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Diary of a Restaurant: Ch 28 – Springtime on the Patio

Mar 31, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, … and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.”

The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

One day in March, when the warming sun starts to turn the snowbanks to puddles and lures pasty-faced people, first to windows and then out of doors, dazzled and blinking in the brightness and with pulses quickened by the exhilarating thought that winter might just be over, the phone rings, 

“Is your patio open?”

“Not yet, we’re waiting for the snow to melt.”

“Okay,  well thanks anyway –  I just have to sit outside.”

Even if the temperature was still in the single digits, we knew that people would pack the patios at the Black Bull on Queen Street West and the Cafe Diplomatico on College, or just grab a sandwich and perch on a sun-warmed wall to enjoy the soft breeze; we needed to hustle to get set up outdoors if we wanted to hold onto our lunch business.

The first year, we hadn’t had time to give a patio much thought, although our liquor license allowed for one, and in fact required that we set one up or reapply. We had waited so long for an inspector to give the initial approval that we were determined not to waste the opportunity. (It was years before we discovered the reason why the liquor inspection had taken so long – we were in an area zoned industrial which excluded food service operations, hence no assigned inspector.)

Nick and Syd were agreeable to allowing our three assigned parking spaces to be converted, and while Donna and I shopped for furniture, Ted went to work putting a structure in place. To a fence and planter of cedar boards, he glued a trellis of copper piping, stretching canvas awnings across the top and planting trumpet vine, silver lace and Virginia creeper to provide natural shade, packing the planters with purple, yellow and white pansies.

Finding the right patio furniture can be a challenge. You want it to be attractive, comfortable and sturdy without being too expensive. We wanted to avoid the molded plastic pieces if we could, but although we found some metal folding tables including a round one we brought from home, that first year, we were forced to use the plastic chairs and the patio was ready to go within a couple of days.

For a few glorious days guests lunched in the warm sunlight, toasting the spring weather and pitying anyone who’d spent the winter lingering in the tropics.  Then, just about the time the staff had memorized the table numbers it snowed. Over the next couple of chilly weeks we moved the furniture in at night and out before service in the morning.

On the whole we were happy with the patio, although Donna still had a lot of ideas for improvements, and many of our regulars were happy for the opportunity to sit outside. There were those who scoffed at our set-up though,

“Who’s going to want to sit looking at a bunch of parked cars?” I was asked.

But others remarked even if we lacked the excitement of the downtown patios with their endless parade of beautiful passersby, the shimmering skyline rising above the rubble of the demolished lumber yard next door gave them a feeling of distance and escape.

There is, for some reason, an expectation that because an area has been fenced off as an outside dining area, nature should have been brought under control within it. Guests might be alarmed or indignant when a bee or a fly lands on their pancakes, demanding that something be done. I had to stop a young busser one day,  who was heading to the patio, with a can of Raid and explain to him and then to the customer that in addition to the delights of alfresco dining, there were downsides that couldn’t be addressed by spraying insecticide.

There was no explanation acceptable to the young woman, who was verging on hysteria because a sparrow had landed on the railing beside her table. A small flock of sparrows hovered around the patio, waiting to feast on scone and biscuit crumbs once service was finished. Hand feeding by diners had made some of them bold enough to land on tables.

“Get it away from me” she cried,

“It’s a sparrow.” I said, mystified at her alarm.

“Get it away! It’s looking at me!”

I shooed the sparrow away and it perched on a branch at the back of the patio watching me with an eye no less critical than that of the young woman who sat hunched protectively over her plate, finishing her lunch.

Two women waved Donna over to their table one lunchtime, pointing to a trio of pansy petals that had blown onto one of their plates. 

“Look at this!” said one, frowning.

Donna smiled, “Pretty isn’t it? In California you’d pay twenty dollars extra for that – here it’s free.”

There were complaints about sirens, dump trucks and the trains that passed behind the building which could only be answered with a smile and a shrug. Some things can be corrected and some just have to be tolerated, but it’s not always possible to get that point across. Ninety percent of resolving a complaint consists of simply listening – or appearing to.

I am called to a table. “It’s wobbly.” she says

I fetch a matchbook to slide under one of the legs to steady it. More restaurant matchbooks were used to steady tables than to light cigarettes.

While I’m adjusting the matchbook, she says, “ The sun is very bright. Shining right in my eyes. I’ll probably have a headache all afternoon. Can’t you do something about it?”

“I would move you but there’s nothing available right now, unless you wanted to move inside.”

“Oh, we’re here now. – maybe another glass of wine will fix it,” she laughs, hinting. “You should really get some proper umbrellas.”

My attention is taken by a passing plate of grilled arctic char with a crisp looking side salad of Belgian endive, butter lettuce and radicchio and think “I’ll have that for my lunch if there’s any left.”

The woman is expounding on some adjustable umbrellas that she has seen in Florida that I should look into getting.

“Umm, interesting” I nod, thinking, “I could have it with a glass of that nice New Zealand sauvignon blanc that Mark left for me to sample.”

“And the tables never wobble” she was saying.

“I will check them out and add them to our wish list,” I say, thinking “or maybe I should open a half bottle of that Provençal rosé… it’s too expensive…but it’s not selling very well…no, it’s too expensive. “

Our conversation is interrupted by a commotion in the parking lot. Unloading film equipment for SC Entertainment from a van, Wayne, one of their young employees, had seen a woman being assaulted by a man in the backseat of a nearby car. Grabbing a shovel from the van, he opened the door and struck the man across the back, then began pulling on his leg. The man jumped out, swore at Wayne and ran around to the driver’s seat, got in and drove away while to Wayne’s astonishment the woman, having shouted “A**hole” at the retreating vehicle, turned to him and  instead of being grateful, directed a torrent of abuse and obscenities at him. Snarling that “he should mind his own business” she marched out of the parking lot tugging her clothes back in order, leaving Wayne stunned, holding the shovel with a row of astonished faces staring over the patio fence.

“You should really do something about that,” said the woman.

“Outside my territory,” I answer.

“Well, you could do something,” she said stressing the last word.

Meanwhile, Donna was sitting down with Wayne, and after complimenting him on his heroism, explained the nature of the tryst he had interrupted. He blushed violently, embarrassed at his own naivety, but she was both charmed and impressed, as was Anne who made him lunch before he went back to work. For weeks afterward, his co-workers were calling him Galahad.

After lunch, I found a sunny table on the now empty patio to enjoy my artic char. “There was a woman complaining about the plants,” said Mirro, placing the plate in front of me.

“When?”

“When you were chatting to your friends over there.” nodding towards the wobbly table.

“My friends? Oh them – what’s wrong with the plants?”

Pointing, she said, “She touched that vine, and she thinks she’s allergic.”

“To Virginia creeper?” 

“She said it was ‘something, something ivy’ and she would check with her doctor and her lawyer and be in touch.”

“I can hardly wait ….”

As she started to move away, I called after her, “Would you bring me one of those half bottles of the French rosé, please?”

So I ate my lunch and sipped my wine with only the sparrows for company, and for the moment that was just fine.

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