The restaurant snapshot

December’s frozen mantle frosts the windows and streets. With little effort, winter solstice has taken the day early, and night is just that much longer. Safe from the terrible night’s teeth, however, the dining room huddles warm, tables of people eating, drinking, talking. Elbow to elbow, slowly unveiling layers of wool and cotton, they quaff French wine, laughing at the blackness outside.

Inside the café hours tangle together. Busy tables are attended by busier servers. And as the clock ticks toward midnight, the cacophony of eating and drinking subsides, as if giving in to the weather prowling outside. The last table, a middle-aged couple, rises from warm seats and their coats are brought. They toddle to the door, and say their goodbyes, bravely facing a bitter wind whipping through the narrow street.

Candles collected upon a damp serving tray, an obscene birthday cake, are given to the bartender. A quick breath snuffs the glowing plate of lights. Bits of acrid smoke wisp away into the blackness while tables give up their gerber daisies, crimson dollops collected and refrigerated for the next dinner service. The waiting couple watches the flowers separate from their cozy tables and wonders if the fridge is any colder than outside.

The rituals of closing time, after the last diner, heavy with dinner and drink, clutching purse, coat and car keys, closes the portal between the kitchen and the icebox of late December.

As with every closing, the servers know the sacraments: clean and set tables for the next day, except the one used for family dinner. In 16 hours, wait staff and kitchen crew will again dine together, eating and joking and preparing for dinner service.

But less elegant tasks wait: Replace the bathroom trash liner. Tie the linen bag tight and heave it out back, ready for collection (even though you know a couple dozen napkins will return badly pressed). Give the recycling bin a heavy pour of Bordeaux bottles, and be sure to turn your head and close your eyes to avoid splinters flung from the cascade’s crystalline symphony. Dump the coffee carafes and fill them full of warm water. Polish a rack of water glasses. Wipe down the bar and broom the floor. Polish another rack of wine glasses. Close out your paperwork. Polish more glasses.

The last deuce, though, is standing in the cold, waiting too long for the valet. They’re staring into the darkness, and an observant server walks to the door, twists the deadbolt, and invites them to stand inside. But they initially refuse. They see the ritual, and the restaurant’s not the same. An hour before, the lights were warm and intoxicating and buttery smells poured rich from the butler’s door separating dining room from kitchen. Servers hustled and refilled wine glasses and served crème brûlée. Oscar Peterson’s spastic piano chops popped and crackled from hidden speakers, an undulating, foot-tapping beat.

The server, however, convinces them to step inside, into the quiet, dry air of smoldering candlewicks and powdery white table linens, of staff and crew stretching at the bar and pouring minute degrees of red wine. Warm laughter bubbles with the chatter of after-work plans. The chef rubs his eyes and dons reading glasses. His final ritual is tipping out the staff before locking down and finding his soft bed.

The couple is visibly uncomfortable, and they turn to face the frosted window, watching for the car. Their breath smears the glass, and they step back a step.

Utensils dropped across clean tablecloths are then precisely ordered: salad fork, dinner fork, dinner napkin, butter knife, from left to right, around and around, seat one, seat two, seat three, seat four. Table 11, table 21, table 31. The woman turns from her husband. He is still surveying the winter landscape of hard cement, watching for their warm metallic cocoon, their escape pod. But she isn’t ready to escape. Not now. The rituals are interesting. There’s a bit of military to it, she thinks, organizing the remains of some culinary war with direction and diligence.

The bathroom light winks out. She turns and hugs him as he tests the door, and an icy blast knifes into their quiet space. They shiver and make small talk. Servers are hustling, changing into casual clothes, talking on cell phones.

Out front, a silver sedan pulls tight to the curb, and the man launches onto the sidewalk. He remembers himself and turns for his wife. She smiles, walks to him and folds $10 into the valet’s hand.

Inside, the chef pays his staff and pours a short glass of Pinot Noir, just a small bit of wine, enough to keep winter at bay for at least a few minutes.


Michael Kuhn is a local teacher and also works at Pomme restaurant in Clayton. His latest novel is titled White Ghost in China.