Re-learning the basics

Good day, Feastlings.

As my garage empties itself little by little of the tables, chairs and barstools that have inhabited it for two and half years now, we’ve ramped things up in the dining room. It feels more and more like a restaurant every day, and to be honest, I’d forgotten what a restaurant really feels like, despite believing all this time that I had never left one.

It turns out there’s an energy in a restaurant that’s difficult to achieve when it’s underseated- a palpable overlap of relaxation and ebullience that one can’t carry off so effectively until one reaches critical mass- and we’d frankly gotten so used to the spacing that I, at least, had forgotten what it’s like. It can be joyous, and it has been. It can also be a shellacking. And it has been. Last night was plenty busy, especially for September, especially for a Tuesday, and it went off, curiously, without a hitch. Friday and Saturday, on the other hand, despite our fully expecting to be busy, were a dumpster fire.

Not only had we gotten used to a half-seated dining room, we’d gotten used to the complete absence of all the things that regularly stall a restaurant on the proverbial train tracks. There’s the seating, of course- Tucsonans are a difficult breed. Everyone wants to eat at six, especially when there’s theater, or a sporting event, or anything else that begins at 7:30 or 8. And when they call to discover that we’re booked up at six, they simply make their reservation for 6:30, and show up at six. When we were seating fewer tables, it scarcely made a difference, but now? Ouch. There are three people on the line in our kitchen, and they’re preparing food for a person a minute, until there’s a bottleneck that makes them serve a person every 40 seconds or so. It’s a fine line between achievable and pipe dream, and we crossed it this weekend. Were it simply that bottleneck, we might have dug our way out of it, but there are other things we’re not used to.

There are things we’ve been doing when the restaurant is only half full that make very little difference- If there are only half a dozen tables seated, it’s not an issue to get an order from two or three tables and put them in all at once, but when it’s full? And several servers are doing it? Now that person we’re feeding every minute becomes one every ten seconds or so. Add to it a few tables who order their appetizers and plan on ordering entrees later, and there’s no longer that buffer for those three guys to figure out what should be on the grill and in the pans, and what should be ready to go on the grill and in those pans in a few minutes. Suddenly, it’s a very ugly free-for-all, with steaks being thrown on the grill and ducks thrown on the griddle in hopes of keeping up, and taking a blind stab at what we’ll need. Suddenly, we’re throwing away a fillet of sole because it was plated before the other three dishes on the table were ready, and then it’s the sole that’s missing by the time the other entrees have been plated. A ribbon of tickets three or four feet long is hanging out of the printer, not even acknowledged yet, and servers are beginning to come back into the kitchen to check on why their food isn’t up yet.

Now guests are getting cranky. They’ll miss their curtain, or their blood sugar is low, or both. Damage control comes next- push table 52 ahead or we’ll lose this couple; she’s smiling a brave but tight-lipped smile, embarrassed that he’s just sniped at the server. But pushing table 52 ahead means that 31 will wait even long, and we’ve got 51 and 53 ready, but we can’t serve them before 52 or the guy will blow a gasket. We can send him some squash blossoms while we get everything else out, but that means we can’t put 11 out, as it was the squash blossoms we were waiting for to sell the table.

It’s tightrope stuff, but it’s tightrope stuff on roller skates, and at high speed. Mind you, this happens in restaurants every night, especially around 7 pm, or 6 if there’s a curtain everyone is trying to make. But when you haven’t done it at this pace for a couple of years, and the saute cooks who could handle six or eight pans at a time have left to work in offices with chairs and air conditioning have been replace by cooks who can handle three pans at a time, it’s a recipe for a night where you go home with your head hung like Charlie Brown. The people who used to count down, “we have four orders of pork left,” then three, two and one, have been replaced now by people who say, “I don’t have any more green beans” when there are still five orders hanging on the rail.

So we’ll have a couple of weeks of adjustment- servers re-learning what the timing looks like to fire entrees for a table of five versus a table of two, cooks learning to ask for all-day counts of scallops, and that if they burn the terrine, they need to start a new order- turning them burnt-side down just means the guest won’t know it’s burnt until they taste it, not that they’ll believe it’s fine just because it’s face-down.

In the meantime, there’ll be our customary Saturday wine tasting, when it’s a little less busy, and we have less opportunity to overdo and underperform.

Down Mexico Way

And we’ll be open for lunch and dinner most days- still closed on both Sundays and Mondays for now, mind you- but open, cautiously, trying to do right by you. Wish us luck.



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