By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Sometimes I really miss working in a restaurant. People from all walks of life band together for a few hours and work really hard. Then the doors close and you all hang out at the bar and talk about that week's scapegoat or rag on the shitty manager everyone despises. The employees pair off to have sex in the bathrooms, except for the one "couple" that doesn't want anyone to know they're sleeping together but everyone knows anyway, so come on.
I worked at a sports-themed chain restaurant in the Midwest. On the menu, we had "Nadia Comanachos" and the "Tinkers to Evers to Cheeseburger." Shit like that. We dressed like referees and I had to wear a whistle. I was 18, and I fell in love with a 27-year-old whose favorite band was the Beach Boys. This seemed so weird to me, since I had yet to hear Pet Sounds. To me, saying you loved the Beach Boys was like saying you loved the Archies. But I was young and evolving, and I soon came around. It is so easy to fall in love when you work in a restaurant. It's like being trapped on a desert island with castaways.
I hadn't really thought about all that stuff until last week when I went into Laiola, a Spanish restaurant and wine bar in the Marina. It turned out to be closing time when I wandered in, so everyone had that relieved post-shift stare. The bartender was super nice, asking me if I'd just gotten off work, and offering up a stool. "We stop serving alcohol at midnight," he warned. It was 10:30 p.m. Did my barleycorned schnozz scream, "I will be drinking solidly for the next ninety minutes"? I ribbed him about this, and he gave me a Bohemia beer. I say "gave," because that's just what he did. I had two beers and a Limoncello, and he didn't charge me for any of them. If this were a deserted island, and we were on Lost, he would be Jack the surgeon. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The first thing I noticed about the place, which was your basic upscale, warm-toned, expensive San Francisco foodie and wine-y joint, was the music. You'd expect, like, the Gipsy Kings or Andrés Segovia on the stereo, but it was the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides, followed by the Clash, and then my favorite Cyndi Lauper song, "Money Changes Everything."
"Dang!" I exclaimed. "Who made this mix?" The bartender pointed to a guy emptying wine glasses into the sink. He then placed three clean glasses on the bar and took a half-full decanter of wine and poured it into them. If you ever wondered what happens to expensive wine that is poured into a decanter for customers who don't drink all of it, well, when the doors close the staff apparently enjoys it. And it was at this point that I realized that the doors were indeed locked. I was in there with the cooks, the food runners, the waiters, and the dishwasher. It was fucking great. I was also informed that I wouldn't be charged for my drinks. Had I died and gone to heaven?
"Man, I really miss working in a restaurant," I told the bartender. I had only been in the place for 20 minutes and already felt like one of the gang. I perused the menu and saw that it featured "piglet." Why would anyone want to eat something that was obviously wrestled from Christopher Robin's hands? I cried a silent tear for the piggie. The bartender and I chit-chatted about that, and then I cut to the chase. "So," I said, "is everyone banging each other?"
Strangely, his answer was no. Apparently there was zero hanky-panky among the staff. "No gay people, either," he added. Hmmm. Sounds fishy.
Just then there was a knock at the door and some guy named DJ Daymitreeus sauntered in to say hi.
"So is this when the coke party breaks out?" I asked, again hoping for a kernel of debauchery. Strangely, his answer was no. There are apparently no sex or drugs at Laiola. Thing were starting to look less and less like a Lost episode.
Two women who worked on Chestnut and were therefore friendly with the staff were sitting to my left, enjoying the free leftover wine. "It starts earthy and finishes smooth," the blonde said. I had never actually heard anyone talk that way. The strange thing was that she was pretty cool. They both were. They reminded me of that blonde chick on Lost who seemed kind of shallow, but then fell for the Iraqi guy and got deep.
"Try it," the blonde's friend said to me, offering her glass. So I did. It tasted like red wine. I started to get excited about what the night would hold, all of us trapped in this smallish restaurant in the Marina with unlimited wine and endless conversation. But the trouble with "work talk" is that it is only interesting if you are one of the workers. Still, I tried to soak up as much as I could. I picked up on inside jokes and petty rivalries, or at least I thought I did. I might have been fantasizing. Besides I really couldn't hear a darn thing over the music.
Mainly I became semi-obsessed with the food runner, who had a pencil-thin mustache, big '80s nerd glasses, and a Marc Jacobs T-shirt. Everything about him said Napoleon Dynamite. As it turned out, that is what Yelpers have dubbed him online. He didn't really have a Lost counterpart, dangit. He did seem to be the restaurant's unofficial mascot, though. Everyone's little brother. My little brother.
I was just getting ready to buy a bottle of wine for everyone when folks suddenly started putting on their coats and blowing out candles. It took all I had not to yell out, "Wait! The night is young! Let's play spin the bottle in the walk-in freezer!" but they all had somewhere to go. (This also, coincidentally, never happens on a desert island.) So no sex, no drugs, and everyone goes home at a decent hour. These guys needed an Anthony Bourdain refresher course.
"Okay, well, thanks!" was all I could come up with, sheepishly putting on my coat. I had a wistful feeling again for my old job, but then I remembered waking up in a booth on my 19th birthday covered in my own vomit and thought the better of it. The wine guy locked the door behind me, and I stepped back into the outside world.