The Dinner Club, Part 1

This year, instead of staying underground with Shady’s Café, we go above ground with The Dinner Club, a higher-class reservations-only benefit dinner for the local Montessori school. Emphasis on the word club; a small word but descriptive enough to safeguard us in this dry county. If it’s a club, we can serve alcohol. If we’re charging a flat fee for everything, the drinks are just part of the deal—no corking fee, no per glass, no I.D.’s, no nada.

Veva’s visiting from San Francisco and in exchange for part of her ticket and some studio time, she’s taken the reins of The Dinner Club with candor and skill. She spent the better part of a week seeking donated produce, wine, local cheeses, and meats. A few days before the big event, all the donations are in and she sets the menu. The theme? A Dalmatian meal, featuring traditional flavors from the island of Dalmatia off the coast of Croatia:

Sun gold, cherry tomato, and basil bruschetta

Pistachio crusted goat cheese with arugala strawberry salad

Sweet and sour beef and pork stuffed cabbage with a warm roasted red and gold potato and broccoli salad

Blackberry mint cabernet sorbet with anise shortbread

I arrive just after 6 p.m. and receive instruction from Pablo, who heads the wait staff for the evening. Betsy, Michael, Matt, Ery and I have all dressed the part: variations on a theme of clean, meaning we’ve washed the clay, coffee, ink, iron, and glass shards off from our day jobs and are remarkably presentable. It’s worth noting that Ery has outdone us all with a slick black collared shirt, pressed dark denim jeans, suave leather belt, and bright red bowtie. As per normal, he has sculpted his black hair into a two-inch spiked wave framing his symmetrical face and when he smiles, his brown eyes lift like two dark moons.

“You’re the hottest wine server on the floor,” I tell Ery, which is fun to say because it’s completely harmless. He is, of course, the only wine server on the floor and full-heart committed to his lovely Puerto Rican girlfriend, Janine.

“Why, thank you,” he says dramatically, drawing a hand to his chin, nodding his head, then breaking into smile.

By 6:30 we’ve rehearsed the menu and been assigned our tables. The lights are dimmed, ceiling fans mute the shuffle of volunteers in the back kitchen, and candles are lit. Each table is adorned with Michael’s handmade pottery and a generous bouquet of flowers donated from a local CSA. Pablo’s wife Cristina is the hostess and, as always, breathtaking. Trained as a dancer and now a self-supporting figurative clay artist, she is the kind of woman who can turn heads in the most tasteful way. Her beauty is undeniable, but what’s more striking is her absolute composure and the fact that while the rest of the world comes to halt around her, she carries on with ineffable grace and confidence.

“Now, we’re having a raffle for this set of 5 hand blown glass tumblers,” she tells me. “So when your table is completely finished, they need to get the spiel. Thank them. Remind them that everything was donated to make this evening possible and then remind them that all the proceeds go to the Montessori school. Got it?” She smiles, two rows of teeth like perfection itself. “You’ll be taking their checks and cash, and I’ll handle the raffle tickets, k?”

I nod.

“Good, now go tell the other servers,” and she is off, across the dining area, out the door, and down the ramp to the porch where our first customers wait by candlelight near a table displaying the 5 tumblers and sign for the raffle.

In the back kitchen, Lindsay and Veva are in charge of plating the food. Hours and hours have gone into the preparation, most of which happened the night before and into the early morning of the big day. Stacey has volunteered to plate desserts as needed and wash dishes in the meantime. The kid-faced, exuberant, young Ross and his new black lab, Casper, man the back dish room to a rolling soundtrack of Pink Floyd.

By 7 p.m. it’s a full house and the servers work the floor. Cristina seats and we offer menus and greetings. Ery pours drinks, describes the evening’s wine choices. As customers settle in and read the menu (hand sewn into special booklets made just for The Dinner Club), the wait staff gathers at a center table where the bruschetta awaits preparation. Michael’s handmade ceramic plates are designed with a ruffled edge—the perfect elegant touch for an evening like this—and with six plates of bruschetta prepared, I snatch up three at a time and begin to serve.

A modestly designed “wall” separates the opening between the dining area and the back kitchen. Angled just so, we can stand behind it and peer out without being entirely noticed by our customers. The outside of the divider is adorned with handmade, hand decorated paper form Arturo, Cristina’s brother who left last week for a month in Barcelona. The inside of the divider, the side that faces the kitchen, has the seating chart, reservations, and volunteer list.

“I need four hockey pucks,” Michael says in the back room.

“Four hockey pucks,” Lindsay echoes, and cues the toaster oven . Moving quickly, she places four pucks of pistachio crusted goat cheese on a tray and sets them to sizzle. It will take six minutes to get them up to temperature, just the right amount of time for a table to finish bruschetta and the server to clear plates.

“I need three more hockey pucks,” I say.

“Three more,” says Veva, hand-tossing the arugala strawberry salad with just the right amount of basalmic vinegrette. She pauses to get three more pucks, firing up the second toaster oven, which rests against a table that butts into an upright piano. If there’s any indication we’re serving form an old craft school building, this is it. The fact that we can pull this off with one half kitchen, an art classroom for a dish room, and all volunteers is grand enough. The toaster ovens are the icing on the cake.

We move like this for several hours: clearing plates, serving food, calling out orders, Ery always in step to refill water glasses and top off a glass of red wine. Through firsts and seconds, on to the main course, and, finally, it’s time for dessert. Just as we’re running low on plates, Stacey emerges from the back dish room with that telltale smile of hers, a stack of twenty clean plates balanced in her hands. I run a pile of entrée plates back to Ross in the dish room and he hardly notices me, his head bobbing to the beat and all the company of a super group to back him up.

“You doin’ ok?” I shout over the Pink Floyd.

He turns to me, shaggy black curls waving in his face, and opens his mouth wide in mock rock star fashion, lipsyncing in perfect cadence: We don’t need no education.

I take that as a yes and scurry back out front, snatching up a few dessert plates on my way. Stacey delicately scoops the sorbet into wine glasses, adds a garnish of fresh mint leaves and wild blackberry to Michael’s plates, and sets them conveniently along the path to the dining area. They look lovely but with all the wine we’ve been sipping between orders, I don’t dare try to carry more than two at a time this late in the game.

By all accounts it’s a family affair, friends and relatives running the show in back and friends and colleagues enjoying the food out front. And while I’ve been steeling nibbles from the sample plate of food throughout the night (two forks, almost a dozen volunteers, one serving), the game I always play with myself at these gigs is to guess when the volunteers will actually sit down and eat. Many restaurants have their staff share a meal beforehand—not possible tonight with many of our volunteers who have small children or others, like me, who worked our other jobs right up until the hour of The Dinner Club.

Between reservations, Michael and I steal a moment on the porch to talk about writing and nibble on two extra salads that were lying around. For the most part, however, we’re all running on wine or mixed drinks, nibbles here and there, and the liveliness of the atmosphere.

“Do you think we’ll all sit down together and eat?” he asks. We’re both shoveling salads at this point, hungry and hurried, but happy.

I laugh a little. It’s as though he read my mind. “Yeah, it’s always a question. I mean, we will eat. No doubt. There’s plenty of food. But it’s easier to relax once everyone else is served, so I think we’re waiting for that moment.”

Where we sit on the porch, a neighborhood dog has sniffed his way to The Dinner Club and we try to shoo him off. It’s that in-between time, between the gloaming and true dusk. I don’t’ see them, but I can hear twigs snapping in the nearby woods. The deer are hungry too.

“The mosquitoes are a bold force tonight,” I say.

“I know,” says Michael, scratching.

The dog settles into a lump on the porch. Michael and I have finished our salads, trusting Ery to watch our tables while we catch our breath. I’ve been on my feet for eleven hours, from karate to coffeehouse to here. It takes a good beating these days to crack my perspective and get me out of the subjectivity of my own view and that is the greatest gift an evening like this offers. I toss back the rest of my wine and look at down at my feet. Time to get moving, I think. The night is young and you’re lucky enough to be a part of something like this. Don’t miss a beat.

[More tomorrow…Did you miss the history links? See yesterday’s post.]

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