— Sam Keen
Some have asked if the mention of Cobblestone Grille in last Sunday’s tribute to a morning getaway with my wife netted the popular downtown Cleveland eatery a few new diners.
“Can’t say for sure,” I answered. “But they were doing just fine before I ever came along. I figure they’ll do just as well if I never return.”
But that’s not happening. We’ll be revisiting that little corner hamlet for a healthy dose of slow and two servings of calm some weekend morning real soon. And this time, I’m buying ... especially now that I know of the serenity it affords to all who crave a break in routine.
As mentioned in last weekend’s column, my wife knew of my need for a temporary respite from the world long before the thought had crossed my mind. She even knew the right place and the right time. Wives just know these things. I don’t know how. It’s just what wives do. Call it a mystery. See it as a miracle, if you will. But husbands should be grateful. I know I am.
Since that column published, I’ve shared our peaceful Cobblestone experience in conversation with others — most of whom were already well aware of the Grille and many of whom had mellowed in its charm.
But what they didn’t know was we had enjoyed a relaxing prequel a couple of weeks earlier. It was a different restaurant in a distant corner of town and the occasion was a meal of the polar opposite.
It wasn’t breakfast. It was dinner.
It wasn’t a country local. It was a national chain.
It wasn’t downtown historic. It was north-end modern.
But, like Cobblestone, it came at a time when tired eyes, frayed nerves and weary minds needed a reprieve — something quiet, something soothing, something gradual and something together.
We found it on this Friday evening in a night spot that should have been far more crowded. But on this dinner date, the swarms had stayed away. And we weren’t complaining.
The week had been long. Stresses had compounded upon themselves. The ringing phones had long since outstayed their welcome. And an unending line of emails had made us long for computer malfunction.
We wished only for Calgon to carry us away ... but if not Calgon, then maybe just a quiet booth in an unhurried corner of some Cleveland eatery — any restaurant really, just so its menu was laced in comfort and lined in companionship.
We met at the diner right after work on this Friday night, probably about 6:30. Shocked at the small crowd, we gladly accepted our table and put the week of turmoil behind us.
That’s what people do on Friday nights. That’s the refuge that restaurants afford.
Obviously, other folks also have to deal with ... life ... and they too need the time away.
During our eat-outs, we try not to let work dominate the conversation. I’m generally the first, and most frequent, offender and sometimes my beloved even has to invoke the soft “shush” rule which means in wives’ lingo, “Work is over, dear. Leave it there.”
Sound advice. Pleasantly delivered. Well received.
Our dinner conversations aren’t atypical — the weather, Facebook messages from back home, plans for a future vacation, the next yard project, traffic congestion, our next message movie together where we’re two of only a handful of patrons in the whole matinee and the like ... pretty much what everybody else talks about.
On this slow evening, the server was warm and friendly, yet timid in approach. Whether her personality came from corporate training or flowed naturally, it was a soft delight and much appreciated.
Either way, as the experience progressed we lost track of time. Probably it was the adult beverages, and our subdued conversation, that distracted us from the reality that our food was long overdue.
The shy, almost gentle, server returned to our table, retrieved our salad plates and meekly apologized for the delay.
“Delay?” I asked, returning her smile. “We hadn’t even noticed. No rush. We’ve got all night. Besides, it’s been a long week for us both.”
Maybe it was the beverage talking, but I’m pretty sure it was just the relaxing moment. Finally, some time together and we were far, far away from phones and computers and noise and questions and people complaining and everything else that defines the busy side of life.
A few minutes later our dark-eyed server visited again. Bless her heart, she tried to explain one of our orders — the grilled tilapia, mine — was a little late being prepared.
“Not to worry,” I assured. “Just have the fisherman to check his bait. He’ll catch one, yet.”
She giggled. I chuckled at the giggle.
Our words were sincere. We had no worries. The conversation and the “us time” were all we really needed.
A woman wearing an apron then appeared. Apparently making an appearance from her kitchen duties, she explained the tilapia was frozen and they were thawing it with running tap water instead of nuking it. Microwaving it would make it tough, “... and we don’t want to serve you that,” she explained.
“But we are so sorry for this wait,” the chef added.
Again, we assured her all was fine at our table.
A short time later the shift manager dropped by. She too apologized and we offered the same response.
“We’re fine,” I said, and my wife nodded in agreement.
In due time, the entrees arrived. The tilapia was delicious.
“The fisherman did well,” I said. “And they were right. Thawing by tap water instead of nuking it was the way to go.”
While in mid-sentence, we received another visit — again, the shift manager. She asked about the quality of food. We gave it an unconditional “A-Plus.” The outgoing leader, who told us she was on call from Athens, then advised our meal was free.
“You really don’t have to do that,” I said. “We weren’t going anywhere else tonight, except home.”
“Still, we want to do this,” she offered.
After she left, I said to my wife, “Wow.”
On this evening, the restaurant lost a few dollars on our free food. But the timid young server nonetheless was rewarded with an ample tip. If money could talk, its message would have assured, “It’s OK. We’ll see you next time ... sometime real soon.”
In this world, work too often dominates our days. But it doesn’t have to dictate our nights ... nor influence how we treat others, especially when their evenings aren’t as calm nor as soothing as our own.
Those folks at Applebee’s felt they had let us down. To them, it was poor customer service. To us, it was more precious time together.
Such moments are remembered by perception, which so often is determined by one’s wants and another’s needs.
We’ll return to Applebee’s in our future. And we’ll savor the quiet of our downtime together.
And I’ll order the tilapia.