We were predators, Alexandra and I, leaning on the copper bar, me sipping my fresh lime margarita, she sipping her Anchor Steam beer. Our eyes hungrily scanned the room, taking in the group of men standing to my right, the group of men standing to her left and the people seated at tables around us.
“Ah, the Vixen Divorcee is out to get picked up,” you’re thinking as you read this. While this might be a natural assumption, you would be wrong to think it. I’ve never picked up anyone in a bar and am not about to start now.
No, Alexandra and I were actually hungry. We were specifically hungry for the roasted, organic, free-range chicken salad served at the Zuni Cafe on Market Street in San Francisco. I should qualify that by adding its famously served at Zuni Cafe on Market Street in San Francisco.
We arrived at the restaurant last Tuesday night without a reservation. The hostess told us we had no chance of being seated in the dining room, but if a table opened up in the bar area, we could grab it.
Hence our predatory behavior, sizing up whether our fellow bar leaners were, like us, waiting to pounce on a table the moment its occupants left, and calculating when each table was likely to become available.
I nudged Alexandra. “See the group in that corner by the window? They’ve just been served dessert. They’ll be leaving soon. If we’re smart, we’d move down to that end of the bar.”
Without saying a word, Alexandra moved, not to the end of the bar, but right up to the table of dessert eaters. She leaned over and said something. As I watched, they pulled away from her, pressing back into their chairs, moving their heads stiffly from side to side, looking at each other, their body language telegraphing across the room to me, “Who is this crazy lady bothering us?”
She said something else. Their shoulders relaxed. They looked away from each other and toward her. One of them spoke. Within two minutes, they were all laughing, holding up their plates of cake for her inspection. Several of them looked in my direction and waved me over.
Her magic worked. I joined them, introductions were made, hands were shaken, Alexandra shared the details of what they were celebrating and why. The table was ours.
As were the charming attentions of the handsome waiter, Julien, a recent transplant from Picardie in France. He delivered the salad with its mound of roasted, organic, free range chicken to our table with a flourish. He delivered the box of leftovers with an equal flourish, since we’d been able to eat only half of the famed chicken.
Alexandra questioned how we’d store the chicken, since we had no refrigerator, and how we’d use it, since we were to board a plane early the next evening. “You got us a table. I’ll figure out the leftovers,”: I said.
Back at the hotel I asked the concierge if he could keep the chicken over night in the hotel refrigerator.
“It’s from the Zuni Cafe,”: I said, as if that made it as precious as gold and worthy of the greatest care.
“No, I can’t do that,” he responded. “Instead, I’ll send a refrigerator up to your room.”
Within five minutes a young man arrived at our room carrying a small refrigerator which he plugged in and turned on. I tipped him five dollars and placed the brown box containing the chicken in the refrigerator.
The next morning as we started to leave our room with backpacks slung over our shoulders and suitcases rolling behind us, Alexandra said, “Georgia, aren’t you forgetting something?”
I counted my bags, then looked at her blankly.
“The chicken. In the refrigerator.”
Oops. I almost forgot.
We had five hours to explore San Francisco before heading off to the airport, so we left our bags with a serious gentleman in a somber black suit. The last item I entrusted to his care was the chicken. I held it nestled in both my hands as I handed it to him, in the traditional way the Japanese bestow a gift of great value.
“Could you please put this box in your refrigerator? It contains chicken from the Zuni Cafe.”
“We don’t have a refrigerator, but let me check with the restaurant next door.”
He disappeared for ten minutes, then reappeared, still carrying our chicken. “I couldn’t find the hostess. Leave this with me. It will be safe. If I’m not at the desk when you return, ask for me. My name’s Iraqli.”
“Unusual name,”: I said. “Where do you come from?”
“Georgia. The country,” he said.
I figured I could remember that.
Five hours later another man, a much younger one in a uniform that included gold braid and a pill box hat, brought us our bags.
“The hostess doesn’t know anything about a brown box of food,” he said.
“But Iraqli, from Georgia, promised that our chicken, from the Zuni Cafe, would be safe with him,” I said, as if these qualifiers, “from Georgia,” and “from the Zuni Cafe,” guaranteed the importance and inviolable nature of our transaction conducted just five hours before.
Another six minutes passed and again the young man in the old-fashioned bellhop’s uniform returned empty-handed.
“I’m sorry. I searched both refrigerators myself and couldn’t find anything.”
“Iraqli said we should find him if there’s any difficulty,” I said.
“He went off duty a half hour ago. My manager’s in a meeting, but I’m going to go get him.”
He dashed off again and returned with another gentleman in a somber suit.
“What is it we’re looking for?” he inquired, quite reasonably.
“A brown box, with our room number, 591, written on the lid. It contains chicken from the Zuni Cafe.”
The two men dashed off in the direction of the restaurant kitchen. Six minutes later they dashed through the lobby, headed in an entirely different direction. I tried to waylay them, to call off the great chicken chase, but they moved too fast and were too intent on their mission.
Five minutes later they both returned, empty-handed. I laughed, shook my head and said, “It’s all right, you can stop now.”
But the young bellhop wouldn’t listen. “I’m going to get the hotel manager,” and off he dashed. Two minutes later another man appeared, wearing a more expensive suit and a fancy silk tie. I interrupted his attempted apology.
“Please. It’s not important. Thank you for all the fuss.” I slipped the bellhop ten dollars. Alexandra handed him a five dollar bill.
Our roasted, organic, free range chicken from the Zuni Cafe had now cost us its original high price, plus a generous tip to handsome Julien, plus $5 to the deliverer of the refrigerator, plus $15 to the bellhop, plus the 25 minutes Alexandra and I had spent watching the bellhop, his boss and the hotel manager race around searching for it.
At the airport we picked up cheap Chinese fast food to fill our empty stomachs. I stared woefully at my rice and fried orange chicken, wondering in what corner of whose refrigerator our Zuni Cafe chicken was hiding, and if anyone would be savoring its tenderness and moistness over their dinner that Wednesday night.
The great chicken caper ended with me eating food that tasted like chicken mcnuggets.