It was eight o'clock by the time we arrived at the Mediterranean restaurant off of Laclede in downtown Saint Louis. Although the frigid street was bustling with carousers enjoying the frivolity of Mardi Gras, the restaurant was barren as we entered it's warm, glowing dining room.
The owner greeted us as we hung our coats from our chairs. Arms outstretched, his boisterous welcome filled the empty space, bouncing off chairs and ringing from the chandeliers.
"Hello my friends! How are you tonight? You are hungry?"
His last statement met the air as a question, though there was little option in his tone. He promptly supplied us with a metal carafe of iced water, refreshing on our palates despite the chilled air. My wife's brother Charlie had eaten here many times and, though the owner did not recognize him personally, he doted on our table as if we were old friends.
With little more than a second to peruse the oil-stained menus, the Inn-keeper was back to our table, eagerly awaiting our selection.
"So what you order tonight?" Quick to action, Annie ordered hummus and pita for the group. The man disappeared into the kitchen and our eyes sank back into the menus. We were all so hungry that the array of unfamiliar entrees was overwhelming yet tempting at the same time. The restauranteur returned. He paused expectantly at the end of our table, glancing from patron to patron with anticipation of the culinary requests that would surely follow. After a few moments of uncertainty, the man who was serving as our waiter, chef, and buss boy had had enough.
"Is anyone vegetarian - no meat?" A few raised their hands.
"Anything you not like?" my wife mentioned her distaste for onions. The owner brushed her comment off with a wave of his hand and began sweeping up the menus, plucking them from our hands as he rounded the table.
"OK. I take care of you. You Like!" And he was gone again. We all looked at each other with trepidation, excited and nervous for what he man might conjure up back in the kitchen. Our conversation drifted aimlessly as we waited, bouncing from anecdote to frivolous anecdote, each more engaging and less concrete than the last. A testament of any great discourse, the details were inconsequential. The resounding emotion was that of laughter, fulfillment, and joy.
Soon the proprietor of the establishment returned with a bounty of food for our cadre. Dropping plates onto the table with a hurried flourish, the settings before us quickly transformed into a verdant smorgasbord of culinary delight. Gyros meat, pita, vegetables, falafel, all overflowed from the plates, filling every sense with their delicious existence. The room became silent again as we devoured the menagerie of Mediterranean cuisine. Tzatziki sauce dribbled from the overflowing pita, running down the back of my hand as I struggled to control the giant gyros. Others opted to cut their entree as is becoming of a civilized human being. They weren't fooling anyone, and only delayed the mess as their fork, full of vegetables, meat, pita, and sauce haphazardly careened toward their gaping mouths.
As the meal was devoured, our host was never far away. Coming over to fill a water glass from the metal pitcher, then back to the bar, where music videos from the Middle East were showing bright clothing and dervish-like dancing. A few moments would pass before the man would hurry back to our attention.
As we finished the meal, Charlie spoke of the delicious coffee that he'd had the last time he had graced this establishment with his presence. When the owner returned, he asked about the possibility of a post-meal beverage.
"The last time I was here, we had some amazing coffee. Can we get a round of coffees?" The man looked at Charlie curiously.
"No, you will come back for the coffee! I will see you later this week." With that, our host bustled off to prepare our bill. Never before had any of us been denied a request to order more at the end of a meal. The action was not offensive as much as it was startling and only added to the peculiarity of the evenings dining experience. We paid our tab and soon plunged back into the cold darkness of the St. Louis night.
The owner of that restaurant failed to conform to the traditional conventions of the American dining experience. What he instead created was a unique, memorable event that made our little group feel as if we were the guests of honor in this man's home. It reminded me of my grandfather, providing dinner for a family long dispersed, but home again for a serendipitous reunion. That sense of worth, sense of appreciation that was bestowed by our host, is something that is far and away neglected in most dining experiences. For that reason, our Mediterranean adventure will be one of my favorite dining experiences for a long time to come.