On the Floor of Greens
1 - Would You Hold Please?
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Would You Hold Please
"Greens. Would you hold please? Thank you." I pressed the button and answered the other line. "Greens. Would you hold please? Thank you." Back to the first line. "Hello." Listening. "Window table for two at twelve thirty? I'm sorry, there's nothing open then. We're all booked up till… two fifteen." Listening. "You can book up to two weeks in advance for lunch. Yeah. Uh huh. Well, you could come in anytime and try your luck at the redwood area. It's for drop-ins. Okay. Two at two fifteen for…?" Writing a name down on the reservation sheet. "Got it. See you then." Punching the other line. "Hi. Sorry to keep you waiting." Pause. The other line is ringing. "Yes, there's one table at two thirty and it's yours. Uh huh. Uh huh. You want to hold? Or you can give me your name real quick and we can chat when you get here. Got it. Thanks. See you then." Quickly to line one. "Greens. Would you hold please? Thanks." Back to line two. "Greens, would you hold please? Thank you." Back to the other line. "Hi. Six at one this Friday for Lockhorn, right? Great. Got it." To the other line. "Hi…. Um hum. Um hum. I'm sorry, there's nothing - we're booked up for today. You could come in anytime and try your luck at the redwood area." Listening. "It's really very nice but not as comfortable as the tables. Okay. See you then. I'll try to get you a table if I can. Alright. Yes. Thank you. Bye."
That's how my day at Greens would start. It would only be a matter of minutes till all the tables for the day were booked. The big walnut doors were opened then for people to come in and get coffee, tea, and pastries from our Tassajara Bakery outlet. I'd be on the phone for two hours - till eleven A.M. saying "no" and "sorry" most of the time. And people would come up to me after the doors opened and I'd squeeze a few of them in because it's harder to say no to someone who's standing in front of you. And from the time I started seating people at 11:15 (when the cashier would be answering the phone) till the absolute cut off at 2:45 I'd be squeezing some folks in and saying sorry and no to others. Some days it seemed I'd turn away more people than I seated. I guess that's not really true - it's just the way it seemed because saying yes feels good and is forgotten and saying no feels bad (at least to me - not to everyone) and lingers. We seated three hundred to three hundred fifty people a day for lunch and maybe two hundred for the slower more formal dinner and we were accepting reservations for days and weeks ahead and months for dinner, so we didn't turn away that many every day. But it seemed like it.
Dinner - stupendous and terrible. A few months after we opened we started serving the evening meal but only on Friday and Saturday nights. The demand was so great that we started accepting reservations six months in advance. But that didn't help. It was painful to have someone call and say they wanted to reserve a table for their grandfather's birthday at six P.M. six weeks ahead only to find out that dinner was booked up solid six months in advance. Each week a weekend six months away would be entered into the dinner reservation book and often by the end of the day it would be full. When I worked at dinner I washed dishes. I'd started off being the dinner maitre de but it was too slow, a lot of standing around, because each table would only have one or two parties the whole evening. It was such a big deal it made me nervous. It was doubly expensive and pre-fix (set menu). People would be seated and would order their wine or whatever drinks they wanted and the soup, salad, appetizers, main course, side dishes, and desert would arrive at the table at a leisurely pace. It had to be outstanding to be worth it - like having to hit a home run every time at bat. But Deborah and her kitchen staff pulled it off. People were delighted with the food and the candlelit atmosphere inside and the lights on the Golden Gate Bridge and from the boats and reflecting off the waves on the bay. Renee, a friendly import from Holland with a good deal of class and who was a lot calmer than me (It couldn't be because she wasn't a Zennie could it?) became the dinner Maitre de. I hustled on the dishes which was good, demanding physical work that I'd try to keep up with till the incessant flow of dishes and pots would finally overtake me. Every once in a while when I was talking to someone, usually a waiter whose mind I wanted to blow, I'd turn on the garbage disposal and drop a wine glass in while one of us was in mid sentence. It was a powerful disposal that would chew it up in a second and return to its high whine.
People would ask me if Greens was a Buddhist restaurant and I'd scratch my head and say "I don't know what that would be." But it was owned and operated by the San Francisco Zen Center and back then almost all of us who worked there were Zen students. It was located in an old army building at Fort Mason. Fort Mason had been fazed out by the army and turned over to the National Park Service which had turned it over to the Fort Mason Foundation which filled the buildings with non profit organizations and enterprises. There were the San Francisco Modern Art Rental Gallery and some crafts workshops and organizations like Greenpeace, the Oceanic Society, Friends of the River; the Magic Theater, the Mexican Museum, Blue Bear School of Music, and rooms for conferences and meetings and events of various sizes. There was a snack stand in building B across the way with coffee and sandwiches but no restaurant. They needed a non profit restaurant and so they turned to the ZC which was known for its Tassajara Bread and the hearty summer guest food at Tassajara, Zen Center's monastery in the mountains between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. People who'd eaten at the Zen Center's City Center or Green Gulch Farm remembered that even though the food was simple and vegetarian it was exceptionally good. They wanted a restaurant at Fort Mason and it had to be non profit so they asked us to do it. What they'd had in mind was a coffee shop with soup, salad, sandwiches, with bread and pastries from our bakery. The Zen Center's abbot loved the idea and, even though we already had a few businesses and were fairly extended as a group, he convinced the board (as he always could) and a year or so later an astonishingly artful and handsome restaurant opened up. Lots of people were responsible for putting it together but the abbot, Richard Baker, was the grand master of this creation. What a work of art. Within a few weeks of opening we'd had a few good reviews and were pretty busy. Then Herb Caen, the most widely read columnist in the area and possibly the most respected gossip and goings-on-about-town dot dot dot columnist in the whole country, gave us a plug and after that there were crowds outside the door. In his first comment on Greens he called me David the Boss which I had to answer to for a while.
The amazing thing about Greens' popularity is that it was a vegetarian restaurant - lacto ovo vegetarian - a term not actually used much by us to describe it - which means no meat or fish are included but dairy and eggs are. And it was a vegetarian restaurant that appealed to non vegetarians. Pretty much everyone liked the food though there were those men who'd rather be eating steak who were brought there by women. It was distinctive and there wasn't a lot of choice. There were brochettes roasted over mesquite with cubes of tofu, tasty little new potatoes from our farm, cherry tomatoes and green pepper slices. There was a romaine salad and a spinach salad, my favorite. It was made with the farm's thick crunchy wrinkled Bloomsdale spinach which didn't work well commercially because it was brittle. So it was unusual and it tasted great. It had walnuts, apples, and hot olive oil poured over it.
Greens was a bit pricey and a lot of folks who worked nearby would come there to get the brown rice with aduki bean chili, which along with soup and salad were the cheapest eats. At every meal there was all the Tassajara Bread you could eat, and people did love to eat it and could buy a loaf on their way out. There was a little Nicosia pizza that NY Times food critic Craig Claiborne told me was simply the best in the world. I told him I liked the pizza over on Chestnut Street better. But really we both knew the gourmet Greens pizza and the tomato based Italian type each answered a different calling from the pallet of the hungry.
Lots of famous food critics and chefs came to Greens like Julia Child and James Beard. They were both large and friendly and full of enthusiasm though she was more outgoing. He was called the pink elephant by some folks in the food biz. He was served, among other things, turnip soup. That wouldn't sound appetizing to a lot of people but it was creamy and delicious. In his quite favorable review of Greens he wrote about that soup and said something that surprised me: "The turnip is my favorite vegetable." A lot of these gourmet food people seemed to be gay which was fine with me. I always liked to flirt with the customers and gay men just expanded my field, the ones that liked a little theater that is. One well known food writer wanted me to go with him when he left, but alas, I'm chronically hetero and it was not to be.
This flirting was just a bit of play, nothing serious - I never once picked up any woman who ate there. I really focused on the work - well, I played a lot with it but real woman hunting would have been a distraction. There were so many beautiful women that ate at Greens that two friends of mine, both successful professionals, a banker and a lawyer, and both incredibly successful womanizers, offered me $100 each in 1979 US currency to let them do the job for a couple of hours. Sometimes I would get too friendly and would have to back off when I picked up that it wasn't appreciated - especially when I was new to the job. After all, my job was to get the customers to a table, make them feel good, and then leave them alone. But sometimes I couldn't resist a remark like when a really handsome and tall, black couple came in dressed to a T, I looked at them and said in awe, "Now I know why they say black is beautiful." They both produced broad smiles. And once when a group of women came in with name tags on that indicated the serious feminist nature of their conference I said, "Hi girls!" sort of like Bill Murray from a SNL skit. Disproving the theory that all feminists have no sense of humor they burst into laughter. Of course it has to be considered that they really wanted something from me - they had no reservations.
My favorite critic was a straight guy named Robert Finnegan who'd taken over Robert Shelton's private guide to restaurants. He was into the food in a way I could relate to. A nice down to earth fellow. Once he brought an English food writer to Greens who drank a ton of wine and told bawdy stories. I remember one of them being how a maid in a hotel had walked in on him while he was masturbating and how he just continued doing so and she just started cleaning up - an image that has caused his memory to stand out.
Some critics I didn't respect so much - like the one who gave us our first review. He told me who he was which a lot of people in that business don't do. He and his wife got a good window table. They were nervous fussbudgets and didn't seem to enjoy themselves. I sensed something was wrong and so later I called Michael Wilde who owned Beowulf, a popular new cuisine place in Berkeley. He told me that that particular critic was pretty corrupt and expected a free meal and strokes for a good review. Oops. Hadn't occurred to me. And Michael said he smoked throughout a meal which screwed up his taste anyway. He gave me the critic's home number and told me to call him up and schmooze. That night from my Bolinas refuge I did. The first thing he told me was that he really hated restaurants where he couldn't smoke and that he didn't like the snotty attitude of health food restaurants. I sympathized wholeheartedly, told him there are some misguided people like that there but Deborah, the chef, was into taste and had those evil health nuts under control. As for the smoking, I told him he'd been sitting in the smoking section. Then where were the ashtrays? Oh, You have to ask for them. My fault. I should have been more attentive. I asked him to come back as our guest and told him I loved reading his column. I never read restaurant reviews. We both knew deep down what was happening. It wasn't about factual truth. It was about a little tango we were dancing - pretending to be this important person and that. Well, he said, the food really wasn't bad. I'll change the review. He then read it the way he'd written it and told me how he would change it which sounded a lot better and that's just what he did. The next day a positive review came out in the paper and more people showed up to try us out.
Among Greens' best friends were our mentor Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Marian Cunningham who wrote the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. Alice is pretty famous now. She tried hard to get Bill Clinton to have a white house organic vegetable garden and a chef who cooked with healthful fresh ingredients. She didn't get anywhere on that but he did eat at Chez Panisse. I happened to catch her last year on Martha Stewart's show. Martha (or her staff), as usual, had done her homework - the show was charming and informative. Alice and Marian gave us all our best connections in the food world.
Marian was older and she was gracious. Marian would call up early and would say in her most apologetic tone that she had a special guest or guests and would love to bring them to Greens if there was any way I could get them in if it wasn't too much trouble. I'd tell her she owned the place as far as I was concerned and then I'd go tell Deborah Madison, our chef (who had worked with Alice for a year as desert chef and without whom all the work the rest of us did would have been in vain), that Marian was coming with so and so and often Deborah would about swoon and tell me it was some world renowned chef or critic and she'd start planning something special. Once she told me with apprehension, "David, she's bringing three of the greatest chefs in the world." I don't remember who they were (maybe MFK Fisher was one of them) but I remember that they got their salad last which wasn't the normal order at Greens and that the busser had already taken away their salad forks and that none of the four of them batted an eye but just kept on talking and eating with their fingers as if it were the proper thing to do which it obviously was.
I had moved on from living and practicing Zen full time at the Zen Center and was living with a Zen friend woman in Bolinas but I kept an apartment in the city next to the Zen Center so I could be near my six year old son, Kelly. And since I worked in the city and liked to sit at Zen Center in the mornings I tended to stay there during the week. I had run the guest dinning room at Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center, for the first four summer guest seasons (67-70), so the abbot, Richard Baker, asked me if I would be the maitre de (properly called the "maitre de hotel" I learned) of Greens. He asked me every time I saw him for a year. I always said, "I told you I'd do it. I'll do it. Don't worry." So when we opened in July of '79 I was there on the floor of Greens and I stayed there for two years. It was a great job. I loved it, loved it, loved it. But after two years I got tired of saying "no" so much and wanted to move on and told the president of Zen Center I wanted to do other things. He (who later went on to be a top exec of The Learning Company) was used to the semi-slave status of Zen students and told me to get back to him in six months. It was brought up at a ZC board meeting. Richard said not to try to stop me if I wanted to go and added, "He's probably gotten all the contacts he wants." (not a bad appraisal) But while they we're discussing my fate, I'd already gone to my co-managers, the head waiter Ed Brown who'd written the popular Tassajara Bread Book and Tassajara Cooking (none of whose recipes, due to the passing of time, were used at either Greens or the Tassajara Bakery), and Renee, the clear-headed Dutch friend of the Bakers who was by then the head manager, and in ten minutes we worked out that I could leave at the end of the month. I knew they'd be glad to see me now and then rather than every day. I'm a loose cannon and, like an old black woman psychic my mother had wanted me to check out when I was younger had said to me over the phone, "Honey, I can't see you. I'm too old and your vibes are too strong."
Really we weren't all booked up when we said we were. I always left space in each time slot to take in those who I felt we had to or whom I didn't have the heart to say no to. I had a clear policy on reservations: friends first. It was never discussed. It's just what I did and what we did. We almost never turned down friends. Friends were employees of the Park Service, Fort Mason Foundation, and Zen Center, anyone from any of the organizations at Fort Mason, and regular customers. These people knew to make reservations in advance so we weren't overwhelmed with exceptional requests, but I wasn't underwhelmed with them either. I'd say tell me when and they'd say in an hour and I'd say no problem or how about an hour and a half. Or if the cashier was answering the phone he'd call me over and we'd work it out. Every now and then someone would tell me they thought I played favorites and I'd say, "You bet I do. This restaurant gives priority to its community." Greens customers were loyal customers and we were loyal to them.
I would also get tables for policemen and firemen - heck, anyone in uniform. It seemed like the right thing to do and they were public servants. And they were different from the professional, society crowd that frequented Greens. Actually, I'd try to seat anyone from other socio-economic strata than the regular crowd. So anyone of color or who seemed to be working class or who was weird or funny or even ornery. Sometimes I'd go to extremes like one day when a bag lady - old, short, gray, layers of old clothes, and with real bags stuffed and bulging - walked up the steps and just stood there ogling and frozen. I walked up to her and said, "One for lunch?" and she just looked at me moving her mouth and not coming up with words. I inched a little closer to her. If she'd smelled bad we could have fed her out back. But she didn't - a little musty maybe. I asked her what her name was and she said, "Mable" in a tiny voice. What a perfect name for a bag lady. "Mable, we'd like you to be our guest," I told her. "Come with me." I seated her at a window table, called her waitress over (never never never never will I say the totally unnecessary and clumsy "waitperson.") and said, "This is Mable. She's our guest. She can have anything she wants." Mable ate slowly, dipping her bread in the lentil soup, and gazed out the window. She accepted the suggestion of finishing off with the bakery's insanely good triple chocolate cake with coffee. Contradicting the laws of gustatorial physics, she seemed to walk out a little lighter than when she came in.
The interior of Greens featured the work of several artists, three of them most prominently. There's a large redwood sculpture as you walk up into the restaurant, a giant burl scooped away on one side that looms over a rough circle of joined oiled dark redwood sculpted tables that seats as many as twenty-two It's the work of JB Blunk who's massive redwood sculptures were to be found at such spots as the Oakland Museum and UC Santa Cruz. Above this dining sculpture on the West Wall were three ten foot square paintings of white clouds and blue sky by Mike Dixon, an old Zennie from the early sixties who had become quite a successful artist. Turning around, the kitchen-side wall of the dining area featured the bright, wild, colorful abstract art of New York's Edward Avedisian in panels four feet wide. A huge Avedisian creation of wide splashes and fat splotches of blue, red, and yellow spread on a tarp from the farm that hung on the back wall. I liked to point out to customers that the tarp had been used to cover a compost heap and still had horse manure caked here and there on the backside. You could reach behind it and pull some off.
Over the cashier's stand was a voluptuous goddess painted by Japanese artist Zen student Mayumi Oda. A Paul Klee??? hung over the bakery counter and there was a bucket up there with metal junk flowers made of thick wire for stems and faucet handles and whatnot for the blooms that was done by my dear life-loving friend Herb Arnold (RIP) who, when he wasn't making sculpture from junk (one piece in NY MOMA), was spending a lot of time working for the Trust for Public Land getting open space saved for future generations.
Above our heads were steel support beams painted dark brown - except for one short high gloss yellow one. Outside of the redwood area, about 120 could sit at the dark brown to yellowish tan oiled walnut tables. A lot of that was wood I'd maniacally collected when I'd first lived at Green Gulch Farm at the time my first son Kelly was born. This walnut came from rejects from a gun stock factory. Our own crew had made these tables for the restaurant - they were joined and pegged underneath, constructed in a style derived from Japanese temple carpentry which the head builder of the restaurant, Paul Discoe, had studied over there for five years. As I write this, Paul is building Larry (Oracle) Ellison's 200 million dollar home and more on his estate in Woodside south of San Francisco.
Sim Van der Ryn was the architect. When I first met him he was teaching at UC Berkeley where he and his students built non code structures and published Outlaw Builders News. He was State Architect in the Jerry Brown administration. He’d worked with the Zen Center on several projects including helping us build some of the first compost privies in the state, some built by yours truly with Ken Sawyer. Sim was flexible and worked well with the creative and sometimes chaotic process that Baker created.
Greens was a busy, swirling, stimulating collage of ingredients going every which way all of which would make many a new customer put hand on breast and gasp as for the first time they walked up the steps to the elevated floor and drank in the sights, before they were guided to their table by me with my clipboard in hand.
Greens' dining area, unlike Gaul, is divided into two parts, the first of which manifests in front of the eager guest at the top of the ultimate sixth oak step up from the street-level entryway. Hesitantly looking and inching forward, the would-be customer's view included clothless tables (but white tablecloths at night) running along the windows and others set back. Some tables seated two or three, others four or five or even six, and one eight which could be expanded to ten. Across the sculptured seating, in the corner, lies a cozy room called the alcove which seats six and overlooks the water. The arrival's initial vantage point stands next to the beginning of a long brightly painted cushioned seat bending around behind the sculpture, with a solid maple-backed bench where people sit or stand around while waiting their table to be readied. To the right of this section is the larger of the dining areas with three rows of tables. It is really all just one big room with the two parts separated by a thin brass track on the floor and a cedar beam eight feet high that runs from the beverage counter to the windowed wall. Back in storage there are partitions that could slide under this beam.
The beverage bar overlooks the first room and is the center of activity on the floor. Beyond this bar are the swinging doors to the kitchen with waiters going in and out and an occasional toddler crawling and about to get swatted like a pinball - till whisked away by protecting arms just as the out door swings open and a waiter comes dashing out with four carefully balanced plates of delectables.
I'd stand to the right of the redwood sculpture near the beverage bar past the entry into the dining area and scan the floor, glancing at the people in the polished maple chairs at the tables on the beige wool carpet, to see if anyone needed anything, to see if all was going well. Sometimes all was well and no table was going to open up for a few minutes and those waiting had been properly paid attention to and felt taken care of and there was no need to help the bussers and I didn't have to go to the john and could just stand there and gaze out the wide expanse of windows, a grid of panes that ran from table height for six feet higher along the entire West wall. The restaurant floor was elevated four feet so that the view could be seen. When it was a fort this all had been one massive room where military equipment was worked on. In those days the windows were for the light. Now they were to afford a view of the sailboats docked in the marina, these and larger ships in the bay - freighters, cargo ships, oil tankers, and an occasional treat like the Love Boat, a giant Trident sub - long, dark, sleek, ready to wipe out whole cities - or a jumbo aircraft carrier. Further out lay the whole expanse of the reddish brown Golden Gate Bridge which some want to paint gold. People said that except for the cafeteria at the nearby Presidio, still at that time an army base, we were the only restaurant with a view of that famous massive link to Marin County called "San Francisco's Notre Dame" by Alan Temko, the San Francisco Chronicle's architecture columnist He was writing about why that great bridge should not be modified with another deck to ease the bottleneck at rush hours. I bet he didn't want it painted gold either. I remember once when he ate at Greens he was impressed with how well all the seemingly conflicting elements that comprised the restaurant blended together.
One sunny summer day I was looking out at that view and noticed the boats bobbing and water splashing. I'd thought it was a calm day, but the pier pilings were bobbing and the gulls were swooping around squawking. I peered to the right to see if a large boat had come near. Then I noticed the glass in the windows rippling in waves from left to right - like they were a liquid that flowed among the panes. I hear that glass is a liquid because it flows downward over the course of years, but I just can't think of something so breakable as being in that category. Anyway, the windows were flowing. Then I felt the floor trembling and saw all the objects in the room from vases to customers all vibrating and then it dawned on me that this was an earthquake. But it was slight and I think most people didn't even notice it.