were to meet at 11am. When I reached the restaurant, the doors were open. My friend was waiting. Two out of three wasn’t enough. A waitress, busy arranging place settings, saw us standing in the doorway. She said the restaurant wouldn’t be open for 30 minutes.
“Could we just take a seat and talk until you’re ready?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. She looked to the bartender for help. He was aligning beer glasses.
I turned to him and said, “I’m a regular.”
I thought that might help.
“Could we just sit at my usual table and talk until you’re open?”
The bartender looked at me. Then he looked at my friend, who happened to be leaning on a crutch. He had sprained an ankle. I think it was the crutch that kept the bartender from saying what was on his mind.
Instead he said, “I’ll have to ask the manager.”
For a second time my request was bumped upstairs.
He disappeared into the kitchen. My friend and I stood there talking. Five minutes later the manager came out. By now it was 20 minutes to opening time.
“I’ll let you in this time,” he said grudgingly. “But this is a one time thing.”
With that he stepped aside and we made our way to my favorite table, me walking slowly and my friend limping along on his crutch.
I write about this episode because it brought to mind a similar situation several years earlier. The country was Italy. Nancy and I had been walking around Rome since 8am. It was almost 6pm when we reached our final destination of the day. Ten hours on our feet had done a number on us. We were overloaded, exhausted, and hungry. We had arranged our day so that we would end up at a restaurant highly touted by an Italian friend. He said it was one of Rome’s best-kept secrets. Unfortunately, we had made the same mistake that I made several years later in Cambridge. The restaurant would not be opened for two more hours.
A young man, obviously a waiter, was making his way past us as we looked disconsolately at the hours.
“Do you suppose we could just sit inside and wait until you open?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said.
He showed us to a booth that had padded seats and a high back. He disappeared. In a few minutes he was back with a bottle of sparkling water, a carafe of the house wine, and a basket of bread. He apologized for not being able to serve us. He even suggested that we take a nap.
We talked, rested, munched and drank for two hours. Workers, going about the business of setting up for the evening, occasionally stopped to smile at us. In the two hours until opening time we chatted with the chef, the maitre d' and several waiters. They all treated us as if we were familiars who spent every evening among them.
What made the manager and staff of the Cambridge restaurant act so differently from their Italian counterparts? I guess it is how each saw us. For my neighborhood restaurant I was asking for something for nothing. It went against the manager’s grain to supply it. For my Italian counterpart Nancy and I were ordinary people who needed to sit down and rest for awhile.
What I think it comes down to is this: the neighborhood manager was thinking about the bottom line. The Italians were thinking about us.