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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 6: Distressed

Aug 3, 2020

A Story Written by Kevin Gallagher

“What exactly do you mean when you say you want to distress the walls?” I asked cautiously.

“Adding some texture to them,” said Ivan, “like in some of those,” waving his cigarette at a stack of the travel magazines. I was still looking doubtful. “We’ll do a small section by the kitchen door, so you can see what we mean before we start on the whole room.”

They began by tearing a corrugated cardboard box to pieces. They would examine a piece, hold it against the wall, perhaps tear a chunk off, then hold it up again. Satisfied they stapled it to the wall. 

“That one looks like Vietnam.” I said. Ted chuckled. Ivan looked at me from under furrowed eyebrows. Perhaps I’ll watch from a distance, I thought.

Having attached a couple of these oddly shaped pieces to the wall, Ted began troweling joint compound along the edges and onto the wall around them.  While this was drying, they began mixing or rather diluting paint. Thinning latex paint – red, ochre, blue and black, they poured it into a series of spray bottles. 

They had brought the paint cans with them, some with only a little paint in them, leftovers or discarded after various shoots they had worked on. I discovered that Ted and Ivan were master recyclers and rarely passed a dumpster without peeking in for salvageable material. I have stood on Adelaide Street during the afternoon rush hour while Ivan piled garbage in my hands because he saw something near the bottom of the bin that he knew he could use – but that was much later.

When the walls had dried they went to work with the spray bottles and cloths, spraying and wiping the paint, giving a patina of age and weathering. Occasionally they might stop to sand a section leaving a ridge of stark whiteness. Removing the cardboard pieces showed the same whiteness underneath, which when sprayed with diluted black paint and rubbed produced the impression of an ancient wall from which stucco had fallen.

While I stood enthralled watching them work, Tony, the contractor who had done the renovations came by to check in. He looked at the work, mouth agape as Ted explained and Ivan kept working. He shook his head and walked away. A few minutes later, Nick, our landlord appeared. Again explanations. He was much more receptive to the plan. 

So the boys went to work to finish the walls.  Coming in when we closed in the afternoon they worked like elves throughout the night, twelve or fourteen hours at a stretch. They would eat Anne’s pies and drink our cheap house wines (Ted drank red, Ivan white), often leaving a huge bouquet of flowers in the dining room as penance, which made us laugh. The walls were finished within a couple of weeks and they looked spectacular.

The upper section of the walls was painted the blue of the ceiling and merged poorly with the top of the newly distressed wall. To cover this, Ted and Ivan created a border with plastic drop sheets, painted gold, folded, and stapled to resemble carved wood. Spots where the sheets joined or were stapled to the wall, were disguised with faux coats of arms composed of old bits of cutlery, cracked glasses, bits of plastic fruit and even half a stale baguette – all shellacked and gilded.   On the lower section of the walls they created wainscoting from Styrofoam sheets, using fine sand and painting with spatter, and variegated designs to resemble marble.

As the work progressed, people came by to look and stayed for lunch or brunch. Some were friends of Ted or Ivan’s but many worked or lived in the neighbourhood. They brought friends too. 

The eight semi-circular banquettes were our only seating, so given the general reluctance to share a table, the restaurant could be full with only sixteen guests. If we wanted to start making a profit, we needed to increase our capacity. But how would we introduce more tables? The eight banquettes, as focal points in the design defined the layout of the room. What could match them?

Donna and I were sitting at one of the banquette deliberating on the possibilities and consequences of change, when a uniformed man appeared in the doorway. The uniform identified him as a fireman.  He asked for the owner and when I had introduced myself, told me that he was with Fire Department Inspections. Pointing a finger at the saplings ranged around the room and the flight of ninja angels coursing across the ceiling he said,

“We’ve received a report that none of this has been fireproofed. Is that right?”

I  nodded. “Probably.” 

“It’ll have to be if you want to keep it” he responded with a grim smile.


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