Gushing somethings hip doesn’t mean it is

Once upon a time there was a restaurant. It was in a beautiful building in a beautiful town. Ironically, the restaurant had neither lodging nor was it located on the body of water for which it was named, but no matter because this restaurant was way ahead of its time. Hip, cool and classic, the press said: they positively gushed.

The chef was deemed a superstar and the ownership was lauded throughout the land. In fact, you could not pick up a food or travel magazine without reading about it. Every food show on TV featured the chef and all the bookstores carried his cookbook. All was well.

Or so it seemed.

I remember being intimidated when I interviewed for a job there, even though by that time I had been bartending for more than a decade and had worked everywhere, from Mexican cantinas to rock and roll hotspots.

“I am not that impressed with your experience,” said the manager, who was about five years younger than I, in spite of the fact that my years in the restaurant business as a whole easily trebled his own.

I think I shrugged.

“I do know how to make drinks,” I said. “And how to deal with people.”

“Well, I’ll give you a chance anyway.”

Afterwards I had to sit through the most condescending orientation ever. There is nothing like being talked down to by someone who obviously knows less than you. “The finer points of service,” he called it.

On my first training shift it became apparent that the person training me had never bartended before — ever.

“I’m really a waiter here,” he said without me having to say anything. Finer points of service indeed.

It was not the first contradiction that I encountered there. Nor the last, but no matter, people loved the place.

It didn’t matter that the legion of cooking interns cycling through the kitchen couldn’t cook a steak properly to save their lives. Or that every single sous chef put his own odd spin on the house signature salad, or that the world-famous dessert was actually made from Jell-O brand pudding. None of it mattered.

Because in the restaurant business reality doesn’t matter, what matters is perception. If people believe a restaurant is good, than it is. No facts to the contrary will affect that. Magazines go a long way to reinforce this. And this restaurant had many of them in its back pocket. Every day it seemed some magazine editor or assistant editor or writer or copy editor came by. Often they had “house” accounts, the restaurant didn’t advertise in these magazines directly, but sure enough, every other edition featured favorable stories about the restaurant or the chef or the owners.

It was an odd juxtaposition for me, because during the day I was still in journalism school, and at night I watched every tenet of those required “ethics” classes being trod upon wholeheartedly.

But again, it didn’t matter. The restaurant sailed on. Cooks who couldn’t cook, recipes stolen from other restaurants, under the table deals with wineries and liquor companies, affairs with local TV people, gambling, hookers, rock stars, movie stars —this place had all of it.

Once I witnessed a conversation between the chef and a famous screenwriter of foreign background, both of whom at the time were media darlings.

“We’re both full of it,” said the screenwriter, his meaning unclear.

“Huh?” asked the chef startled.

“We’re both full of art.”

I half agreed.

Ironically it was a bad review by a newspaper critic that started the restaurant’s decline. It is long gone now and the people who ran it have left the area, presumably to live their lives happily ever after somewhere else.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Sometimes things seem like a fairy tale because they actually are.

• Restaurant critics can build you up, but they can also tear you down, too.

• Ever notice how fires never seem to start at successful restaurants? They only seem to strike ones that are struggling.

• I’ve noticed in my long bartending career that entitlement in people is directly related to how much success that they have, combined with how little they had to do to get it.

• Believe in your own experience. Go to restaurants that you like, not ones you are told to like. There are plenty of little gems everywhere; all you have to do is go out and find them.