From There to Here

GeoSystems Global Corporation, an independent company born in the offices of Chicago-based problem solver R.R. Donnelly and Sons, eased mapquestthe headache of navigation on February 5th, 1996, when it launched MapQuest, the first website to relieve travelers of using unwieldy paper road maps. To plan a trip, an uncertain wayfarer could easily tap out the domain name on his computer keyboard rather than unfurling an atlas, then be guided to a site where a prompt requested his endpoint. Then, with a pluck of the “Get Directions” icon, a circular, lime-green “A” would appear, and here he would enter his point of origin. With a second click of the mouse on the “Get Directions” feature next, his travel menu would magically materialize, detailing the most convenient path through the country’s arteries, complete with highway signage and mileage tallies. At last, a trip planner could relax, fairly assured that he would arrive soundly, or at least without an unplanned stop at a local gas station to ask for directions.

The fear of losing one’s way affects all varieties of travel. In foreign cities, a simple stroll to a local grocer can be handicapped by unrecognizable street names. Likewise, a bicycle ride through hilly, forested terrain can become oddly reminiscent of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale as roads begin to branch off, winding in different directions. Unfortunate, too, is that there exists no MapQuest for one’s lifestyle, either. Rather, each member of the human race is led along a wooded pathway of his own, where only his point of origin is known. Ever walking toward a nebulous endpoint, we can only look back reminiscently to account for each lively occurrence that goaded us forward, bringing us from there to here.

“I literally met my wife on the Champs-Elysees,” smiled Bistro Bordeaux owner Pascal Berthoumieux.” She was an American student who was studying French [abroad] for one semester only. After that first semester, though, she called her mom and asked if she could stay for another arch de triomphesemester. When her mother asked if there were a Frenchman in the picture, my wife [replied],’Maybe.’”

Aware of the advantages of studying abroad, Pascal was equally savvy to the linguistic trades that occur when scholars re-locate to foreign shores. Upon graduating from a strict professional school in Bordeaux, Pascal stood witness as many fellow graduates left for England, where most would take advantage of the new setting to gain a fuller comprehension of English. However, like his future wife, he preferred French soil and remained, spending winters at Courcheval, a luxurious resort in the French Alps, and summers in Cannes, Nice, and St. Tropez. Eventually, he grew aware of a need to plant roots, though, and moved to Paris, where he began at The Barfly, a celebrity watering hole, before venturing into the truly fine dining room of La Maison Blanche. Located on the Rue Montaigne in Paris, it was right off of the Champs Elysees, where he met his wife.

“But the last place I worked in Paris was The Man Ray, which was opened by Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, the lead singer for Simply Red, and a few French investors,” he continued.” Two years later, I left everything and followed her here, [to] Champaign-Urbana, where we spent a few months before she graduated. It’s a small town with corn fields all around, so I was beginning to think,’’ he laughed,”‘ Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?’”

That summer, the pair traveled two-and-a-half hours north for a Chicago visit, an inspiring trek that foretold exactly what he had gotten himself into.

“I thought’,’ Wow, I could live here! Even though I didn’t speak English very well and had no idea where to apply for a job, when friends told me,’ michigan aveY’know what? Michigan Avenue! That is your Champs-Elysees!,’ I literally walked down Michigan Avenue, dropping my resume here and there.” The first inquiry Pascal received came from The Allerton, which eventually requested him to manage the food and beverage division of renowned French eatery, L’Escargot, housed inside.” But after being there a year, September 11th hit, and everybody lost his job. It was hard to find a job after that. But one day, Chris Ala, the executive chef at The Allerton, called and said,’ Pascal, I’d like you to come and open this restaurant with me,’ and that’s exactly what I did. I went with him to open his bistro and stayed for three years. We had a great time.”

To follow his term with Chef Ala, Pascal ventured to Chicago’s River North area, where he worked alongside Kiki’s Bistro owner, Georges Cuisance, “a Frenchman not unlike those who came to America in the ‘70’s around Maxim’s time.” Within three-and-a-half years, the pairs’ pursuits resulted in a peak in business and prospective plans to buy the twenty-three year old French favorite from its proprietor. But like the branching-off of roads as they twist through hilly, forested terrain, leaving one to wonder where he is standing, so an unexpected disappointment in the plan would result in finding a newer path.

Said Pascal: “Things didn’t turn out that way, in the end, and I decided to make it on my own. I never turned back.”

From there, the enterprising young Frenchman cast a decisive glance northward, eventually discovering a vacant storefront on Church Street in suburban Evanston. Its suitably boutique vibe jibBistro Bordeaux Facadeed with his sense of casual, urban class. Feeling a good fit, he began to quickly contact each party concerned with leasing security, city permits, and licensing, and opened Bistro Bordeaux’s doors forty-five days later. Here, he continues to lure  the public away from its collegiate concerns, shopping lists, and family matters, all while providing for a family of his own. A true success story, Mr. Berthoumieux’s Bistro Bordeaux is a testimony to his stalwart refusal to turn back and assess the path that led him from Paris, France,  to Evanston, Illinois, but instead to rely on the influences that carried him from there to here.

The Gilded Door

The gilded doors of the self-proclaimed Wonder of the World swayed open on October 26, 1921, to admit an impassioned cue of moviegoers chi theatersnaking southward on State Street. As each shrugged off the shivering influence of autumnal Chicago, (s)he pressed a paper ticket into the palm of a smartly outfitted usher, then pushed past grinning members of the Balaban-Katz creative team. Next, the excited patron entered the theater’s intoxicating environment, where, feet pressed in place against sweeping scarlet carpets, (s)he marveled at the vestibule’s romantic grandiosity. Marbled plaster pillars ascended four stories toward a detailed, vaulted roof. Refined trimmings lined the mezzanine level borders. Overhead, an opulent crystal chandelier dangled dramatically. Growing acquainted with the vision- itself inspired by the Royal Chapel at Versailles- the theatergoer pressed onward toward the bronze banister dividing the grand staircase, an homage to that of the Paris Opera House. Beginning an ascent similar to the colonnades running parallel on each side, all rose step by step toward a seat on either the mezzanine or balcony, where the heavy draperies donated by nearby department store Marshall-Fields would be pulled back and silent film star Norma Talmadge would justify why The Sign on the Door featured her name in lights.

Although the sign on the door of the Chicago Theater read differently on Saturday, April 27, 2013, its resonance among its excited patrons equaled that of its predecessors ninety-two years prior. The sign read “Diana Krall” Krallthis time, and underneath,” The Glad Rag Doll Tour”. The Grammy-Award winning singer, swinging through the City of Big Shoulders before trailing south to Texas, was to perform for a crowd that was no less eager to see her once it shrugged off the chilly April evening, filed through the same historical pavilion doors, and ascended the exact, sweeping staircase toward the mezzanine and balcony. As for the chanteuse herself, perhaps she ascended a familiar escalator later, too, to enter the similarly opulent atmosphere of Magnificent Mile gem Spiaggia, where she had dined before.

Yet, as familiar as Ms. Krall is with the fine-dining landmark, so seasoned Spiaggia manager Chad Bertelsman, whose dedication has just crested the decade mark, is with her; for, the singer and the amiable manager have shared something in the past which she had long forgotten, when she entered through Spiaggia’s gilded doors on one of her first visits.

“I worked for four years at a jazz club that was in Saint Louis’ theatre district,” Chad said with a grin. “We would host people before they went to Fox_theater_stlthe theatre.”

Saint Louis’ Grand Center, whose beating heart is found at Grand and Washington, reportedly grew into a thriving theater community at the turn of the 20th Century, as performance venues and vaudeville houses sprang to life. Within nine years, three of the avenues’ original theaters were opened, the Odeon, Princess, Victoria, Grand Central, and the Empress. And within a decade, these were followed by a flurry of others that quickly came to life, including the eighty-nine year old Fox Theater, still enthroned pivotally in the midst of Grand Center. Although there is no evidence of the whereabouts of the establishment in which my subject worked at the time, it can be assumed that it existed proximally to these landmarks.

“We often delivered to the different theaters,” Chad continued, playing with the ear of his coffee cup as he did.” Now, I’m not star struck at all anymore. I’ve met everybody. I mean, President Barack Obama has been coming here with Michelle for eight years and knows me by name. It doesn’t faze me a bit. But I remember delivering to Eartha Kitt one time, when she was in her camisole, getting dressed. She said,” Chad purred in homage,” ‘Put it over there, dahling,’ and I was like,’ Not a bad bod for an eighty-year old!

“Anyway, I worked there for four years and absolutely loved it. Because we became a theater after hosting those who’d just left for the theater, I got to hang out with top artists from all over the world. Grammy Award-winning artists! I got to hang out with Diana Krall, who is married to Elvis Costello and now comes into Spiaggia!” Chad hooked his fingers forward triumphantly before continuing. Then, after expressively remembering her first visit and how she failed to recognize him, he pleasantly remembered why he failed to remind her. “She was in front of her new husband, and I didn’t want to say,’ Don’t you remember me? I was sitting with you smoking cigarettes until 4:00 in the morning, and you said,’ Don’t ever tell anyone I smoke!’”

Seeking a bigger venue in which to mature his hospitable talents, Chad moved to Chicago shortly after the encounter, bringing a friend along with him.  Then, after two weeks of enjoying the novelty of the new city, he approached the gilded door through which he re-acquainted himself with not only the songstress whose sign on the door later read “The Glad Rag Doll Tour”, but a host of others as well. There he has remained  to this day, kindly inviting in all who ascend the escalator to the mezzanine-level restaurant, to relax in its inspired environs and peer out at the wondrous flow of Chicago’s Great Lake.

Grand Traverse

Before the kickoff of what will hopefully be an award-winning season, an aspiring high school football player must master a five-step approach to a basic tackle progression. His premier concern should be a flawless, consistent execution of the “breakdown”, the steadfast, competitive stance. Here, the young aspirant will pitch his torso forward at a forty-five degree angle prior to the snap, while maintaining flexed knees and equal Kids-footballweight on the balls of each squared foot. This postural imperative should serve him throughout the play also, permitting adjustments in leverage to sustain balance. A subsequent matter for the successful athlete should be perfecting his “buzz”, short, choppy steps occurring within parallel planes to the torso. Accomplished while the legs are in full play, this brisk movement allows the player to arrest the forward drive of the body, bring it under control, and to prepare for another step in overtaking his competitor. Next, as he sinks into a textbook “hit position”- a forward squat with weight equally distributed between the ball of one foot and the heel of the other- he will employ one of two tackling styles, depending on a quick assessment of the opponent’s strategy. He may choose to “rip”, advancing before raising his bent arms up and wrapping them on either side of his opponent’s jersey, lifting him and driving him forward. Either that or he may “shoot”, springing forward at a 45-degree angle while opening his hips, thrusting the arms outward, and grasping his aim’s jersey similarly to “ripping”. Conclusively, after drilling and polishing each step in his tackle progression, the young player can step onto the field with confidence, hoping his skill will prove useful to the team, leading them to victory.

“My first job out of high school was with the Detroit Lions,” began Marie Ursini, before describing the move that kicked off her service career. “I was eighteen at the time, and I stayed with them for eight years. Then, I left Detroit and moved to northern Michigan, where I got my first serving position at The Saw Mill.”

Traverse City’s Saw Mill, located in the deep cove of West Grand Traverse Bay, was a favorite destination for tourists. Here, Marie began learning west baythe necessary organizational skills pertinent to hospitality, gaining a deeper knowledge of its full breakdown. The ability to determine the sort of experience a table of four seeks before they head to the beach, when to check how satisfied her guests were, and at which point to kindly place the tab on the table were certain elements of her lessons. However, once these were indelibly imprinted into her routine, she learned of another, more challenging opportunity at a shoreline resort twenty-six miles northwest of Traverse City. Here, in Leelanau County, she would be a ferry ride away from both North and South Manitou Islands, gaining more experience in a different, more challenging field. Abuzz with the excitement of the new opportunity, she applied, then squared her stance, waiting to hear news of the chance. The result was in her favor.

“I was asked to go to the Leland Lodge to manage the hotel”, she continued, speaking of the modestly priced resort built within a small distance of “Fishtown”, a 145-year old re-purposed fishing village and premier boat launching site.

Leland LodgeUpon arriving, she settled in for what became a year-long stay. During this time, she gained managerial experience in the valuable Food and Beverage area, organizing and coordinating deliveries of all manners of fare, from tenderloin to trebbiano, all while working with her professional team to assure fine service standards. Still, an unanticipated, personal ripple agitated her enough to look even further west. With wintertime approaching, and with it, the seasonal sloth of the resort industry, she felt it was time to spring forward once again, to tackle her loneliness while grasping for a new challenge.

“So I moved to Chicago,” she concluded, hoping then to utilize each play she had so earnestly polished while in the counties of Leelanau and Grand Traverse.


Only requisite boating expertise could navigate the winding, treacherous legs of the Lehigh River as they stretch through eastern Pennsylvania. LehighStarting at Pocono Peak Lake in Lake City, where the infantile waters spring from glacial sloughs and estuaries, it is not long before the tides become angrily adolescent, aggressively descending 1,000 tumultuous feet as they barrel toward the tri-county line of Carbon, Lehigh, and Northampton, carving into Silurian quartzarenite layers of the Blue Mountain along the way. The white-knuckled forty-one mile sojourn ends at here at the Lehigh Gap in White Haven, however. For at this juncture the rebellious river matures into middle age, mellowing while the valley floor widens and rolls onward toward Bethlehem, Allentown, and eventually Easton, where it empties into the Delaware.

There is much pleasure in considering how tame the Lehigh River becomes, once it has assimilated to a broader basin. Settled, it affords its navigator the extraordinary opportunity to view the gently rolling hills and greenery along the river bank. The same could be said for humanity as it flows from age to age. Although most remain on course while navigating life’s many channels, mostly everyone grasps himself a bit more tightly when the pathway is slender and the waters rough, and leans back at other times to enjoy that which the view can provide.

Czech Republic Flag“I came to America from the Czech Republic in the early ‘80’s,” one of The Berghoff’s former servers stated, wiping a bit of beer foam from his upper lip. Hoping to navigate away from the social and economic stagnation that his home country had experienced for thirty years, he chose the largest city in the Midwest to pursue new opportunities.” Now, in the early ‘80’s, Chicago was very, very cold, dirty, and not very welcoming. The streets were dirty, the atmosphere was cold, and no one would talk to you. And there was no friendliness, either, so I didn’t like it. It began getting better later, though. We got more trees, and things grew green.”

Clearing a safe path into the blossoming metropolis, my subject then voyaged toward the smoother waters of The Berghoff, the institutional establishment at 17 West Adams that opened in 1898. Like its founder, a Dortmunder named Herman Joseph Berghoff whose interest in hospitality grew at the turn of the nineteenth century as a result of his experience The Berghoffas a brewer, the young man sought similar success, only, desiring to serve in the celebrated dining room.

“I went to The Berghoff in 1984, asking for a job,” he said.” The head manager at the time was Mike Santiago, and he hired me without a problem when I asked. ‘Come here on Monday’, he said,’ and you can start right away.’ So I started right away. On that first day there was a line all the way down State Street, all the way around the corner, with one hundred or two hundred customers waiting. There may have been a little break between 2:00 and 5:00, but then we got hit again. And I was so nervous that I spilled a beer!” He laughed, recalling the incident.” Not on the customers, but on the floor, because I was shaking so much!”

As the day wore on and my subject adjusted to the continual replenishment of customers that the venerable Berghoff supplied, he found it easier to enjoy a view that so few modern restaurants afford.

“There were two floors open, and each floor had about twenty or twenty-five waiters. So there were about fifty waiters on the floor, 99.9% of [of whom] were immigrants- Greek, Arab, Pole. And many Latinos from Puerto Rico and Mexico, of course. There weren’t any part-time jobs, either, so everybody worked five days a week for eight or nine hours, clocking in at 10:00 in the morning, opening at 11:00, then working, working, working , until we went home at 9:00. It was hard work. But we were a union restaurant, too, so we had maitre d standexcellent benefits. Health insurance, paid vacations, and things like that.”

Grueling work notwithstanding, one notable Berghoff employee never missed a day of work. General Manager and maitre d’ Michael Santiago, the man responsible for the hiring of countless Berghoff staff members, could always be found manning The Berghoff’s maitre d’ stand over the course of a half-century. Such record attendance overshadowed those belonging to his trusted staff, many of whom had been employed thirty years prior to the hiring of my subject.

“Cold or not, sick or not sick, busy or not, he never missed a day in fifty years. He was a very nice guy with a lot of experience and a good personality. “

Yet, as my subject’s years of service grew into decades, a significant change of hands occurred at The Berghoff that altered the course of the flagship restaurant and its family of employees. Third generation owner Herman Berghoff, a septuagenarian, announced his retirement in 2004, passing the oar to the engineer of The Berghoff’s fourth generation, Peter Berghoff. Next, a number of months passed during which the new proprietor tried his hand at managing the hull. Finally, a fateful meeting was called to discuss the restaurant’s newest direction.

“In the middle of December, 2005, we had a special meeting of everybody on the floor, everybody,” the server recalled grimly.” There were about one-hundred and fifty of us, managers, cooks, busboys, waiters. And Peter said,’ I cannot keep this open and will be closing it on February 28th, 2006. I’m sorry, but you will all be unemployed.’ We were shocked. In the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, the business started to fall off, sure. But we were still making money! Still, once he announced we were going to close down, there was a line around the corner that I’d never seen before. People from all over the United States, Alaska, Europe! Waiting in the cold for two or three hours! We were so busy that it was unbelievable!”

An unrelenting influx of business occurred over the next few months, assuredly tiring for the fulltime Berghoff team, but satisfyingly bittersweet. Berghoff DoorFor, as a result of Peter’s predilection for a sea change to occur within his century-old vessel, its employees left their employ at 17 West Adams with pockets that were almost as heavy as their hearts. In regards to my friend who was hired by everpresent General Manager and maitre d’ Mike Santiago in 1984 and remained until the final day in 2006, he took a three-month long vacation shortly after the doors were closed, enjoying South America’s warmth before navigating his way back to the Czech Republic for a month-long stay. Upon returning to the United States, he started his first job hunt in twenty-two years, while maintaining ties with his beloved Berghoff family.

“I met a few co-workers after we closed down,” he smiled.” I talked to them. And everybody was okay. Nobody was suffering. It was as if we closed one door one day, and another opened somewhere else the next day. But I loved my job,” he maintained wistfully,” It was hard work, but I loved my job.”

Free to begin anew, my subject directed his sails toward a broad tributary next, one which veered away from his original course within a family-owned establishment and into the deep waters of corporate dining. There, he continues to this day, steady in the stern of his career with oar firmly in hand, navigating the occasionally tumultuous waters of service capably and confidently, yet, with a sense of grace that can only be afforded by one who fully enjoys the view.



A teenager’s jaw clenches more firmly on the morning of his sixteenth birthday than any other day. The date’s importance aside, its celebration is indicative of only one very important milestone in his juvenile life, learning the fine art of driving. As the day passes into evening and the glow of candles on the cake is extinguished, his beckoning begins. When can he start? Will it be through a private tutor or (God forbid) steering wheelwith a parent? And will the lessons occur with the dreaded use of the family stick shift , or the easier “PRNDL” gearshift? Once all decisions are made and implemented in a timely way, the student tests enthusiastically for a temporary driving permit with the local Department of Motor Vehicles, and, with pending success, passes handily through the first green light of his young adult life. He signs his name upon the paper document, proceeds to his guardian’s car, opens the driver’s side door for the first time ever in a legal capacity, grasps the steering wheel with shaky fists, and fires the car up for an initial run, an adult seated to the right. The stars now aligned, he puts his foot to the gas pedal and applies his puerile skills to reversing the car and celebrating an inaugural vehicular lurch.

The appeal of independence matures long before one is in the driver’s seat, however. Seeking oneself while toiling through an oftentimes tumultuous adolescence, a teen may take interest in extramural sports or activities, choose to volunteer his talents, or join the workforce. Placed amongst adults, yet still secure amid his buddies, the drive of a minor to find a comfortable seat in the world can lead to an exciting chase of self-discovery, especially when fueled by the dream of car ownership.

fritzel's“My first job in the restaurant business was as a dishwasher at Fritzel’s,” Grant Waspi began. “I was thirteen or fourteen, and the reason I got the job was because my future brother-in-law Patrick [worked] there as a busser. He was sixteen and had just bought a car. Me, I was getting so antsy to have a car by then that [it] became my main push to work.”

Fritzel’s, a classic Chicago eatery that opened in 1947 at the corner of State and Lake, was a welcoming haven for many of the city’s greatest columnists, actors, and business tycoons. According to illustrious Chicago Sun-Times contributor Irv Kupcinet, it was Chicago’s equivalent to Toots Shor’s, a Manhattan celebrity haunt. To drive a comparative wedge between the two, though, Fritzel’s was as much-loved for its German cuisine as for the comfort it provided its guests. By contrast, Toot Shor’s, although atmospherically relaxing, had a menu that even its owner described as “nuttin’ fancy.”

“There were three brothers who were managers there. Their names were Rob, Peter, and Gary,” Grant continued. “Their father, who owned The Black Forest as well, was a big part of the family and the son’s lives. In fact, he taught them all of the time before he passed away. Rob was the oldest, the anchor of the family, and the most professional. When he was in the restaurant, it had a very different feel, and people respected him very, very much. Peter was the middle child and the one that I bonded with the most. He was passionate, great with HR, the guests, and the staff. He was a great mentor to me, giving me all of the opportunities to move up within Fritzel’s and to eventually work with their chef as a line cook. The youngest son [was] Gary. He was the first to turn the football game on at the bar and to mingle with the bar guests, because the bar was his game and everyone came to see him [there]. But Peter was the face of the restaurant. Everybody loved Peter. Everybody always asked for Peter.”

Once hired on as the AM Dishwasher, thirteen-year old Grant Waspi observed a workaday phenomenon relatively unfamiliar to current restaurant operations.

“I would see food preparation all day long,” he commented.” I would see a full progression of the hours that the chefs and line cooks put in everyday. The food preparation cooks were the same as the line cooks at Fritzel’s. These guys were putting in some major hours, prepping all day long and cooking late into the night. Nowadays, prep cooks are in the morning and your line cooks come in at night. Still, starting as a DSC_0261dishwasher, I was a free set of hands. Now that I’m talking about it, I remember peeling potatoes all day long, all day long, because their potato pancakes were one of their most important items. So I would help to make potato pancakes, ‘cause peeling potatoes was so important. I felt like I was in the army, because I peeled so many!” Grant laughed, then continued. “But the hardest jobs there were making the rouladen (very traditional, with the pickle in the center) and pounding the schnitzels. Obviously, because I was the youngest one there, I would have to pound the schnitzels, for hours and hours and hours. It was in the basement, and they had a big butcher block down there. Wiener schnitzel being the most popular, you would have to go into a night with forty wiener schnitzels to prep yourself. Then, you would have to pound pork schnitzels, which would tear a little bit as you pounded them, so you had to be so gentle with [them]. After those were done, you knew you weren’t even close, because you still had to pound chicken schnitzels. It was a tough job. You were exhausted, and your right arm was ready to fall off!”

Nevertheless, the hard work instilled a good work ethic in the hardworking middle school student, informing him of the due diligence that was so necessary to family operations like Fritzel’s.

“It was a family owned restaurant with a team atmosphere. You were part of the family, and everyone was going to do their fair share that day.”

shirt and tieIn accordance with the unwritten rules of a family run environment, a fortnight passed before Grant was asked to rinse the dishwater from his hands, run across the street, and purchase a work shirt. A fellow employee, a busser, had failed to show up for evening service, and his help was needed. That night, dedicating himself to the new position, Grant worked so thoroughly that he was asked to remain in the new post through another period of his three-year tenure at Fritzel’s. “Thus,” he remembered,” the hazing began at the age of thirteen with the other bussers. But that’s how I got my start at Fritzel’s, how I got my foot in the door.”

Eventually, Grant’s toe-hold on the door sash sill pushed it ajar, permitting him a cursory glance into Fritzel’s kitchen confines, where he began as the AM Dish. The stolen look-see did not escape the eyes of observant #2 Manager Peter Gearhart, who not only noted the depth of Grant’s gaze, but promoted him to a position straddling the precipice between the inner and outer confines. Grant’s new challenge was to serve the chef as a Food Runner.

“You get to know the chef very well when you’re a Food Runner. [He] worked behind the line at Fritzel’s, not in an expediting capacity, because, back then, there was no ‘Coordinator’ position. So every night, he would work the sauté station, and as the chef, he would call tickets from the line. I learned a lot in that food running position, watching the chef crank food out on a Saturday night. You would see the impossible happen in front of your eyes.”

Nevertheless, being Fritzel’s Food Runner did come with an unexpected duty, which the former employee humorously mentioned.

“Of course, I would be his set of hands. The prep kitchen and all of the coolers were in the basement, so when the chef ran out of something, you could safely bet that [he] wasn’t running downstairs,” my subject laughed.” It was the Food Runner! I think I worked some major calves up, running up and down those stairs!”

Soon, largely owing to Grant’s reliable nature and the congenial relationships he built with the hardworking men in the kitchen, the young man was promoted again to another, final position, this time among the highly regarded kitchen staff.

“To segue into becoming a cook at Fritzel’s: one of the sous-chefs was named Alex, and he was a very, very German chef. He would swear, yell, and run you all day long. But one of the things he always enjoyed talking about was his family and where he learned to cook.” Grant paused, Toquetaking a moment to reflect on his friend, adding,” Now, I had learned that the way to get on his good side was to ask about his family, because he liked to talk about them. I figured that the more he talked about them, the less he’d yell at me or harp on me for peeling a potato wrong. I got a lot of good stories from him.

“One of the things he was very passionate about and loved to talk about was his spaetzel recipe. I remember how he told me about how delicate and how long of a process it was. You had to get your batter just perfect, your water had to be the perfect temperature… Fritzel’s spaetzel was handmade and skimmed before it was fully cooked, too. And there was a paprika salt that they used, a flavor I will always love, that flat-top spaetzel with this paprika salt. It was the best thing in the world.”

Not only Grant believed Fritzel’s spaetzel to be the best thing in the world. Many Chicagoans still miss the German restaurant that used to operate at the corners of State and Lake, where so many imbibed a few offerings from the bustling hotspot’s thorough list of German beers or smoked cigarettes in its booth-lined bar.  They pine for the famous Cherries Jubilee that was offered and the unique Fritzel’s salad that is offered now by neighboring Petterino’s. Each well-chosen ingredient set Fritzel’s as the exemplar of the Chicago dining experience. From its classic German specialties to the red leather booths, it compelled regular diners to drive back continuously throughout its forty-year duration.

And as for Grant Waspi, whose initial trips to the classic eatery were managed by his parents, he managed well himself. For the thirteen year-old AM Dishwasher who climbed in rank from Busboy to Food Runner to Line Cook accomplished to successfully maneuver his own life from gear to gear, eventually accumulating enough money to invest in that which many other newly licensed, yet less-driven teenagers can only wish to manage.

“I did get the car,” he remembered, smiling.” It was a Nissan Pathfinder.”

It was quite a well-chosen reward for such a driven young man.

The Fraternity of Music and Hospitality

Endeavoring to serve an exemplary dinner while simultaneously minimizing table time, ambitious restaurateurs meticulously choose a musical soundtrack that can have either the adrenal effect of a starting pistol or the sultry character of a velvet cushion. At least, this is what R2University of Strathclyde Scotland researchers Clare Caldwell and Sally Hibbert thought when they hypothesized on the notion. Inclined to believe that the perception of time differed between those visiting eateries where a heavy percussive bass pushed diners along, as opposed to others where pace was kept to a moderato, they patronized a well-frequented Italian restaurant in Glasgow between the hours of 7:00 and 10:00 over a series of weeks, limiting observation dates to Thursdays and Sundays. Procedurally, the two researchers recorded the durations of clued-in diners’ experiences and had all fill out a questionnaire, as well.  Once the weeks passed and the timers were put away, the two noted that, on average, not only did customers dining in an atmospherically moderato dining room remained seated for approximately 15 minutes longer, but that these guests actually under-estimated their time frame. Conversely, those influenced by an allegretto-paced environment lingered less, yet believed that they had remained longer. The experiment concluded, the ladies theoretically deduced what driven owners already knew subconsciously: musical tempo is the sly motivator of the restaurant industry.

Truly, the fraternity of music and hospitality is a dual relationship. As theorized by Caldwell and Hibbert, the team works conjunctively to either increase or decrease the heartbeat of a dinner out. On the other hand, those working on avenues where music fills the air regularly can attest to the sly way that music brings people indoors, and not to escape the beat on the street necessarily.

geja-s“I’ll tell you about Geja’s,” began owner John Davis. “We started out in 1965 as a little wine and cheese café on Wells Street in Old Town. It used to be an artists’ colony, but the rents had recently gone up, so most of the artists who lived there had moved out. The Vietnam War was there, which people were against. The Beatles were coming out with a new song every week. And,” John interrupted himself with a lilt,” revolution was in the air. So Wells Street [became] a real Bohemian enclave, and like other parts of the country- Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and The Village in New York- it was a magnet for all types of people, creative people, rebels, what-have-you. People would come from all over the country to watch the hippies walk the streets.”

A recognizable subset of the American population of the era, hippies rejected the well-established conservatism and values instilled by preceding generations, challenging these institutions with personally aware expressions of free love, oftentimes accompanied by the music.

map“On the north end of the street on North Avenue was a great, great club called Big John’s,” John continued.” You never knew who you’d run into a Big John’s. You could be sitting at the bar, and a judge could be on one side of you, while a syndicate hit man, dope pusher, narc, nurse, or teacher could be on the other. It was a great collection. But they had great blues. It was all white guys at first, the Siegel-Schwall Band, the Paul Butterfield Band, Mike Bloomfield (who was a great guitarist)… These guys were so good that eventually the black musicians on the south side wanted to play there. So Muddy Waters, Harland Wolf, Otis Spann, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy came in. It only lasted about a year-and-a-half, but what a year it was!”

Equally as popular was a folk club across the street from the original Geja’s Café. It was called Mother Blues, and on Monday nights, it held a hootenenanny that rivaled Big John’s with headliners of its own.

Mother Blues“Everybody in the folk world played there. I don’t know if Joan Baez did. But the Kingston Trio certainly played there, and George Carlin. In fact, George Carlin used to come over to my place for a little wine and cheese between sets, and [we] used to talk. Jose Feliciano used to play there, too, and I knew him and he knew me! I used to go to Mother Blues, and he’d say, ‘Hi, John!’ He could just tell by my pace! Another performer was Elaine McFarland, who eventually went on to replace Mama Cass in The Mamas and The Papas as ‘Spanky McFarland.’ She was supposed to be my first waitress, actually, but couldn’t make it. [She] was a character! The last group to perform was a great bluegrass group called the Naublich Upper Ten Thousand, and everybody couldn’t wait to see them.”

A final noteworthy nightclub was The Plugged Nickel, just across the way from Mother Blues, which featured much of Chicago’s finest jazz artists.

Miles Davis“Everybody who played good, solid, traditional jazz played The Plugged Nickel. Miles Davis played there, just to give you an idea. In fact, one of the best records he ever made, ‘Miles Davis at The Plugged Nickel’, was recorded there. But it was an interesting club. For example, when you walked into the bar, there was a tree growing in the middle. A real live tree! But what made it most interesting was that it was owned by white guys and had a mostly black clientele. So there was a lot of racial tension there, as you might expect. We would close Geja’s, go across the street to this club, watch all of the ID checking, and the confrontations at the door. The guys that ran it were very, very tough characters and didn’t take any guff from anybody.”

Eventually, Old Town’s voluminous music scene would fade to a pianissimo as the population of Old Town shifted away from its bohemian lifestyle, the music replaced by the screams of police sirens. Still, John maintained, “It was a grand, grand experience. I would open up every weekend and just not know what to expect.” And as one who witnessed firsthand Wells Street’s switch from an avenue cue to a road filled with tense silence, perhaps John sentimentally wished the songs had been a touch slower, so that he, like a diner in an allegretto-paced dining room, could have had another moment to linger.

Sleigh Ride

Christmas classic “Sleigh Ride” owes its inspiration to the sauna-like glare of the August sun of 1946. Perhaps seeking the equivalent of the newly invented air conditioning wall unit, American composer Leroy Anderson collected his coolest thoughts that summer, envisioning a man so c&i sleighenticed by a prairie laden with fresh snow that he asks a loved one to join him for an outdoor adventure. To begin his illustration, the thirty-eight year old son of Swedish immigrants looked to a set of handheld jingle bells, then continued to draw by boldly snapping the reins on a team of percussive tricks. Over the course of the two-and-a-half minute ride, he utilized xylophones, clapboards, and woodblocks, each taking the driver’s seat alternately, peaking above the broad shoulders of a bossy blend of brass and strings, until the carol reached its throatiest point. Then the horse, fatigued from the breadth of the snowy spin, arrestingly rears its forelegs, a final flair made possible by none other than the principal cornet player. And although these elements would not be fully integrated until February, 1948, it is due to the sultry character of those August afternoons that a ticket to Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” can still be pressed into chilly palms annually.

“Most good things happen with time,” Black Flag lead singer Greg Ginn once said, adding, “especially music, which needs time to breathe and to find its own way.” This is true, of course. Yet, it not only holds value for those involved in music, but to those who create a place where life’s music can evolve. It is pertinent to neighborhoods where children are newly introduced to others of the same age. It applies to their friendships as the roots dig deeper. Last, it is vital to those who survive with their roots still intact, strengthened by thickened stalks and branches that reach for the sun, that they value their own connections when blending into a harmonious business unit.

“The first job I had in a restaurant was in high school,” said Danny Miller, who opened Rosebud on Taylor with high school buddy Alex Dana in rosebud marquee1975.” I worked at hot dog stand with friends of mine, Ralph DiPinno, Mr. Alex Dana [who owns Rosebud], and Tony Calabrese. We were all kids, maybe seventeen years old, and we all grew up on a corner of the street on Grand Avenue. It was an Italian neighborhood that was further north.”

The neighborhood, which spread from the Chicago River to an area slightly beyond North California Avenue, was mainly populated by southern Italians and Sicilians, and “was to Italians what Milwaukee Avenue was to Poles and Lincoln to the Germans.” Its southern border was Chicago Avenue.

“Alex just got in the restaurant business. I don’t want to say it was an accident, [but] the person who owned this building approached Mr. Dana thirty-five years ago and asked if he was interested in opening up a restaurant. And that’s how The Rosebud became The Rosebud. It used to be called Binleder’s before.

sled“Now,” Danny continued, “people always ask, ‘Where did you get the name, ‘Rosebud’?’ Well, Mr. Dana named The Rosebud after the sled in the movie, Citizen Kane, [a film] about a famous man [who] had a sled when he was a kid, and that was the name of the sled. That’s how the name came about. We actually went to the castle in California, and this guy tried to sell us the sled. We were going to buy it and put it up on the wall, but we could make it for twenty bucks, since it was only a piece of wood with the work ‘Rosebud’ on it.”

Thus began the tale of the Taylor Street mainstay that marks its fortieth birthday within two years. Since opening its doors, it has hosted generations of performers ranging from classic crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (with whom Mr. Dana has a friendship) to sports figures such as Mike Tyson. Joe Pesce has twirled pasta made in the Italian-inspired kitchen, former mayor Richard Daley has entertained elite politicos in its elegant environs, and historical figures like Robert Kennedy have sat on its barstools.

“I can’t think of all of the people who have been here!” Danny exclaimed.

rosebud taylorPartner Alex Dana still continues to reach into other Chicago neighborhoods, now that Rosebud on Taylor is in full bloom. To date, the Rosebud moniker is employed on a downtown steakhouse, a trattoria, and Streeterville favorite Carmine’s, in addition to Rosebud’s suburban branches. Each stands as a testimony to Danny’s longstanding relationship with Mr. Dana and what grew from the combination of their entrepreneurial spirits.

“But we’re at the end of our career,” Danny remarked.” I’m sixty-eight and the owner is sixty-six. His son is in his thirties, though, and he might want to take over.”

Taking a moment to reflect on gentrification’s effect on Taylor Street, which has evolved from an ethnically proud, working class neighborhood to an area populated by BMW-owning Yuppies, Rosebud partner Danny Miller proffered a simple statement to explain the wild success of the establishment whose name was inspired by the legendary sled.

“We have been very, very lucky,” he smiles, exhaling agreeably.

Considering that twelve years is the average lifespan of most successful restaurants, he and Mr. Dana have truly been lucky. They have survived as many of the hospitality industry’s ups and downs as sled-riding children experience while repetitively towing their toys uphill during an early snowfall. Given the virtues of time and maturation, they have successfully created a place for people to celebrate the music of life also. And to consider those who have walked through the front door over their forty-year tenure, it can be said that they capably managed the ups and downs of business, remained a vital part of the community, and continue to take all who climb onto their seats on a wonderful Sleigh Ride.

An American Classic

In mid-November of 1954, RCA-Victor’s New York office was occupied with the recording of the first version of the Robert Allen/Al Stillman Christmas perry comoclassic, “Home for the Holidays.” At the microphone stood Perry Como, an American crooner whose eponymously named Perry Como Chesterfield Show was the first simulcast, available on both the Mutual Broadcasting- and the Columbia Broadcasting Systems. Beloved from coast to coast for his vocal agility and casual manner, Mr. Como seemed the most assured choice for the piece. In his first televised appearance, the legendary crooner had invited his eight-year old son Ronnie to join a boys’ choir onset to lead America in “Silent Night”, and he had recently begun a Christmas Eve tradition of sharing a solo rendition of “Ave Maria” with his guests. These occurrences notwithstanding, he also stood as one of the few radio performers whose agile leap from the fading volume of American Radio to the increasing static of television proved not only his worthiness to ably collect a faithful audience, but to keep them entertained through humor and talent, making him a true American classic.

A year prior to what became Perry Como’s initial taping of “Home for the Holidays,” a twenty-two year old German began a journey from his homeland in Eisenach to a place where he would mature into a personality who, like Perry Como, was able to hold each of his own audience members’ rapt attentions for decades through his own humor and talent. His name was Dieter Krug, and the culinary institution he created in my hometown of Kettering, Ohio, was called “L’Auberge.” And at a time when many are traveling home to enjoy a holiday with their own loved ones, I felt it apropos to step away from the well-worn sidewalks of Chicago to narrate the tale of a man who united not only those in Dayton, but our world community. I share Dieter’s tale with you, as it was related by his daughter, Claudia, thereby allowing “American Maitre d’” to truly go “Home for the Holidays.”

“He left Germany in 1953,” began Claudia,” because he heard a rumor at the time about The Wall going up in East Germany.”

According to the local hearsay at the time, a wall was to be constructed to discourage the defection of Eastern Bloc inhabitants to the west. Possibly suitcasespurred forward by the government-enforced closure of the inner German border in 1952, those residents wishing to leave had only one point of exit, the Berlin border.

“There was only one train that was leaving,” Claudia continued.” So he [packed] one suitcase and left after bribing one of the train conductors to get on the train.”

Once he was safely across the invisible divider separating the German Democratic Republic from its western counterpart, Dieter sought employment in Dusseldorf, the rapidly growing capital of North Rhine-Westphalia. This location, less than an hour’s drive from The Netherlands, would prove advantageous to the young chef, who would utilize the culinary skills he developed while apprenticing outside of Eisenach to push himself forward to the European towns of Madrid and Rome. The relationships he made in these cities would lead him to American soil, eventually.

“He came to America in 1956 sponsored by George Braundorfer, a friend who used to own The Black Forest, a restaurant outside of Cincinnati. They had been friends for years and years. Actually, I believe it was George’s sister who sponsored him to come over. So [his first move] was to Cincinnati, because there were a lot of German immigrants there.”

DKDieter’s voyage to the populous Ohio city came at an opportune time, too. For soon after his disembarkment he met with members of the influential Comisar family, an entrepreneurial line of Frenchmen who owned a multitude of toney dining establishments within the Cincinnati area, including La Normandie and The Golden Lamb Inn. They carefully noted Dieter’s refined culinary skills and asked him to join the able team of chefs who operated within the walls of their much lauded Queen City gem, La Maisonette, a worthwhile task that proved satisfactory for a number of years. Then, an offer came that changed the chef’s life unalterably. Packing his suitcase once again, Dieter Krug’s next move was away from Cincinnati’s comfortable environs to a town roughly an hour away, the city of Dayton, where he continued his work with the Comisar family, only, at the thirty-year old King Cole, located in the Kettering Tower on Second and Main.

“He stayed with them until he bought The Inn, where he was a chef.” Claudia remarked.” The Inn was very traditional American food. But he always tried to implement gourmet French dinners there. He wanted to bring a different style of cuisine to Dayton. And that’s where the idea for L’Auberge started. People slowly took an interest in it, especially after [Dayton Daily News Food Critic] Ann Heller began writing articles about it.”

According to family friend George Braundorfer, L’Auberge officially began menuoperation in 1979, its menu an appealing diorama of French cuisine. Diners chose a main dish from one of three categories, “Les Poissons”, “Les Viandes”, or “Les Grillades”, each with a vegetable garnish. As an accompaniment, they could opt for a few selections from a catalog of “Les Legumes” or “Les Pommes de Terre”, as well. And, finally, should they be inclined to indulge themselves, a septet of desserts awaited their choice at the end of the meal.

Claudia recalled being at the restaurant often as she matured from childhood into adolescence.

” My first memories are of Fanny and Ethel, these two fantastic, hardworking women who worked in the kitchens of both The Inn and L’Auberge.” Claudia paused reminiscently, then laughed. “Fanny was so short that she had to stand on an old Coca-Cola crate while she was cutting and chopping things on the prep table in the back! But both she and Ethel would make staff meals…

“The first time that I worked there and could actually make money was at the age of nine or ten, when I was given something like a dime for every egg that I peeled. Later on, in junior high and high school, I had to give up one night every weekend to work at the restaurant. I was a waitress there for years, where all of these different cultures worked, Middle-Eastern, Turkish. A lot of our waiters were homosexual, too, and it was just accepted.”

As to working alongside her father, it was equally enlightening.

“He was a hardworking man,” she commented,” but his sense of humor was great, too. One time, he sent one of his dishwashers out to find a ‘Pea-Splitter’. So the poor guy goes to a shop where they sell kitchen supplies, and my father created some story about how it could split peas [that] weren’t ripe. This guy went everywhere looking for one, and no one could help him! So he put someone on the phone, and when they said they couldn’t find it, my father joked,” It looks like a gag thing, but it splits the peas, it splits the peas,…” And the people on the other end of the line would freak out and go all over the place looking, while he was laughing himself silly.

“Still,” Claudia hesitated,” he was a hardworking man. He was very proud to be an American, believed in the American Dream, and would go in every morning at 8:00am or 9:00am, then come home in the afternoon for a nap before heading back into work for the evening.”

For those who never crossed beyond L’Auberge’s Doric pillars to reach for the latch permitting entrance into the reputed plantation-style mansion, here is a view of those faces you may have seen Dieter Krug serving, were the l'aubergeopportunity ever presented. One of the first might have been Mrs. Kettering, resident-inventor Charles Kettering’s widow, quietly sitting across from Mrs. Beerman, a widow herself. Another may have been former WHIO news anchor Donna Jordan, doling out a dose of Champagne to mark her graduation from WDTN. In addition, were you to peer in the direction of Table Thirteen on that same night, you would not only have seen a gregarious regular named Ken, but heard his characteristically gruff voice, as well. Last, were you lucky enough to make it beyond the door on a handful of chilly November evenings in 1995, you would have borne witness to a cabinet of distrustful foreign dignitaries and their American counterparts, all endeavoring to help the embattled nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina reach peaceful terms.

A score of years within the beloved walls of L’Auberge lapsed before Dieter Krug doffed his chef’s toque for the last time. Forsaking the kitchen he grew to love for twenty years, he retired to his nearby home, spending the last years of his life with his faithful daughter, a departure noted by an ardent L’Auberge supporter, who shared these thoughts:

Dear Dieter,

L’Auberge, formerly The Inn, has been a part of my life since coming to Dayton in the late ’60’s. At the time, when it was a family restaurant, we used to come in every Sunday after church. When I heard you were buying it, I was excited, because I had followed your culinary career. I celebrated my 40th letterbirthday party upstairs at a private party you served…What I remember was your special attention, your explanations, your seeming genuine pleasure at our interest in the food, etc. It still ranks as one of the very special evenings in my life…

We have come to support L’Auberge over the years in so far as our income and budget would allow. This past winter I celebrated my 6oth birthday in the Dining Room with five other guests. It was fun and it was special, but not as special as my 40th…

I have always respected you as a chef and have believed your food is some of the finest we have had over the years. But what I respect more is your manner: your genuine pleasure in greeting your guests, your amiable low-key approach, and your willingness to take on more over the years as the restaurant expanded…

I can appreciate your desire for a well-earned rest and change of pace, but your presence will be sorely missed by many, myself included… Before you left, I wanted to let you know that in your quiet way, and from a distance, you have made a difference in my life…


Harriet Uphoff

L’Auberge would avail itself to the community at large for the next twelve years, faithfully led by Chef Dominique Fortin, Dieter’s protege and the current owner of the inspired C’est Tout, also located in Dayton, Ohio. During this industrious time, the kitchen would continue to succeed by offering dishes of a more casual nature, reflective of changes in dining trends. These alterations would not be enough for L’Auberge, however. For, perhaps owing to the absence of the generous German chef whose uncanny knack for French cuisine would unite the Dayton community, L’Auberge would ultimately complete its mission on February 20, 2012, leaving its empty shell behind near the corners of Stroop and Far Hills Avenue.

70thThoughtfully considering the hours her father spent there and his contributions to family and community, Claudia related a sadness that was as familar to her as it is to the city her father served since  1979.

” I miss him,” she stated plainly.” I miss him in the best possible way, and I miss him in the worst possible way. It almost brings tears to my eyes to think of it.”

She paused before sharing a final thought.

“But it’s all good,” she said, the sounds of sadness and joy catching in her throat.” It’s all good, good stuff.”

And as one who grew up in Kettering, Ohio, where Dieter Krug’s passion transformed an antebellum mansion into what initially defined fine dining for many, it is hard to disagree. It was indeed all very, very good stuff.

Piano Bench

In 1973, singer/songwriter William Martin Joel painted a musical picture describing each familiar face he saw after rising from his piano bench b joelto retrieve a complimentary ale from John, his friend and bartender. Glancing around the bar while John confided his unhappiness, Mr. Joel’s first broad stroke delineated the outlines of coquettish lady staff members and lonely businessmen, the latter sinking into bloodshot hazes while sizzling marijuana embers glowed in the backroom. Briefly meditating on his role within the framework, the poet deftly moved his brush to another area of the canvas next, capturing the forgotten shadows of two friendly career men conversing while a few pint glasses remained in front of each, emptied. Last, the pianist pointed his lyrical palette toward another smoky corner where a grinning manager leaned, nodding his head approvingly in the artist’s direction.  The watercolor completed, Billy Joel returned to his keyboard for his finale, where a collection a quarters formed a puddle in his tip jar.

Talented piano men have had the ability to coalesce a room of strangers into a community long before “Piano Man” peaked in the spring of ’74. The slur of undertuned keyboard keys being massaged characterized the Old West, where townfolk gathered daily to converse over a beer in nearby saloons. At the turn of the twentieth century, private clubs in the northeast bustled with personalities resembling those invented by Fitzgerald and Runyon, most sipping dry martinis and talking politics as music played quixotically in the background. It continues its sway in our current era, too, in trendy enotecas, toney shopping malls, and leather-boothed eateries which pay homage to the Golden Era of U.S. dining, when gatherings formed to enjoy favorite libations, listen to music, and celebrate their successes.

“I joined the staff at Christopher’s [after working] at the Orland Park Chi-Chi’s, where I was a busboy, host, and bartender, before moving to [being] general manager,” detailed Jeff Lawler, who has managed Geja’s Café since January, 1993. “[Christopher’s] was one of those unknown gems [with] a chef named John Bogan, who had some incredible dishes.

Dave Green“But the real star was this guy named Dave Green, the piano player.”

Dave Green, a former boxer who sparred in Chicago rings while concurrently teaching himself the art of piano playing, came to Christopher’s on a regular basis, outfitted in a tuxedo, his crown topped with a trademark bowler hat. Tucked under an arm, The Chicago Piano Man carried an almost limitless repertoire of 2,000 songs.

“The way he could play was amazing,” Jeff remembered, smiling.” One [regular] would sit by the piano for an hour or so, and Dave Green would make $2,000.00 off of him. He was that level of player.”

The keyboardist clearly was that level of player. As evidence, Geja’s Café’s general manager reminisced, albeit briefly, about a notable guest who rose from her seat unannounced to join the musician onstage. Her name was (and is) Liza Minnelli, and together she and Mr. Green entertained all who were in attendance.

Dave Green’s music would continue to play at Christopher’s for another eight months. Then, a Rolls Royce driven by an elite-looking couple would drive up to Christopher’s door, its occupants would alight, and then enter the establishment. Inside, they would be greeted by Jeff Lawler, of whom they had previously heard. They would get schmoozy, ask many questions about the establishment and its offerings, then request that Jeff visit them, when he had the time. Ultimately, the same couple would purchase Christopher’s from its owner, with the provision that Jeff Lawler find other employment.

Two months would pass. Within those months, Mr. Lawler would diligently look for work before decidedly trading his illustrious keyboardist in for a Flamenco guitarist. Today, nearly 20 years since his first day as a Geja’s Café manager, Jeff Lawler still employs a Flamenco musician regularly, to unite people’s spirits as their seasoned cuts of tenderloin sizzle to perfection in pots of hot oil.

Gratuity Not Included

A lone server stood sentinel against La Strada’s bar on a wintry night in 2006. Sighing to alleviate his boredom with the nearly vacant dining room, he cast a glance toward the garden-floor window at the icy scene outside, where the heavy, wet snow had caused the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street to be almost nontraversable. The result was little business, save the single male currently jabbing the tines of his dinner fork into his linguine, catching it with his spoon, and then spooling it into a manageable ball of pasta.

Eying the guest’s casual progress, he also noticed the dwindling amount of sangiovese in the man’s wine glass. He collected himself, mustering the patience to approach and offer another dose, an offer which was accepted upon inquiry.

As he turned toward the bar, the waiter’s steps were interrupted by a comment from his guest about the evening’s unruly weather. In a friendly voice, the waiter responded, nearly laughing at the season’s inconsistency. Then, he added a matter of greater concern to the dialogue, whether his seven-year old daughter would have school the next day. Should she not, he commented, it would be necessary to hire a babysitter, difficult to manage after an evening of business hobbled by inclement weather.  The compassionate visitor commensurately nodded in reply, contributing his own doubt as to whether there would be a delay in his five-hour flight home, causing him to miss his own son’s birthday.

The two men continued their chat as the restaurant worker visited the bar for his new friend’s second glass of wine. Curious, he inquired about the age of the man’s son while unwrapping the foil from an unopened bottle of Tuscan red and was happy to hear that the boy was about to turn eleven years old. He then asked about whether the son was involved in any activities at school and was told that the boy had recently started trumpet lessons. Now finished at the bar, he returned to the table with a decidedly generous helping for his new friend and was asked about his own daughter, her schoolmates, and what she liked to do.

The waiter spent the remainder of his guest’s dinnertime tableside, where the new acquaintances learned to relate to each other in a way that only a February snowfall could provide. He dutifully cleared his guest’s empty china when the appropriate moment arrived, discoursing throughout, of course, but not forgetting to offer a cup of espresso as he did. When the guest nodded in assent, he left for the kitchen, where he placed the single platter on an idle dish rack before ambling toward the espresso maker to procure the warm after-dinner drink. Then, watching as water ran through the tamped down coffee grounds, he reached for the dainty cup’s miniscule ear, rested it on a saucer, and returned to his guest in the dining area, offering a menu that included the evening’s gelato selections.

Opting to bypass dessert on the grounds that he was “too full,” the guest requested his tab soon afterward. The waiter acquiesced hesitantly, realizing that this meant that the enjoyable evening was coming to a close. Disappointment notwithstanding, however, he responded affirmatively and promptly left, returning with check in hand. The guest presented his credit card, signed his slip after processing, pulled his black winter coat from the back of his chair, thanked his kind server for a wonderful evening and departed, but not without tipping his hat once more before leaving.

The server turned once the gentleman had cleared the dining room, listening to the odd pair of Silence and Piped-In Music as they began a slow dance between the tables’ narrow aisles. There was only the evening’s sidework to complete before the twenty-six year old eatery shuttered its windows for the night. Silently, he advanced to the table where his friend had enjoyed a good dinner only a few minutes ago to retrieve the payment slip housed in the leather bound check presenter. The legible tip printed in blue ink would be for an amount that he would not receive for a few days, since it required verification. It would be for over $1,000.00.