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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch 20: Iambic Brunchameter

Jan 7, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

On the face of it, Sunday brunch would seem to be the very definition of stress-free relaxation. Sure, you might have to try to hold a table while you wait to see when your friends are going to drag themselves out of bed to join you, but once you’re all assembled, you can have rich food, mimosas, Caesars and no time constraints. And it might follow that for the restaurateur, getting up in the early morning, driving through the quiet city to brew the coffee, mix the batter and put out the welcome mat would be just as pleasant.

Some days, brunch is just like that – stress-free and relaxed, but because it is so busy from the beginning, there are days when one small upset can throw the morning off,  like a pebble on a railroad track that might derail a locomotive. You soon learn which plumber is likely to answer the phone at seven a.m. on Sunday and who might be free to pick up omelet pans from Tap Phong when they open at ten.

I recite poetry to myself when I’m stressed. It calms me down.

Leaving the dining room set up unsupervised and hustling over to Kensington Market to pick up cases of eggs because none were ordered, I might ease the anxiety with deep breathing and mutter:


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.


It would keep my heart rate down and my head fixed in the moment. Some days though, the stress was more sustained, requiring more than a Shakespearian sonnet. 

As curators of the room decoration, and knowing that they had our confidence, Ted and Ivan often slipped in at night to touch up the paint work, embellish an arrangement or perhaps add a small shelf to the bread station. It was startling one Sunday though, to arrive and find them savouring a glass of wine at the bar and surveying their latest installation with satisfaction. Against the back wall stood four Doric columns supporting an arched pediment on which was written ‘Pearly Gates’ in a large arc and underneath in slightly smaller letters, ‘Canadian Entrance’. The pillars were sonotubes and the pediment particle board and Styrofoam on light wooden struts. The whole construction was painted to look like veined white marble.

They had worked most of the night, transporting and assembling it. Donna was obviously pleased with the result too. I wasn’t so sure. 

“It’s kind of trivial don’t you think?

“And this is the Vatican?” she laughed, looking around at the whimsical décor. “You’re like the cat…put out by any change.”

“It’s not change that causes us stress, but the uncertainty that change brings.”

Installing the arch involved removing one of the banquettes and replacing it with three deuces along the back wall, one nestled underneath the arch itself. This necessitated renumbering the tables – renumbering the tables, before brunch.

“Where did table five go?”

“It had to go to make room for the arch. The three new table numbers are eleven, twelve and thirteen.”

“Why not five?”

“What five-a, five-b and five-c?

“Is the next banquette still six?”

“Yes.”

Think about having that conversation six times while seating guests, answering the phone, and fielding oblique questions. Breathe.


I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


The Pearly Gates had come from a set of Maniac Mansion, a television show produced by Atlantis Film that Ivan was working on. A few weeks later, when I was seating Seaton McLean, one of the principals of Atlantis, he looked at me and pointed to the arch said,” Doesn’t that belong to me?”

“Probably,” I said nervously, ” but Ivan said it was in the dumpster.”

“Okay,” he shrugged.” I suppose it was.”

I take a deep breath. Relax.


What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Columns and portals of the recent past.


The restaurant filled quickly, so it was imperative that all the staff be on time. If a waiter was missing, it meant redistributing sections until they arrived  – if they arrived. At last, they slip in the back door, check the specials book and make an appearance on the floor, with mumbled apologies. 


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
Thy anxious section’s overfull,
And the waitlist long.


I breathe.  Sometimes, stress rewrites the poetry.

I used to have a recurring dream about staff not showing up. When I came to Toronto it was to manage the Tex-Mex restaurant on Yonge Street. The restaurant was busy but not showing a profit and I was charged with turning it around. It wasn’t difficult to see the problems  – over staffing, poor inventory control, pilferage; nor was it difficult to correct them. I did meet resistance. It was during this time, I started having the dream. 

I was alone in the restaurant at opening time and customers were massed around the door waiting to get in. I devised a plan, as one does in dreams. I would seat ten people, get them a drink and take their order. Then, after having gone to the kitchen to start the order, I would repeat the process. It degenerated of course into bus pans of dirty dishes on the bar, dropped trays and customers frantically waving in my face.

One Sunday brunch at Mildred’s, none of the scheduled servers had arrived by opening time. There was one new hire, Trevor in for an observation shift, but he didn’t know the menu and was not ready to take tables. Our son, Rory, newly installed as a busboy probably could have taken a section with his brunch experience but it was an unfair and possibly illegal thing to do to a fourteen year old. Where were they? I telephoned but got no answer. 

By opening time, Rory and Cosmo, who was on the bar, had done the set-up helped by Ravi and Segar who then stood poised behind the line like sprinters on their blocks. I was tempted to get one of them to take a section and take some tables myself, but decided against it when Laurie, one of the servers, arrived. I had already decided that Trevor would have to take some orders.

So I slowly began to seat the dining room, continuing to call each server while seating tables and still getting no answer. In between, I was trying to support Rory by running food and bussing tables. The room was nearly half-full.

In desperation, I decided to call David. A stalwart of brunch, David had officially retired the previous week. An artist and food stylist, he was looking forward to Sundays of leisurely breakfasts with the newspapers.

“What are you doing, David?”

“Oh, just having a coffee and reading the papers.”

“Can you work? Please?”

He could. He would and I didn’t  have to make any grandiose promises to bribe him. 

“Hi, I need a table for eleven.” says a woman at the door.

I look around.

“There is nothing available for a group that size right now.”

“What about over there, against the wall?”

“That’s a four-top, I could possibly make it a six, but not eleven.”

“What if you moved the two at the next table?”

“They’re eating at the moment. Is your whole party here?”

Trevor taps me on the shoulder. “Do the pancakes come with sausages?”

“All the sides are a la carte,” I answer.

The woman continues, “There are still a few on their way, but…”

“Well, I’ll put you down and when they arrive we’ll have a table for you and hopefully a server.”

Hoping I wasn’t too abrupt, I tried the missing servers again. Nothing. I want to kill them but first I want them to work their shift.

I am greeting a couple when David comes in. Brushing by me, he whispers,

“He’s got a condom on his shoe.”

I look down and sure enough there is a used condom sticking out from under the sole of the gentleman’s shoe, a souvenir left by one of the sirens of the evening who frequented the parking lot in the dark hours. Reaching for menus, I step closer to him and get my toe on its edge. As I wave them toward a table, David is there with a paper towel to discreetly collect it.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood dimmed tide is loosed…..


The tart lady appears. She’s not sure whether she likes the arch at the back. 

“It’s’ not a religious thing, is it?

“No, it’s really just a kind of a joke.”

She decides that’s acceptable and asks for the table right under it, then changes her mind, “No, the one just to the left, beside the little wall. What’s the tart today?”

“You know already,” I think but smile and answer, “Roasted red pepper with chèvre.” 

I get her seated right away and she’s happy. 


so much depends
upon
a red pepper
glazed with light
oil
upon the white
chèvre


The eleven had become a six, confirmed and seated as a nine, then an eleven again after the order had been placed. Fortunately there was room to pull up extra chairs. They’re happy.

In fact pretty well everyone seems happy; no stress, eating and laughing, proposing toasts and heads together exchanging confidences. The tart lady likes her table so much she wants to sit there all the time. I tell her I’ll put a little plaque on it, permanently reserving it. She laughs. I think she believes me.

We’re well into the service and it’s going very well. I breathe again.


My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with table bussing now.


I was still annoyed at the waiters not showing up. I thought it must be revenge for something I had done.

Ravi explained, “They went to concert last night. I dunno, something snake?”

“White Snake” said Segar behind him, miming wild guitar.

“Ah, so that’s it.”  


Bad boys,
Running undercover of moonlight
Bad, bad boys,
Getting wild in the street,


__________________________________________________________________________

Note 1: Apologies to Lord Tennyson, Mr. Walter de la Mare, Mr. William Carlos Williams and Mr. Robert Frost for the abuse of their great poetry. Other lines by Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Yeats and White Snake.

Note 2: I never had that dream again.

Note 3: Steve, Mark and Scott – I haven’t forgotten.


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