The restaurant was one of the best in Mendocino, and Jonathan had made reservations weeks before our anniversary. But when we arrived for our 8:00pm seating, things weren’t exactly as I’d pictured they would be. To start, an impatient crowd was gathered around the door. The tiny old house, now transformed to a restaurant, wasn’t large enough to accommodate everyone. We all squished into the lobby, tight and quiet, doing our best to be patient. It was in these waiting moments that Jonathan, trying to get me to laugh, pointed out a lady wearing a wolf sweater. The fashionista herself was talking quickly and loudly.
Forty-five minutes we were seated with a short and hurried apology. With five courses to go, and plenty to talk about, we weren’t upset. One couple, however, was so disappointed with the slow service they left before their bottle of wine could arrive.
The food was rich and flavorful, just as Yelp said it would be, but each course was delivered with a frazzled smile. We quickly realized our waiter was also the owner and his wife, the chef. When she personally delivered an appetizer to our table, we asked how she was doing.
“Uhhhh….well….hmmmm,” she seemed to search for words, and then drew in a long breath. “It’s been, an, um, long week,” she said.
I was surprised by her honest response. Most people, especially those trained well in customer service, would plaster on a big smile and lie. I sensed she wanted to lie and couldn’t. Her authenticity was both refreshing and frustrating. We wanted an exceptional dining experience, but this place wasn’t as polished and professional as we expected.
We kept eating and talking, drinking, and laughing. Soon the restaurant began to clear out until only the wolf lady’s party remained. We debated whether to order dessert, and agreed it was only appropriate. We could handle waiting for chocolate cake. The food had been amazing, and surely dessert would also be.
“I’d like to talk to the chef,” the wolf lady said loudly. “Please, bring out the chef!”
It was 11:00pm. Our plates had just been cleared and the music turned off. We couldn’t help but watch the interaction out of the corner of our eyes. The chef appeared. I braced myself for the worse.
What happened next surprised me-no-shocked me. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the scene.
“Oh! There she is!” cried the woman. “Compliments to the chef! Sit down, sit down. You’ve earned it.”
The exhausted looking chef did sit down, as if in the company of old friends. We could only see her back, but it was obvious she felt defeated and embarrassed. If she spoke, we couldn’t hear her. But, we didn’t need to speak. The lady in the sweater was one of those types who could carry on a conversation by herself.
“Now, we know you’ve had a long week. Your husband told us. My, my… moving the entire restaurant in just three days, and expanding too! That is so much work. It just looks lovely though. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it look lovely?” She asked the others at the table to agree with her, but she moved on before they could speak. “And the food- OH- the food! It was exceptional, just exceptional. We will happily be back, and we’ll tell our friends to come here too. Now, don’t feel bad. Please, don’t feel bad. It’s hard to run a small business on your own. But, you’ve done a wonderful job. You should be proud of your restaurant. We had such a good time.”
I found myself staring, unable to turn away from this moment of grace tumbling off one woman’s lips, and lifting another woman’s tired soul. I found myself wanting to emulate this lady—this very loud and very underdressed lady—who continue to praise the fine work of a defeated French chef. Not once did she mention the slow service. Not once did she mention the long wait. She focused on the positive, even when it wasn’t 100 percent deserved.
Jonathan and I walked to the door to be handed our doggy bag—a huge slice of chocolate cake that we’d later determine to be one of the better pieces of chocolate cake ever consumed.
“Thank you, so much sir, for a wonderful meal,” I said. “We will be back. And we’ll tell our friends too.”
He looked at us with grateful eyes, and quickly recounted the long week they’d had. And then, he walked us to the door so we could drive home along the coast, full of food and thankful for grace.