My parents were regulars. For decades, they dined at the same restaurant, Twin Oaks, a family run Italian restaurant tucked away, deep in an older residential neighborhood in Cranston, RI.
Known for its pasta dishes, juicy steaks and thick cut pork chops, Twin Oaks eschewed trendy modern restaurant décor by sticking with dark wood paneled walls, deep leather booths, black leather bar seats and paper placemats.
A combination of the food, the ambiance, the customers and the wait staff brought my parents back night after night, year after year, decade after decade.
Customers arrived at Twin Oaks running the gamut from suits and ties, dresses and skirts, to jeans, shorts and construction boots.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights my parents would drive up to the valet guys, hand over the keys and spend a few hours eating and chatting with their friends.
Occasionally my mom went alone. The two guys working valet would want to know why.
“Hey Alice, where’s Armen?” asked one of the valet parkers as he opened the driver’s side door. “What did you do, sneak out without him?”
Before my mother answered the other guy said. “It’s Thursday, he’s playing tennis, right?”
My mother laughed, tossed her head back, handed him her car keys and declared, “You know me so well, don’t you?”
When my parents arrived together, as soon as they entered the sprawling 650-seat restaurant, their paths diverged.
My mother would exchange greetings with the maître’d, Joe Zito, who managed a long list of hungry waiting customers seated on chairs and benches. She’d breeze past him en route to the back bar where the bartenders managed the seating assignments.
She’d squeeze past the hurried waiters directing young bus boys carrying trays piled high with full bread baskets, black salad bowls brimming with iceberg lettuce and glasses of ice water. And glance at the patrons dining, searching for a familiar face. When she found one, she’d wave or walk over to greet them in person.
“Hey Alice, join us for a drink,” her friends would offer sliding over to make room for her in the leather upholstered booth. “Oh thank you, I’m with Armen. Maybe another time.”
As soon as Greg, the bartender, saw my mother approaching, he’d start making her drink – a vodka martini, extra dry, extra olives and rocks on the side.
My father however, rushed past the maitre’d, the waiters and bus boys withholding all pleasantries except for a nod or a smile, moving quickly to the back bar where he caught, Greg’s attention.
“Hey Greg, any tenderloin tips left?” inquired my father knowing that the Tuesday daily specials sold out early.
“One, Armen. Should I put your name on it?” asked Greg, a friendly man with blonde hair blue eyes and a quick smile.
“Yes,” answered my father followed by his drink order.
In a few moments, my mother joined my father.
“Did you see the DiPretes sitting across from the bus boy station,” inquired my mother as Greg reached over to hand my mother her drink. “They asked me to sit with them and order a drink.”
My father shook his head.
“How could you not see them? You walked right passed them. Don’t you pay attention to your surroundings?” she asked.
He walked away a few steps to chat with a couple eating at a nearby table.
Greg caught my mother’s eye and pointed to two empty seats at the wooden U shaped bar.
My mother shook her head no.
A few minutes later my father noticed a couple who had arrived after them occupying the seats. “Aren’t those our seats?” challenged my father exasperated. “Weren’t we next in line?”
“We were,” said my mother. “But they were in between the man who can’t stop talking about his daughter’s herb farm and the woman who likes to gossip about the judges she worked with.”
“Geez Alice, I’m hungry.”
”I have my eye on two perfect seats, on the corner,” said my mother nodding. “Far from the blaring television and the loud cash register.”
My father glanced up at the spot she described and saw two people seated with drinks in their hands. “Have they even ordered?” my father impatiently asked. “We’ll be here all night.”
“They’re waiting for the check,” answered my mother.
“How do you know?” queried my father raising his eyebrows.
My mother shot him a look.
“I know. Because you pay attention to your surroundings.”
Within a few minutes, Greg motioned them to the two seats in question.
“See,” said my mother. “That wasn’t so bad. And now we’re in our two favorite seats.”
Greg placed two white placemats in front of them along with water glasses and silverware.
“Alice, what can I get you?” asked Greg leaning across the bar.
“Can I see a menu?” responded my mother.
“Alice, how many times have you eaten here and you still need a menu?” needled my father sipping from his drink.
“Maybe something will jump out at me,” my mother shrugged.
She opened the large plastic covered menu and exclaimed, “It’s Tuesday. I’ll have tonight’s special, the tenderloin tips.”
“Sorry Alice, Armen ordered the last one,” said Greg.
“When did you do that?” she asked incredulously as she playfully swatted my father with her menu.
“While you were busy yakking to everyone on the way in,” answered my father.
“Not fair,” said my mother. “No wonder you weren’t giving Greg your order.”
“I’ll give you a minute. Do you want an Alice salad while you’re deciding?” queried Greg referring to her salad order, which she preferred served on a plate versus a bowl.
“Yes. I always want a salad.”
My father motioned for my mother to return to the menu.
Impatiently, my father recited the choices: What about the chicken or the scrod? My mother kept shaking her head.
“Well, what do you feel like?” grilled my father.
“Tenderloin tips,” declared my mother.
My mother caught Greg’s attention and placed her order.
“I’ll have the eggplant sandwich and…”
“No bread. Because you don’t like the eggplant on the sandwich ‘cause you think it’s too much bread,” said Greg.
My mother nodded.
“But you still want the bread basket with Italian bread?” asked Greg winked.
“You know me so well,” she laughed glancing at my father slowly shaking his head.