This past Saturday afternoon, Nick and I went with some friends to a broadcast of The Kitchen. It's a superb play staged by the National Theatre in London and beamed by satellite to movie houses around the world.
The play, set in a frenetic restaurant kitchen, got me thinking about the restaurant I would create, should I temporarily lose whatever shreds of sanity I still possess and go into that business. In other words, it ain't gonna happen. But it exists in my mind, and this is what it looks like.
My restaurant is called Y'all. It's in San Francisco's Castro because I love the neighborhood and it could use more good places to eat. When you call the restaurant, a pleasant voice answers with an authentic drawl, "Hey, welcome to Y'all, how can I help you?"
Y'all is neither upscale nor downscale but somewhere in between. The exterior has a front porch with white-painted rocking chairs and a screen door, with at least one dead bug on it. You hear the sound of crickets chirping from the porch.
The restaurant's neon sign looks like it came from the 1950s and features a couple of chicken drumsticks dancing. There is a a tin roof, rusted.
Just for Fun: A No-Pest Strip on the Ceiling Fan
After venturing past the screen door (which will creak when opened and bang behind you), your eye will be drawn to the gently circling ceiling fans. Way in the back, if you look closely, you will spot a Shell No Pest Strip twirling around because it's hanging from one of the ceiling fan blades. Just for the fun of it, really.
The hostess will be extremely friendly but a bit sassy as well. She wears just a teensy bit too much makeup, and when you enter, she'll unsuccessfully attempt to hide her gum. She'll seat you in a cozy booth, with overhead lighting that flatters the over 40 set.
Around you, the walls are decorated with vintage posters and photographs from Southern restaurants past and present: Mary Mac's Tea Room and the Colonnade in Atlanta; The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans; Charlotte's Penguin Drive-In; 82 Queen in Charleston, S.C.; and so on. There will be no flat-screen televisions anywhere in sight. Not even a tiny tube TV in the kitchen, for the Coke-guzzling cooks to watch.
Buttermilk Biscuits, Without Having to Ask
For appetizers, you can munch on fried green heirloom tomatoes and sip she crab soup with a healthy dose of sherry, which will taste nearly (but not quite) as good as it does in Charleston. Entrees? Fried chicken cooked Mrs. Johnson style; lamb shank; fried flounder and catfish; country-style steak (cooked for hours); barbecue sandwiches (North Carolina style, naturally); and for a touch of the exotic, spaghetti (which my Virginia-born, meat-and-potatoes father used to call "foreigner food"). You'd have your choice of two sides, which would include tater tot casserole, hush puppies, crinkle-cut french fries, green pole beans, fried okra, and a mixed green salad with pecan bits. You receive buttermilk biscuits and soft butter without having to ask.
Now it's time for dessert. Do I really need to tell you there will be banana pudding? Key lime pie? Pecan pie? I didn't think so.
The Blanche DuBois Cocktail
Oh, I almost forgot: beverages. Along with the required sweetened ice tea, you can order Cheerwine, Nehi Grape and Orange, Coke, and Mountain Dew, all in ice-cold bottles.
The cocktails will be creative and delicious (and served in big glasses): a passion fruit and mango vodka punch, a mint limeade martini, or a pomegranate-limoncello cosmopolitan, for starters. Every week, Y'all offers a specialty cocktail honoring famous Southern writers and their literary characters. The Blanche DuBois, for instance, is a lemon coke with chipped ice and lots and lots of bourbon, prepared by a put-upon woman named Stell-aaahhhh! Come to think of it, this being San Francisco, Stella will be a man in drag.
When the bill is presented, you'll be astonished at how affordable it all is. And as you leave, the sassy hostess will smile sweetly, quietly pop her chewing gum, and say, "Y'all come back now, ya hear?"
And there you have it: my vision of a Southern restaurant outside the South. What would you want to see on the menu, or inside the restaurant?