The Zen of Restaurants by Greg Byrd
What we remember as places—cafes, pubs, churches, park benches, first apartments, particular empty streets in foreign cities we’ve visited—have a lot more to do with whatever time we were there than with the places themselves. It took me a long time and a certain amount of disappointment to finally figure this out. The catalyst for my epiphany was the recent change of a favorite Italian restaurant to a place that sells pierogies. The Italian place, which had been a Chinese place before that and a Pizza Hut before that, was perfect. They made their own bread, had tortellini like I had in a London Alpine restaurant, played just the right sort of jazz for a romantic night out when our daughter was on a sleepover, and served good wine. The wait staff knew when to offer something or to check up on us and when to leave us alone because we were having one of those old and intimate married conversations that included no new information at all but allowed us to look into each others’ eyes and hear each others’ voices while sipping red wine. Perhaps we only went to this restaurant three times but we had soon chosen it as one of “our” restaurants, planned to come back periodically on Saturday nights and talk by candlelight. Then the pierogi sign went up—potato dumplings would replace tortellini and merlot. I’ve enjoyed both the Russian and Polish pierogi handmade by folks from those countries and they are delicious in all their variety, but it’s not the same somehow.
We mourned that restaurant’s metamorphosis for some weeks as we drove past it to take my daughter to school. We would talk about how all the good places were gone, drift back in conversation to our favorite seafood place which used to serve mullet and grits on paper plates and cheap beer in plastic cups, where we could eat fresh fried mullet for only a few bucks and chat with the owner about fishing in Florida years ago. Where the waitresses often sported sunburned arms from earlier that day on the boat hauling in grouper. The place is upscale now—signature homebrews for sale, fancy sauces, china plates, a new location, touristy prices. And underneath each mounted fish is its common name, to keep folks from out of town from asking “what’s that one called?” We still visit the new place but it’s with a sense of loss as we look at the fancy menu, the full bar, a brighter space than the old storefront. The owner and his wife are getting older, as we all are, and I’m happy they’re doing well. I hope they will be able to retire and live easily on their profits. Lives full of long hours on the boat and in the kitchen deserve no less. Still, we wonder where to go for fish and I often end up getting out my mullet net and heading to a bridge.
My wife and I were standing on St. Petersburg Beach on college reunion weekend a few years ago, waiting for a call from some of my old classmates. We had agreed to meet at the Harp and Thistle, a small Irish pub on the beach. Although we lived only forty minutes away, work and family had kept me from coming in for a pint or to listen to music for a few years. I had never given permission for a thought that the place might not be there, that it might have changed, but we drove past the little building wrapped by its deck and found nothing but a structure. Signs and potted plants, everything was gone. When my friends finally called, they figured that I, the local, had played a cruel joke on them. I should have known the place would have been gone though.
In 1984, the pub was a hangout for the theatre and literary types from Eckerd College (many of us were grandfathered in at 19 when the drinking age changed to 21). We would take whatever money we could scrape together and crowd the little tables near the stage, drink pints of Guinness and pitchers of Bass ale while Gerry O’Kane warbled out Irish songs like “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Black Velvet Band.” The girls with us would swoon at his Irish brogue and we would all sing along those songs that tasted like good beer. Before I met my wife, I dated a wonderful German girl who returned to the Saarland when her visa ended. I roomed that summer in the spare bedroom of another student, paying $100 rent and helping her clean out her deceased parents’ rooms and garage. That long summer I haunted the Harp like a Young Werther, drinking all my meager pay and requesting the brooding “Carrickfergus” so many times that Gerry eventually stopped even acknowledging the request.
When we began dating, my wife’s Scottish face, blond hair and green eyes fit in perfectly at the Harp and Thistle and we both spent our time at table or bar, downing pints while she sang Irish songs in her beautiful soprano that was way too good for pub singing. The year we were engaged, the owners’ eldest daughter and her sailor husband were divorced. Bob Packer, the owner of the pub, stayed rather to himself and left the socializing to his wife Pat who, resplendent in a fashionable hat and dress, would greet everyone and point out the open seats. When we finally got married, the Packers attended the wedding and after the reception we all caravanned to the Harp. As my wife strode in with her bridesmaids and I with my tuxedoed attendants, the packed crowd turned to watch her and a piper began to play the wedding march. A large table was emptied for us and we toasted and received toasts. I sang as much as I could remember of the double-entendred “Lark in the Mornin’.” That was 1986. It was perhaps five years later that Bob Packer died and a few more past that when Pat sold the place. I heard once that all of the artifacts—the paddles over the bathrooms saying Gents and Women in Irish (Fir and Mna, I believe), the pipes screwed to the wall behind the stage, shillelaghs, too many other things—were sold along with the name. It didn’t matter, of course. You can’t sell something like Irish music in a small space, singalongs, dirges for absent lovers, singing badly in front of your wife who is the most beautiful bride to grace a pub on a Saturday night, discussing James Joyce while drinking Guinness. You can’t sell that.
The transience of these wonderful places used to create in me a brooding obsession to find the perfect place, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway might say. When I travel I like to find a good coffee shop, like Tate Street Coffee House in Greensboro, North Carolina, which I must also give up now, for it will change, too, from when I drank strong coffee there and read Tennyson, Malory, Derrida, Foucault, Whitman, Hemingway. Since my awakening on this matter, I have adopted a zen approach to restaurants: The place and the experience are one; the person and the place are one; the place changes and the person changes. Change is one. You will have to find a new Italian place, a new Irish pub, a new funky coffee shop. So it is necessary to “be here, now” while eating, drinking, singing, listening to the clanging of plates or a soulmate’s old stories while her green eyes sparkle with all of the magical places she has ever visited.