Recently there was an ad running for a server position at the French Laundry. The French Laundry! One of the most prominent restaurants in this country, if not in the world, posted an ad for a server. If one were looking for proof that we live in a different world now, then we did two years ago, this just might be it.
Two years ago, almost to the day my wife and I we were driving to Los Angeles to visit our daughter and celebrate my wife’s birthday. We had reservations that night at a swanky little restaurant and we were looking forward to some good old touristing. Before we left, we had been watching some pretty disturbing images coming out of Italy. Something was happening but we couldn’t be sure then, what it was. We listened to the radio news the whole way down. The entire state of California might also be shutting down for quarantine. California is 25 percent larger than Italy so that idea seemed farfetched. Besides, who believed the media?
When we arrived, things had definitely changed. It wasn’t “might be shutting down,” but rather, “we are shutting down,” at midnight, to be exact.
The scene at that restaurant was surreal: Kafka meets Fellini. At the bar two exceptionally drunk young women had fallen off their barstools not once, but twice. In most circumstances one would assume the bartender would have cut them off. He didn’t. But I also got the later impression that they weren’t paying for drinks either. The manager had passed by our table once, to tell us that they were closing early for the impending quarantine. The second time he told us his speech was a little choppy, the third time decidedly slurred, and the fourth time he had to brace himself on the table to keep from weaving.
Sometime later those two women would carry their margaritas out the door and on up the street, which seemed shocking then, but less so now.
We did manage our meal, but by the end of it we were wondering what might become of that staff if that restaurant had to shut down for two or three weeks. The next few days we spent holed up in a tiny Los Angeles apartment with nothing to do, and more importantly nowhere to go. At that moment we weren’t contemplating pandemic time in years, we were still trying to wrap our heads around just two weeks.
Those weeks became months and those months become years. The tolls in human cost, business costs, and cultural cost won’t even begin to be known for decades to come. And today, at least around here, its almost as if it never happened. The bars and restaurants that remain, by and large are full. There are dim reminders everywhere, worn six feet distancing signs on grocery aisle floors, barely used hand sanitizer bottles in doorways and everywhere dirty discarded masks lying in the street. Sure some people still wear masks, but there are fewer and fewer every day.
It’s hard to remember that just one year ago most restaurants weren’t even operating. And the ones that were, were doing almost strictly ToGo.
But for some, this endemic has signaled a return to form.
“I used to reserve that table all the time,” said a man I have never seen before pointing at a table that was never reserved for anybody: not today, not yesterday, not last year and certainly not two years ago.
People assume that restaurants don’t remember. But they do. And they do so because of the people in them. But even that is changing.
Just before the pandemic began, I had seen another want ad. It read: “Restaurant Manager wanted: 65 hours a week, must work all weekends and holidays, no vacation pay, no medical insurance, $45,000 a year. Serious applicants only.” And they were serious
Which is what made the ad for the French Laundry so astounding. Restaurants like that don’t run ads for service help. At least they didn’t used to.
It’s a changed world and before we get back to normal, we have to realize that normal is only a construct. A construct that has irrevocably changed. It might be for the better, and it might not be. Only time will tell.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent of species that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change that survives,” once wrote Charles Darwin.
-Wandering the streets with a margarita in hand will soon also be a relic of the past.
– $45k for 65 hours a week, is just about $13 an hour.
-I wonder if the French Laundry is looking for bartenders?