Valley Voices

A diner’s guide to people watching in Morro Bay

Harbor seals rest on a sandbar in the Morro Bay Estuary. In the background is the imposing Morro Rock, one in a string of ancient volcanoes called the Nine Sisters along the central coast.
Harbor seals rest on a sandbar in the Morro Bay Estuary. In the background is the imposing Morro Rock, one in a string of ancient volcanoes called the Nine Sisters along the central coast. Los Angeles Times

The sylph-like hostess sashayed through the restaurant like a baguette looking to shed a cold pat of butter as her shawl slipped, again and again, from the twist of her neck. By mid-evening, artifacts from the menu were destined to be dipped, dusted and otherwise magnetized from the floor into every fabric fold.

When it comes to take-your-time dining, the ballet and missteps of this Morro Bay kitchen were as much a Rubik’s Cube to patrons as was the industrywide marketing rationale that inevitably wrapped at least four but never more than six shrimp in a $30-ish glaze.

The back shop is predestined to dwell in the Twilight Zone, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay be damned. But the clientele and the front staff can be sifted, sampled and given a Michelin review, welcomed like the perfume of sautéed garlic shrimp or scorned like burned popcorn.

Where the restaurant bends from its entryway bottleneck to full flagon there sat this evening’s Judge, earning the label for overall imperiousness commencing with crook of his neck. This patron’s gaze rendered all as miscreants or worse – perhaps potential juror panelists – as his wife, shoulders dappled by the Morro Rock sunset, regaled him with a Democrat-flavored judgment of congressional hearings for then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch.

What, what? You know I can’t hear whispers, said his voice, a megaphone that invoiced what he would or wouldn’t have with his salmon, and how – bring cruets and shakers – he would zest it himself when it debuted. Water was his beverage, wincing as his wife reordered a lemonade.

We early diners were a weak tide in this off season, choked by rain and mudslides. A woman with a yellow rain smock cinched around her waist. A grandmother holstered in a polished walker, shepherded by a benign young man who wended her to a perch that espied the ocean while reviewing a menu both knew by heart and agreeing that selecting an inexpensive red wine would escape anyone’s aspersions.

The servers regarded the regulars as though resuming an interrupted diary with updates of a wallet lost, the results of cancer screenings (the type specified as “women’s”), how a co-worker’s pregnancy leave had left them short-handed and, only when asked, a reminder about the chef’s specials.

This confessional, mindless of us nearby as we dropped eaves, on no occasion led the servers to provide the irregulars with their first names or position themselves as inviting, knowledgeable resources about preferences on a blissfully limited menu that hasn’t needed more than a fresh varnishing of plastic over the decades.

No hard sell, no memorable menu to share with tourists many of whose car undercarriages suffered keel-hauling on humpback streets in arriving at this 75-year-old perch above the fuss of the embarcadero. This restaurant, whose name I spare, rests abundantly well, thank you, on the elbows of its reputation, no need for ruffles about dining experiences or special ministrations beyond adjusting shades to accommodate the sun’s death glare.

As this evening’s first tables were turned, the woman in the rain smock was surprised to find it diving to her feet, transfixing her like an anchor dropped and compelling her husband to drag a leg like a poorly trained skier to avoid a cavalcade of tumbling well-fed, poorly toned bodies.

Somehow, the Judge missed this side-chapel sketch as he slurped his salmon and moved on to finish every crust of bread while his wife elsewhere was possibly reallocating her lemonade.

His arms opened to assess the table’s remnants, unfurling a scowl. Well-seasoned or otherwise, morsels did not belong ensnared in his teeth. He grabbed a dinner fork and prosecuted them with four fine tines before handing a raft of cash to his server and softly parading to the door behind his wife.

A breeze had kicked the outdoor air cold. There was no jovial buzz, the kind spawned by the warm alcohol of summer. Off-season tips were less rich, more dear. Maybe the hostess caught the drift. She plastered menus against her chest, clawing her shawl to her throat like a suddenly sacred scapula as though there were no etiquette for such things and certain no one would ever pay her any mind anyway.

John G. Taylor, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is owner/operator of The JT Communications Company LLC. Write to him at jtcommunicates@comcast.net.

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