The Dining Room
One of my most memorable jobs was being waiter. My cousins in Chicago had invited me to spend the summer after college freshman year. Looking for summer work there, I responded to a newspaper advertisement and was hired after an interview. My title was Waiter at the restaurant of Metropolitan Club on the 67th floor of Chicago's Sears (now Willis) Tower.
Called the Dining Room, this restaurant was spectacular. Floor to ceiling glass on all sides offered a magnificent bird's eye-view of the city. Inside, you entered a rarefied world of privilege. The exclusive club included powerful politicians and business leaders. Members brought guests here for food with a view. Business was done, power brokered, deals made and hands shaken – all over a first-class meal.
There were two menus. Those with golden spines, including prices, were for members. Menus with silver spines - without prices - were for guests.
This was forty three years ago. The cheapest item at lunch was an omelette costing eight dollars (thirty-two dollars today.) A filet mignon was thirty dollars (today's dollar calculation is too painful!)
Cheesecake flown in daily from New York was six dollars a slice. It was absolutely divine. Since it cost so much, we served only perfect wedges. Damaged pieces – with a broken corner, for example - were rejected. No waiter – myself included – could resist the temptation of damaging an occasional cheesecake piece for there was no rule preventing us from eating damaged pieces.
There were two chefs. The main chef oversaw the kitchen like a lord. The sous chef, called Junior, was a terror: quick to yell at waiters, for example, if they let a hot dish become cool before serving it. One day I incurred his wrath by missing an "86 on sole" notice and taking an order of sole amandine from a diner, who then had to be informed that we had run out.
Rules of table service paid attention to the diner's comfort. The place setting for formal meals was precise - the diner worked in from the outermost silverware with the first course. Dishes were cleared as soon as the diner finished eating. Cups were placed on the diner's right with the handle at forty-five degrees, so it could be lifted without rotation. And so on.
Chef briefed the waiters before opening, so that when taking orders, we could describe the dishes knowledgeably to diners. By and large the waiter's job was to enable seamless, informed dining while remaining inconspicuous - none of today's "Hi I'm George and I will be your server today" stuff.
Among the club's members was Dr. F. R. Khan, the legendary Bangladeshi engineer who had designed Sears Tower. One day he invited me to his office at Skidmore Owings and Merrill. When I arrived he was friendly and approachable. He gave me a priceless advice that I tried to follow in my engineering career: the best engineers not only solve technical problems but also sell that solution to the customer.
After summer I returned to my university. Connections with my co-workers quickly faded. Looking back, it was my cousins' generosity that afforded me this memorable and unusual experience. With changing times, many dishes of the Dining Room have gone out of fashion and rules of table service have changed. My biggest surprise, though, was finding today's Dining Room menu prices on the web!
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