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…

Sincerely,

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.

Lost and Found

No reunion elicits a greater sigh of relief than that of Man and Lost Credit Card. Whether left behind at a local diner the night before or stuffed away in a pocket of a coffee-stained pair of pants, its fortunate recovery stills the rapidly beating heart, clears a furrowed brow, and restores sleep. The reassured owner’s heart-rate now normalized, the worrisome occurrence can now unfurl to reveal its caveat: to remain as vigilant in minding the placement of one’s debit card as one would be in regards to his children’s whereabouts.

An occurrence of similar significance is the fated re-acquaintance of a former, regular customer with a server who has since moved on, such as that which took place last week. The still sleepy noon hour at the eleven-table pizzeria at which I work indicated that most were still on task in their boxy cubicles, doing the business of our country. For that reason, I was rolling polished silverware into pearly white napkins, preparing for the moment their computers were put to sleep and each took his or her thirty-minute lunch break. A few moments passed, when the revolving entrance door spun behind me, simply, like a slow exhalation. Understanding that the sight of a turned backside lacks the warm welcome of a friendly face, I spun, too. Then, I smiled. Anita Alvarez, Cook County State’s Attorney and a friendly face I knew from my days at a velvet-boothed supper club in Chicago’s Theater District, walked into the foyer with another state’s attorney, an equally congenial acquaintance I had made there, too. Our faces brightened when we recognized each other and introductions were made.

They followed me to a seating area on the south side of the rustic dining. Pulling their wooden seats back and unrolling polished utensils from their linen sheaves, they began inquiring about how I had been doing and where I had been employed since our displaced acquaintanceship. My response traced the circuitous route I had followed before my March, 2012, starting date, detailing my experience at another popular restaurant and the valuable lessons it taught me. Next, the conversation’s flavor altered to recall our last meeting, when Ms. Alvarez and a few staff members- my friend at the table included- spotted me in the crowd while passing by on a parade float over the summer. Recalling it, I smiled, remembering the warm feeling it provided in spite of the hot summer day. Last, once we had reflected on that particular moment and the ensuing sentimental note I mailed to her office, we turned our attention to the task at hand once again, lunch. Our tie re-established, we were prepared to walk our well-worn paths as Server and Regular.

I would periodically return to the table over the course of their hour-long lunch, perhaps to fill a drained iced tea or to drag an empty, steel pizza pie plate away from view. It was all very comfortable and familiar, like sitting beside a friend and reading quietly.

Soon, all had been cleared away and the tab requested.  I acquiesced dutifully, returning with the black binder that obscured the check. Soon, a recognizable hand extended outward with the same binder, only, it contained the bill’s content this time. Then, I watched them sliding their chairs back once again, grabbing their lightweight jackets as they did, a comforting sense of déjà-vu levitating above the table.

Chicag”O”

In the late 18th Century, on the happenstance occasion when a child’s curiosity grew so bold as to wrest his self-control, leading him to press open the squeaky-hinged door leading to the family parlor, he would witness an odd exchange of hands taking place among the elders in the room. Focusing his young eyes forward, he would observe a card dealer posted at the head of the table leading everyone with an ante of six red chips, each colliding musically as they struck in the center. Challenged by the staccato nature of this jingle, all others at the table would then ante four of their own, resulting in a slightly louder variation of the first overture. Next, the dealer would distribute the playing cards in provisions of three per participant, each faced down, before flipping a card whose suit would serve as trump throughout the round. A lively roundabout would subsequently ensue: passing of cards to the left, spirited bidding wars, more passing to the left, more lively bidding, large stacks of cards being purchased and slid beneath others, even more vigorous bidding, and then the resultant gasp of surprise and frustration from the first gambler to reveal a Jack or a Five, punitively requiring him to add more red chips to the growing bidding pot. Finally, as the child would begin to tire and retreat to the door through which he had entered, he would be awakened by a scream of joy. His attention newly arrested, he would return his eyes to the table in time to watch as one player amidst the adult congregation revealed the round’s highest trump. Spotting the smiling victor as the cacophony of retracted chips filled the parlor, the adolescent would again reach for the brass doorknob, his curiosity satisfied. Behind him, a rejuvenated, choppy symphony of antes being thrown and conversations re-igniting would sing through the air, as a new dealer refreshed everyone’s hand for a new round of the game called “Speculation”.

Speculation is natural. Similar to those who inhabited the parlors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, humans tend to reflect on matters for both profit and entertainment. Traders gather en masse within the halls of a Wall Street’s Board of Trade to ferociously buy and sell company stock. Dedicated gamblers commute to Las Vegas casinos to contemplate the spin of a roulette wheel or the toss of the tie. And, locally, Oprah Winfrey-loving tourists pilgrimage to her erstwhile “Harpo” studio, reflecting on its grandeur. Still as popular as ever, the Mississippi-born entertainer made a lasting impression on worldwide cultures, her in-town presence necessitating the capitalization of the “O” in “Chicag’O’”.

“She came in in 1983, when she wasn’t famous,” began Larry Gold, The Wiener Circle’s proprietor.” She was in from Baltimore to do ‘Good Morning America’, I think, and became a frequent customer. Then, she came in right before she did The Color Purple.

As history proves, great success would be due Ms. Winfrey, who would ambitiously navigate foreign waters once The Color Purple was in the can, from producing the film adaptation of a favorite book, Beloved, to teaming with Chicago restaurateur Richard Melman to create The Eccentric, a bistro snugly nestled between northbound city Wells and LaSalle streets. But with recognition came an assured need for great organization, and with that, the need to assemble an entire staff to direct. And to occasionally treat to a special lunch, as well.

“Oprah really helped us to become successful,” stated Rosebud On Taylor’s restaurateur Danny Miller.” She used to come in here all of the time and would talk about us on TV. She’s a good-hearted person, too. She used to call from the studio and order lunch [for her entire staff]. There was a cafeteria [at Harpo Productions], and they would close it. I’d bring the food, a couple servers, and a few busboys to pass it out. When I asked her assistant if [Oprah] wanted anything, she would only ask for a piece of tiramisu.

“But she was very generous, both with us and with her helpers.”

It is common knowledge by now that Ms. Winfrey’s final show aired on a stormy afternoon in the waning days of May, 2011. As a steady rain fell from Chicago-area skies, the host of America’s favorite AM broadcast hugged companion Stedman Graham for one final time under the studio lights as the airing wheezed for breath. Outside, the rain continued, almost as if a team of angels were overhead, crying along with Ms. Winfrey and her worldwide studio audience.

It was certainly an ending that no amount of speculation would ever have surmised.

Classroom Activity

A month has lapsed since the Class of 2026 joined the ranks of other elementary school students. Within that time, each of these kindergartners has probably squirmed in his classroom seat while memorizing a bewilderingly long list of faculty member names. Each has contemplated which lunchroom mother is least tolerant, and has chosen which classmates make the best friends. Additionally, every one has been introduced to an encyclopedia of fictional characters brought to life through the reading of their teacher, debuted an art piece, and may even have a first classroom crush.  In short, the ground that all will cultivate for the next twelve years has been broken, and each will continue to squirm in some fashion until he sits in a steel folding chair at a local college arena. There, every member of the class that is in now in kindergarten will collectively tolerate a final speech by their principal and anticipate the second that they may move the golden tassel from the mortarboard’s right side of to the left. Mission accomplished.

Like the Class of 2026, we all have run a seeming rotary of education. Those of us who bore the hardship of schooling began with friendly introductions to simple manuscript before we were mature enough to grasp the mindboggling concept of geometric proofs. At home, we graduated from the simple task of taking the garbage out to the more complicated job of washing the laundry. Last, our initial commencement in the Workplace grew as we managed to comprehend the importance of teamwork, responsibility, and duty.

“I worked for Walgreen’s as an ‘Extra Person’,” began Candy Denizman, who has been at Half Shell on Diversey Avenue since the restaurant opened in 1968.” I would go from store to store, cooking, bussing, and waiting on tables. I worked for them for ten years, and they [sent] me all over the city of Chicago. The store that I went to the most was the one on Rush Street, and I went to 777 North Michigan a lot. I came here in 1968 after ten years with Walgreen’s.”

Half Shell, situated in a garden space on the corner of Diversey and Orchard, was her father’s vision. An Istanbul native who received a certificate in structural engineering from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, he was primarily employed to build bridges along the Chicago expressway.

“But there wasn’t a lot of money in structural engineering,” Candy commented.” He moonlighted as a bartender at the Gaslight Club. After working there for ten years, he didn’t want to work for anyone else and decided to open his own place, which is how we got here. This was an apartment. But when he bought the building, he built the restaurant and called in ‘Half Shell’. The business took off, and the rest is history.”

It is the seafood mainstay’s history as well as Candy’s. From the moment she moved her tassel from right to left, she graduated from the simpler tasks of banana dissection and jerking sodas, to oyster opening and pouring draft beers. And as long as the inconspicuously hidden Half Shell door continues to swing open and its bar to fill with seafood-loving patrons, she will continue to utilize her well-sharpened skills.

Mission accomplished.

Dining Room Symphony

A barroom overture begins simply with the high-pitched note of a lone barstool being slid from under the shelter of the bar to accommodate the evening’s First Player. Removing his blazer and twisting in his seat until he is comfortable, this Principal Chair will call for the Conductor’s attention next to request a favorite draft beer as he chitchats about the day’s goings-on. Eventually, he will note a good friend entering the bar and indicate the empty Second Chair beside him in a staccato-like way, and the Duet Partner will slip into it while calling for a gin martini. Together, the pair begins a wobbly harmony that will last into the night, just as long as the Conductor continually provides the slur of the ale tap and the rat-a-tat of shaken ice.

Time is elusive, of course. It will pass as dexterously as a thirty-second note run, and their notes will be distracted by a Third Player who is not part of their melody line. A foreign Fourth Voice will enter the mix, too, creating discordance and possibly dissonance. And this oddly- merged Quartet will increase to become a Quintet, then a Septet, and so on, with each instrument bringing a fresh tone to the barroom symphony.  Together, every voice will chant until the earliest hour, when the final barstool is pulled away from its post, the Music Hall is vacant, and the worn Conductor can retire after an evening of hopefully flawless direction.

Chef Charlie Trotter, who closed the doors on his eponymously-named institution on August 31, 2012, availed himself on a near-nightly basis to conduct the operetta he had ingeniously written before opening in 1987. From the first moment when an astutely dressed employee slid a chair out for a guest until the chef ultimately dimmed the kitchen lights, he obligingly met the changing tastes of generations, ever striving to maintain his unfailing gift of providing the Exquisite Dining Experience. Gratefully, I can count myself among his symphony members now, as a friend and I were able to bring our voices to his dining room on August 29, 2012, two days before the Conductor packed his baton away.

The chef’s homey business environs were located off of a shady stretch of sidewalk on Armitage Avenue, just off of Halsted.  Draped with trademark ivy boughs, the restaurant eaves harbored the first gentlemen I met that evening. I walked toward them, nervous and unclear as to which door to enter, and was kindly escorted to left-side entrance, where the door was generously opened. Next, passing through a minute, wooden-floored foyer where others once shook the rain from their umbrellas or removed winter coats, I entered a comfortable front sitting room, where a blond-haired bartender polished the evening’s crystal in front of a bountiful array of wine bottles. His cordial greeting was echoed by the voices of two females, each of whom would proudly avail herself to perform in any capacity throughout the evening.

I spoke with one of them after she asked if it were my Trotter’s debut, which it was, of course.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

She replied that she had worked intermittently at Trotter’s for over a decade and had recently returned to play a role in the closing. Then, smiling cheerily, she continued, speaking of recent guests who had traveled in from faraway states to dine at Trotter’s for a final time. Last, when my guest arrived, she graciously accompanied us up a staircase, around a corner, and into an area so calming that her dutiful offer to slide my friend’s dining room chair out came effortlessly, as if from a genuine friend.

Once we rested in our seats and my friend had removed his blue dinner jacket, my attention divided in two, one hungry for good conversation, the other thirstily drinking in the convivial atmosphere. The outer edge of the dining area on which I sat was lined with comfortable blue booths and sat parallel to the solid-looking table at which Charlie Trotter’s band of hosts ably uncorked bottles of wine.  To my right, an added partition created a second room that stretched out toward a broad picture window, where green leaves provided natural beauty. Then, eyeing the evenly-paced approach of a young gentleman who bore a small, leather-clad menu, I relaxed in the booth, feeling it yield perfectly to my contour.

We received a kind, yet formal, welcome as the carte du jour was splayed against the aforementioned white partition, allowing my friend and I a view of Charlie Trotter’s contrasting bills of fair. The vegetable-based menu de gestation was on the left, and the Grand Menu, which showcased animal protein, was right. An additional wine pairing option was mentioned near the liner. Once each was explained, the server turned away to meet another couple, only, tugging at the cuff of his well-tailored suit before doing so. Alone, my friend and I focused on our options, resulting in his opting for the Grand Menu, and myself, the Vegetable, each with its appropriated wine pairings.

What followed was a commendably perfected six-course meal, studiously served over a two-and-a-half hour time frame. Each painstakingly deconstructed and rebuilt course resembled one or two of the elements of a three-course dinner, only improved by the surprise of a new flavor from one delicate bite to the next. Roasted fennel’s subtle flavor would kowtow to cardamom bud. Creamy egg yolk would bring new texture to a richly-hued “haystack” of licorice-accented swiss chard. Each dish held the same promissory note of surprise as does a Cracker Jack Box. Portioning was another study in design, too, enduring as long as the allotted four ounces of wine in one’s crystal stemware.  Finally, as we moved from course to course, our fore-polished silverware was swept away and replaced with new utensils, the knife always resting on edge, blade-upward.

Charlie Trotter’s notion of service was indeed the dinner’s most unique ingredient. A well-informed, suitable team wearing business attire as a uniform was so welcoming and conversant that it was easy to imagine an acquaintanceship with each. From the initial wide-grinned greeting at the front door by the neatly groomed woman to each staff member’s reply to the often-asked question,” Where will you go next?”, it duplicated being at home, only, with an array of dishes unlike anything one’s mother would prepare. Another quality that made Charlie Trotter’s service style a oner was his abolishment of the Front Waiter/Back Waiter/ Busser statuses in lieu of an observant, communicative, impeccably dressed squad who functioned in multiple capacities. Each buzzed as busily as a bee in the beehive, aware of empty plates needing to be cleared away, or stemware that needed replaced or filled.

Dinner progressed beautifully, lasting until the final quarter-teaspoon of sherbet had been spooned up and our crystal stemware was drained of dessert wine. Then, the amicable chef patissiere, who had visited throughout the evening to replenish our bread plates with her dainty, housemade rolls, indulged  us with a generous Once-In-A-Lifetime look-see at Charlie Trotter’s famous kitchen. Eagerly consenting, we drew ourselves from our comfortable posts and followed her past the Sommelier’s Station to the decoratively wallpapered hallway through which we had originally entered. We rounded the corner and descended the staircase.

She graciously open the kitchen door for us once we neared it and led us into Charlie Trotter’s most magical room. One of its most famous features, a picturesquely set table, was the first sight, and it established its celebrity status immediately. Those fortunate enough to reserve it over the decades were afforded the lucky opportunity of watching the famous chef at work while being spoiled with a special menu de degustation as well. Leading us further into the remarkably neat, silent space, we were treated to all areas of procurement next and watched as the small, seasoned ensemble arranged the various pieces of the same, edible puzzle that we had just enjoyed ourselves. Finally, she escorted us through another door and into yet another dining area that was furnished with a most grandiose table and proudly situated in front of Chef Trotter’s Large Format Cellar. Here my friend and I had our photo snapped.

The evening nearly over, we allowed ourselves to ask the chef patissier of what her future held. She confessed to the same plan as the others, resting a bit and taking the time to reflect upon and digest the enormity of her life in Trotter’s kitchen. It was a sad moment, but hopeful, too.

Last, she thanked us for the visit and opened the door for a final time. Stepping onto Armitage Avenue once again, we listened as it gently swung shut. Although Charlie Trotter’s eponymous establishment would essentially remain alive for another day of so, sentimentally, we knew it was our last visit. For, on August 31st, 2012, the same back door would click shut behind its last guest, in time with the sight of The Conductor retiring his baton forever.