By the time I got to Sonoma it was dark and drizzling rain – a really unpleasant December evening. I had printed out a map and directions to my bed and breakfast from MapQuest but for the first (and only) time MapQuest had it wrong and for the life of me I couldn’t find the place and no place I stopped and asked for directions recognized the street. Finally I spotted a UPS truck, followed him to his next stop, and then asked the driver for help. He knew the place and I arrived there about 7:00 PM, two hours late.
I tried the front door – locked – and as I left I mis-stepped on the dark, slippery, wooden stairs and fell heavily on my thigh and butt. Limping around the building I couldn’t get in the backdoor either. Finally, I checked an out-building with a light where I found a note to me and keys. I got to my room sore, tired, and soaking wet. It was now 8:00 and I was starving. I drove into the center of town and looked for a place to eat, getting wet – again – as I wandered the town square.
I finally settled on a place named The Girl and the Fig. I recall the hostess was a large woman and the place was packed on a Tuesday night. I wearily requested a table for one. She looked me up and down, told me a table would be about 30 minutes, and commented that I didn’t look happy. So I recounted my tale of woe. She escorted me to the bar and told the bartender to serve me a drink on the house. Five minutes later she came back and directed me to an empty stool. Fifteen minutes later I was at a table nursing a second free single-malt scotch while I looked over the menu.
On the waitress’s recommendation I ordered a braised lamb shank, which was served with Baby Artichoke Gratin and polenta – she also suggested a Zinfandel to wash it down. Service was impeccable, the food perfectly prepared, and the hostess stopped by once to check on me. My horrible night had been transformed. As I left I asked the hostess, “Are you the Girl?” She was.
The Girl and the Fig is an example of why I so seldom eat out. It was a stellar experience. Few restaurant meals are even good.
I ate there twice more while I was living in California. There was no pretense – ever. The food was simply prepared and yet offered complex flavors, the sort of stuff that can hold up well on a busy night when service slowed. The wait-staff was completely professional and if the tables were somewhat tightly packed, that’s typical of a brasserie. That evening has remained in my mind as the quintessential restaurant experience.
The small town of Maryville about 10 miles south of Knoxville has an excellent restaurant named the Foothills Milling Company. Again, the food is well-thought-out and well-executed, the service unobstrusive, and the price appropriate to the experience. You see, eating out is a combination of fact – the food and service – and ambiance – the promise realized or not, of comfort. And I would be deeply disappointed if I had a meal at a renowned restaurant like Alinea or Per Se that I could have gotten at The Girl or Foothills Milling, Three-star restaurants (and their reviews) promise a great deal more. But I’m constantly astounded at how many restaurants make much smaller promises than the three-star joints make and still can’t even hit the low bar they’ve set.
One of the last restaurants I visited was horrible. The chairs were uncomfortable, the wait-staff by turns overly familiar or missing, the décor was pretentious without being appealing, and – sin of sins – the food poorly thought out and badly executed. The very the last place where I ate out was in a concrete-block building serving basic southern fare (collard greens, barbeque, cornbread, and so on) served buffet-style on paper plates with plastic utensils. The food wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad either. It was honest, like The Girl and the Fig, and while I wouldn’t go back to it, I wasn’t disappointed.
A couple of days ago I called and spoke to The Girl and The Fig’s owner, Sondra Bernstein, for the first time since my first visit. I told her my story and we chatted a bit. She opened a new restaurant, The Estate, this fall. It’s Italian-American rather than French-American and apparently more upscale than The Girl and the Fig, but as we talked it was clearly a place I wanted to try because with every word she reminded me of my most beloved meals in Italy.
Sondra isn’t a chef. By training she’s an artist and she got involved in the business as a waitress, but she understands food and the way it connects us to the world. If that means spending a few minutes caring for a bruised stranger, understanding a cuisine’s fundamental strengths, or celebrating a location’s beauty – it’s all part of the role good eating plays in our lives. So find the Girls near you, and help them succeed.