The following is a slightly embellished account of one night out during the National Newspaper Association's annual Government Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
The first thing I noticed was the cadaver propped up at the baby grand.
He looked like he had been dead on that bench for some time. All except for his fingers, which flailed about the keys with dexterity unnatural even for a live pianist. This was probably an attempt to draw attention away from the body. Maybe postpone interment.
No one else in this establishment for the self absorbed seemed to notice the biological oddity. They were all too busy being noticed themselves.
The restaurant is called the Veal Cutlet. Or maybe the Cornish Game Hen. I can't remember. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Chicken Fried Steak.
It was on K Street, the Wall Street of Washington, D.C., and all who gather there think it is the center of the universe, even though no one ever heard of it until the Mainstream Media found Jack Abramoff there doing something really nasty involving: 1) Conservatives, and 2) Republicans -- which in Biblical times were known as 1) Prostitutes, and 2) Tax Collectors.
Inside, the maitre d' led us past the dead pianist to our table in a smoky back dining room where our first waiter, known officially as "The Napkin Waiter," draped a linen napkin the size of a bedsheet across my wife's lap, then another over the lap of our host's wife. I sat down quickly and grabbed my bedsheet before the waiter could get anywhere close to my lap.
The Wine Waiter asked permission to present a bottle of wine, then uncorked it and handed the cork to our host. A souvenir of the evening, you think? Wrong! The host, who I thought at the time was being rude, just glanced at the cork and handed it back to the Wine Waiter.
Turns out he's been to the big city before and knows the routine. He was checking to make sure the brand on the cork matched the brand on the bottle, thus ensuring the restaurant did not fill an expensive brand bottle with cheap wine.
Like what are you going to do? "Hey! This ain't no 1990 Troplong Mondot; it's just a dang 2005 Cote de Baleau!"
After the waiter filled his glass, the host sloshed the wine around in the glass and watched it swirl (to see if there were any floaties, I guess). Then he took a sip and gargled and smacked his lips three or four times, something my Dad once thumped my head for doing with my chocolate milk at the breakfast table.
Our host proclaimed, "Stupendous bouquet for a full-bodied Bordeaux!" By this, he meant it was good enough to drink.
The Wine Waiter, beaming with pride, filled our glasses. Then, to our surprise, he set four more goblets of a slightly different shape on the table and presented another bottle. The whole ritual was repeated ("Extraordinary delicacy and finesse!"). And then a THIRD bottle appeared along with a third set of slightly different shaped goblets.
Our host, who had run out of adjectives, asked me to test the third bottle. This wine schtick was getting old, so I took the cork, popped it into my pocket and said, "Thanks for the swell fishing bobber." Before the dumfounded waiter could respond, I grabbed the bottle, stuck my pinkie in it, licked my finger and proclaimed, "Robust! When do we eat?"
Exit Wine Waiter, enter Menu Waiter, who asked permission to present the menus.
"Duh. How else are we going to know what to order?" I asked.
"I want to make sure you are ready." By this he meant he wanted to prepare us for menu shock, which is like sticker shock but less expected. At first I thought all the decimal points were misplaced. Asparagus alone was 18 bucks. I might TAKE 18 bucks to eat asparagus.
I ordered a saltine with a dab of butter.
But my generous host insisted that I order an actual meal. I could pull it off only by holding my hand over the prices as I ordered.
No sooner had the Menu Waiter disappeared than the Salad Waiter arrived and asked permission to present the greens. Then came the Bread Waiter, followed by the Pepper Grinder Waiter, Lemon Squeezer Waiter, all asking permission to do their thing.
I asked one of them (the Candle Lighter Waiter, I think) if, when he went home after work every day, he kicked the cat and smacked his wife around to let off a little steam after bottling it up all night with this servant thing. He asked permission to laugh. "Maybe next shift," I said.
Then the Meat Waiter brought the entrees. On a forklift. I ordered prime rib; the cut they brought would have more accurately been called "Prime Side of Beef."
I ordered it cooked medium, which in a fancy place like that means "No longer kicking. Much."
I don't think the restaurant actually had a grill, just a feed lot. "Well done" means "Slaughtered on a Hot Day."
I haven't seen that much blood since the Bloodmobile came to Wal-Mart. I had to cook each bite over the candle with my fork.
After I had made barely a dent in my prime rib in an hour I realized I was going to have to pick up the pace if we were going to get out of there before retirement. I stood up to remove my coat.
Before I could return to my seat Tony Soprano, appeared out of nowhere pinched the back of my neck and whispered in my ear that if I didn't put my jacket back on before he counted to one I would find myself in the Potomac sleeping with the fishes.
Yielding to his persuasive skills, I started to pull on my jacket, and as my left hand exited the cuff it made abrupt contact with the face of the Green Beans Waiter for the next table. I thought he might pull a Glock from beneath his tray and waste me on the spot, but instead he apologized profusely for placing his face in the path of my knuckles.
This was some kind of strange place -- you can't take off your jacket but you can sock a waiter in the mouth?
I looked around the joint, and sure enough, every man in the room was in full compliance with the jacket rule. The women, on the other hand, seemed to have no dress code at all. One barely had a dress.
She, a vixen of maybe 17, sat at the next table surrounded by eight men, none younger than 40. The starlet displayed more flesh than her eight companions combined. SHE didn't have to wear a jacket. And she could have used one.
The eight geezers at her table were apparently concerned about her getting cold because they her were plying her with booze to warm her up.
When the Bill Waiter arrived he was, for obvious reasons, surrounded by bodyguards. But our host didn't even wince when he saw the total, which was more than the new suit I was sporting.
All I could think about was how far that money would go back in Sharp County. I could buy my own steer, along with a trailer to haul it in and a pasture for it to poop in. I could send a kid to college. I could buy a happy meal every day for the rest of my life.
And eat every one of them with my coat off.