That evening, August 28, 1971, was unusually warm, and we decided to put
tables outside on the front patio so people could sit and have an
apéritif before dinner. I wasn’t cooking that first night, I was in the
dining room; Victoria Kroyer and Paul Aratow were in the kitchen, making
duck with olives. I wouldn’t have thought of duck on my own—I’d never
even cooked it myself before—but Victoria knew how to roast duck, and I
loved that she knew. We got the ducks from Chinatown that morning,
because there was still construction going on right up until the very
end, and there was nowhere to put them. We hadn’t finished the
construction upstairs, so we hung a curtain at the top of the staircase,
and all the extra furniture and tools and building materials that didn’t
have places yet were stored up there. Paul’s brother Charles was in the
kitchen trying to set up the prep counter for Victoria just a few hours
before dinner was to be served. Lindsey Shere, our pastry chef, says
that one of her biggest memories of opening day was not having any
electricity in the building until shortly before opening; I remember
nothing about that—I was arranging things in the dining room in the
daytime, and so electricity wasn’t critical for me.

A few things I do remember vividly: it was still light out, and the
first party, a man and a woman I didn’t know, were coming in the front
door for their reservation. I was wearing a vintage crocheted beige-lace
dress from Bizarre Bazaar that fit like a glove, and some little heels
that matched; I remember turning around, and feeling very self-conscious
of what I looked like right then—Do I look O.K. to be answering the
door? I was still tacking down the secondhand Persian carpet on the
stairs as these people walked in.

After that couple, it was practically all people we knew, a real
Berkeley crowd. There was Phil Wood, a local publisher; the rock critic
Greil Marcus and his wife, Jenny; Danny and Hilary Goldstine, two sex
therapists in Berkeley; the teacher Eleanor Bertino and her date, Ronnie
Davis, who was the head of the San Francisco Mime Troupe; the costume
designer Jacqui West, wearing a beautiful emerald-green vintage Chinese
dress, with her husband, Skip; a little group of letterpress printers,
like Bill Buckman and Greg Robb, who were from Saint Hieronymus Press;
my mother and my sister Laura, who was seven months pregnant. And Tom
Luddy, my boyfriend at the time, who ran the Telegraph Repertory
Theater. Tom, who had headed several film societies at Cal and was
deeply involved in the Free Speech Movement, had just come from filming
George Jackson’s funeral, earlier that day; George Jackson was a member
of the Black Panthers who was shot to death by prison guards during an
unsuccessful escape attempt. Huey Newton, the head of the Black
Panthers, had called Tom and asked him to find a cameraman to film the
funeral; Tom and his cameramen had been the only film crew allowed in
the church.

The whole night was out of control. I didn’t have any real conversations
with anyone, I was just racing to get everything to the people eating.
It took a rather long time for everyone to get served; Sharon Jones, the
first waiter I had officially hired, kept refilling everyone’s wine
glasses so they wouldn’t leave. Sharon later said that, from the moment
she walked in to work that first night, it smelled unlike any other
restaurant she’d ever been in—it smelled like magic, she said. She had
only been planning on helping out for two or three weeks before starting
a teaching job she’d been offered, but on that opening night she knew
that she wanted to stay and be part of what was going on. And thank God
she did! I needed everyone who was in the dining room that night, this
motley group of people that ended up working together. They were all
charismatic, and they were all just trying their best to make people
happy. That night—and every night thereafter—our job was to convince
people that they were going to really, really like the food we were
serving, because there was only the one option on the menu. And I was
very good at convincing people, I was. Jerry Budrick, another server
that first night, had a flamboyant delivery, almost like he was acting
in a theatrical performance, with exaggerated gestures, a full-lipped, beautiful, expressive face, like Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork
Orange.” Jerry was notorious—he exuded an air of sophistication, but he
could also be very funny, making jokes with customers and the other
waiters and the cooks. Brigitte Segal—an actual French person in the
dining room!—was her sexy self, in her miniskirt and clogs. John Harris
was erudite and wild about garlic; he’d written a book on the subject
and liked to wear this big old garlic hat, like a chef’s toque with a
gigantic head of garlic at the top. Sharon was just utterly charming,
winning people over. Our waiters did a lot more than most: they were
cutting the bread, tossing the salad, even stepping in to cook the tarts
when needed.

We were vastly overstaffed in the dining room, but it didn’t help— none
of us had experience handling that sort of volume. We hadn’t planned to
serve dinner out on the patio, and didn’t have a waiter assigned to
those tables, but it was taking so long to serve people inside that we
started seating people for dinner outside. And that, of course, made it
even more difficult to serve everyone in a timely fashion. At one point
that first night, when I was running down the steps to get to the
customers on the patio, I tripped and grabbed onto the railing just in
time to stop myself from falling.

I have a distinct memory of looking into the kitchen, feeling so worried
about getting the food out on time. I watched the whole roasted ducks
coming out of the oven, Victoria smoking her cigarette while she poured
off the fat and spooned the sauce over the duck. (Eleanor said that after that night, I never stopped smelling of duck fat). Victoria had
made a very classic French sauce, sauce espagnole, out of the heads,
necks, and feet. I felt a deep panic as I watched: Are we going to be
able to get the duck to the table in time? I was relieved that the
appetizer, pâté en croute, looked as good as it did—pâté baked in a
flaky pastry crust, then sliced and served with pickles, parsley, and a
little mustard arranged on the plate—and I was relieved that it was a
cold dish, and had been done in advance. I think everyone liked the dinner well enough,
but the big hit was Lindsey’s plum tart. Which, of course, we ran out of
before the night was through. We charged three dollars and ninety-five
cents for the whole meal, which was pretty steep at the time.

It was chaos—as Victoria put it, “It was a clown show.” We had wanted
the restaurant to feel like eating at home, which meant we had resisted
getting big industrial tools and appliances and serving equipment—all
those things that make life easier that we ultimately had to figure out.
We didn’t have enough places to put the dirty dishes down or enough
space to wash them. We brought everything out on plates one by one
instead of having the dishes come to a bus station—we’d resisted a bus
station, too—which meant many more trips in and out of the kitchen. We
had a swinging door into the dining room, with a little diamond-shaped window in it, but there’s a real learning curve with a
swinging door—just imagine how much food dropped on the ground because
we didn’t know to look through the door to see who was rushing in from
the other side.

The food did get to the table somehow, eventually, and people reported
having a good time. But it was mayhem; some customers ended up sitting
and eating on the steps outside. Greil told me later that he arrived at
nine, and was pleasantly surprised that the food came promptly a few
minutes after he got there. But the people at the tables around him
weren’t smiling. “This is the first food we’ve seen in two hours,” they
told him. When I was getting ready to go home that night, deliriously
tired, I realized that somebody had stolen our welcome sign off the
bunya-bunya tree out front. It was about three feet tall, carefully
hand-painted in a delicate, dreamy style by our resident French
aesthete, Martine Labro. It was so beautiful that it was obvious why
they’d taken it; I wonder where it is now. At the end of service, there
was no formal celebration. It was more like, Oh, my God. Half the people
didn’t get food in any sort of a timely way. And what are we going to
serve tomorrow? We didn’t want to think about that—and so, as I always
did after a hard day, I opened a bottle of Fumé Blanc, and we toasted
getting though the night.

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