At the Village Inn, Mama was exposed to elegant cuisine for the first time. The chef, an African-American man named Henry, was renown though out Southern California not only for the quality of his food, but for his originality and presentation. Mama and Henry became fast friends. It was Henry who taught Mama that “you eat with your eyes, not your mouth.” Mama hammered this message into our heads for the next thirty years.
No one cooked a prime rib like Henry. Prime Rib was the number one attraction on the menu. Being a working-class family, subsisting primarily on Mama’s tips, we never had a prime rib in our house. However, at the end of each evening, while Mama got ready to go home, Henry packeda foil-lined bag of prime rib bones for her dog. We did not have a dog.
In the morning, Papa put the ribs in a pie tin to warm them in the oven while he cooked potatoes and eggs. Then we sat around our breakfast nook and gnawed on the crispy bones, a habit I still enjoy after we have served a prime rib on our boat.
As part of the high-class service, Mama learned to prepare dishes at the table-side for her guests. Caesar salads were new and elegant, Mama learned to tear the romaine, make the dressing using fresh eggs and toss the salad with a flare that delighted the diners.
Desserts took the meal to a whole new level of sophistication. The Village Inn was famous for its flaming desserts. Banana’s Foster and Baked Alaska were de rigueur. Mama told us about the Volcano, which always fascinated me, although I never saw one. A Volcano was a cone-shaped mountain of ice cream with “lava flows” of hot fudge running down its slopes. At the peak of the mountain was a crater into which the waitress poured brandy, then lit the brandy to create fire and smoke on the top of the Volcano. Rich kids were delighted when Mama wheeled out the dessert cart with Volcanoes for their birthdays.
In addition to the food, the show at the Village Inn included an extensive wine list. A French sommelier explained the varietals, sampled and served the expensive imported vintages offered. Mama, who knew nothing about wine, had to learn about the mystique to answer her customers’ questions.
The Village Inn was the spot to see and be seen for the rich and famous. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchcock were among Mama’s regular customers. Like everyone else, they fell in love with Mama and asked to be seated in her section.
When I heard sailing and yacht, I was hooked. I had no idea about the adult issues at play, I just wanted to get out on the water on a sail boat. For weeks I kept asking Mama when we were going sailing with her customer.
Among the rich and famous clientele of the Village Inn was Broderick Crawford. For those of you too young to remember Broderick Crawford, he was a Hollywood tough guy who won the Academy Award for best actor in the movie “All the King’s Men.” Apparently, he liked to bring that tough-guy image into his everyday life.
The staff at the Village Inn hated waiting on Mr. Crawford.
He swept into the lobby with his entourage like some kind of Turkish sultan, demanding the best of everything. The best table, the best food, the best service. He sat at his table and expected the waitresses to hover over him. When he wanted something, he clicked his fingers and shouted, “hey girl.” If the waitress was serving another table, he expected her to drop what she was doing and attend to his needs.
None of the waitresses at the Village Inn wanted to wait on Mr. Crawford. Mama is a smart woman, she quickly learned to keep her eye on the front door. She always kept her section full, because she made it a habit to be the first one at the door to greet guests. She then graciously led them to her section and seated them. Her philosophy was that if the other waitresses wanted to keep their stations full, they would seat guests too.
This worked in reverse for Broderick Crawford. Whenever Mama saw him coming through the door, she ran to greet him. She would make a big fuss over him, tell him how much she like his latest movie or that she watched his TV show last night, and seated him in someone else’s section. The rest of the staff caught on to her trick and when Mr. Crawford appeared at the door, there was a race to see who could be the first to greet him and pawn him off on one of the other waitresses. On rare occasions Mama got stuck waiting on him.
On those occasions, we were sure to hear the story the next morning at breakfast. She was bitter about how hard he ran the staff, how demanding he was and how cheap he was. After exhausting her and her busboy, Mr. Crawford always left a dime tip. Ten lousy cents. Several times Mama finished her story about waiting on Mr. Crawford with the threat that she would pour a pot of coffee over his head the next time he came in.
Mama was having a particularly rough night. Nothing was going right. She delivered steaks to a table, only to have them all sent back to the kitchen because they weren’t cooked to the right temperature. She slipped when making a Caesar salad and slopped dressing on Madame's fur wrap. On this particular night, things could not be gong worse. Then Mama looked to see a new party seated in her section, Broderick Crawford and guests.
She was already in a huff, but this was the last straw. She approached the table and with all her will, pleasantly greeted her guests. She took their cocktail order and passed it to the bar. Within moments Mr. Crawford was snapping his fingers and shouting out, “Girl, oh girl,” across the room. Mama raced to the table only to find that his drink had not been prepared properly. She returned it to the bar and made a new one herself, just the way he liked it.
Returning to the table she served his drink and waited expectantly for his approval.
“That’s just perfect. Vicki, you always know how to pour a perfect martini.”
Hors d’ oeuvres were served. The escargot were chewy and had to be returned. Henry was not pleased. When the steaks were delivered, Mr. Crawford took one look at his and said, “This isn’t rare. I ordered a RARE steak.” Mama returned the steak to Henry with tears in her eyes.
“I’ll fix the bastard,” Henry said. He grabbed a can from the shelf. “I always keep a can of beet juice for just this occasion.” He lifted the steak off the plate, poured a little beet juice on the plate, then returned the steak. Finally, he dribbled a little beet juice over the steak.
“You take this back to that cracker and let’s see if he has the nerve to send it back. You tell him that Henry prepared it himself.”
“Mr. Crawford, Henry wanted me to tell you that he prepared this steak for you himself,” Mama said as she dutifully served the refurbished steak to Mr. Crawford and stood at his side to make sure it was to his liking. He cut the steak and admired the red blood oozing onto his plate. He took a bite.
“Oh, this is perfect,” he said as he reached inside his jacket pocket for his wallet. Extracting a dollar bill, he handed it to Mama. “You give this to Henry and tell him that this is the best steak I’ve ever eaten. From now on, I want him to personally cook my steaks.”
The ordeal wasn’t over. Mr. Crawford ran Mama ragged. Finally, they got up to leave. While the party congregated around the front door, waiting for the hat-check girl to return their coats, Mama went to clear the table. There, sitting next to Mr. Crawford’s coffee cup was a nice, shinny dime.
Mama grabbed the dime and made a bee-line for the front door.
“MR. CRAWFORD,” she yelled, loud enough for everyone else in the restaurant to hear. “HERE, YOU KEEP THIS. YOU PROBABLY NEED IT MORE THAT I DO,” and she shoved the dime back into his hands and closed his fingers over it.
Broderick Crawford, famous Hollywood tough guy, stood and glared down at little Mama with his mouth open. He flapped his jaws a couple of times, trying to say something, then reached for his wallet. As he extracted a dollar bill, Mama turned and walked away.
The Village Inn did not see Broderick Crawford for months. When he finally returned, it was with John Wayne’s party. Mr. Wayne asked for Mama’s section and Mr. Crawford sat sheepishly quiet during the entire meal. When they left, there was a crisp dollar bill next to Mr. Crawford’s coffee cup in addition to the tip the Duke left.