Had dinner out with Secondo on Wednesday. We waited a long time to be seated. Secondo is only 6, so that's not easy, but the time went by quite pleasantly. The restaurant was a very small, storefront neighborhood place not too far off. Family operation. Two sisters were working the front of the house, their parents in the kitchen.
From our vantage point near the entry, we could see most of the dining room, the service area where drinks, desserts, coffee, bread and so on were prepped, the register, and right down the axis of the galley kitchen area. Flourescent lighting on the left side of the room illuminated the entry and service areas. On the right, down-lighting served the dining area - but as there is no real separation, the entire space was bright and unromatic. The decor verged on non-existent. We perused a menu as we waited. It was a short list of absolutely standard, old-fashioned italian (calabrian) offerings. Mostly pasta. A few protein items. Secondo loves pasta.
The sisters were very busy. Upon our arrival, we were the fourth party waiting for a table. The entire restaurant consisted of perhaps a dozen tables. The timing of our arrival was such that it took quite a long time for even the first of the 4 waiting parties to be seated. During this long interval, and at each subsequent seating prior to ours, we observed that one, and sometimes two tables were vacant. A party would clear their bill and head out. Their table would sit, waiting to be cleared and readied for the next party. And people were waiting. And I was waiting with a 6 year old. And we didn't mind; because something magical was happening.
The sisters were very busy. There was no discernable division of labor between them. There was a lot to do back there. When they were in the service area, they flew. Most of their activities were those you'd expect - prepping desserts, totaling checks, making espresso and so on. One thing was a bit less typical. Every time a party was seated, one of the sisters would start a batch of toast on a panini grill. When they removed the toast from the grill, they'd brush it with a mixture of oil, garlic and herbs. No big deal, but it was a labor intensive way to provide bread to the table, it seemed to be the rule, and the care and precision with which they made that garlic bread seemed special.
More remarkable was the transformation the sisters went through each and every time they crossed the threshold between the service area and the dining area. Recall that there was no wall between - just a counter. Still, as they moved from one area to the other, everything changed. In the service area, they were charged and taut, moving as fast as possible. They were perfectly accurate and wasted no motion. But they were clearly exerting themselves to get things done. As they crossed into the dining room, you could see them relax. It was deliberate and unmistakable. It didn't take long - just a couple of seconds. But as they entered the dining room, the tension left them and they moved through the tables with easy grace as if they had all the time in the world. When they approached a table and took an order, or when delivering food, they were relaxed. They exuded hospitality. They might as well have been hostesses, relaxing at a catered affair under the watchful eye of a trusted manager. It was as if they had nothing to worry about, nothing to do, but be with their guest. No other guest either - just the one they were with.
Those tables that sat empty between parties? I was quickly convinced this was a deliberate, and absolutely correct decision. They were regulating the flow of seatings and orders to maintain perfect service in the front of the house and perfect timing in the kitchen. I was waiting with a 6 year old, in an environment that provided no activities to keep him busy for close to an hour - and I appreciated their discipline in turning those tables so slowly.
When our turn came, just as I suspected, we too felt the ease and luxury of gracious service and seemingly undivided attention. And the food was delicious.