Photo by Keith MayI was 22 years old and far out of my element at LA's Pinot. I was there, in my limp hairdo and my Jaclyn Smith Collection suit, to interview one of the Industry's snootier management players. Tom Hanks was leaving as I came in. But as I stood nervously at the bar, my smug lunch date was still nowhere to be found. I looked stupid by myself, like a wannabe chippie hoping to land a guy who could buy me some time at a salon, and I finally called his office.
“Oh,” he said, his voice sounding irritated even through the pay phone at which I stood. “I thought we were confirming.”
Mortified me, assuming that since we had said we would meet on Friday at noon at Pinot, I could arrive on Friday at noon at Pinot and there find the person to whom I was engaged for lunch. I wouldn't have been crushed by a cancellation; we all get behind and have to flake occasionally, especially in LA. What was humiliating was the assumption that I knew this secret rite, this doublespeak in which “We are having lunch on Friday at noon at Pinot” becomes “See you when I see you, sucker,” and yet I was clearly too naïve to understand.
And so, seven years later, I have a series of unmet dates with a friend. Once, I forgot entirely and was desperately trying to call the restaurant and apologize as he clearly was getting stood up and made to look like a schmuck. But he wasn't there. Since he hadn't heard from me, he said later, he had assumed the date was off. And so we tried again. A series of e-mails and phone calls was getting ambiguous. One e-mail would include the restaurant and two choices of days; the next would reiterate one person's preferred time. Did that mean the day was confirmed? Was the restaurant? It was becoming work. “I'm not confirming,” I said witheringly. “I'll just be thereon Friday.”
And so there I was at Gustaf Anders, the highly esteemed Swedish restaurant near South Coast Plaza, and our reservation was not in the book. Nor was my date. Hosts and hostesses—the lunch hour would soon be ending, as it was 2 p.m., but Greg had checked that they could still accommodate us that late—disappeared.
“I would like to eat anyway,” I told someone passing by, as they looked at me askance. A few minutes later, they found the hostess, who seated me in the immense, near-empty restaurant at a table right next to the elbows of a glum elderly couple who promptly clammed up and didn't enjoy one bite for the rest of their meal. They were as offended as if they'd been peed on.
There is something shameful and brave, dignified and pathetic, about eating alone in a fancy place. As one is clearly on display, only the most Zen-like stillness and most graceful handling of cutlery will do. There is a lot of time to ponder what one looks like and how one should act. Is the tone of voice well-modulated, or is it too loud for the stillness of the place? Is the posture ladylike?
There is also a lot of time to ponder the quality of the service and the food. Is that spearmint I'm detecting in the water? It's refreshing and infused with something—like vodka is now never just vodka but is always citrine or vanilla or mandarin, but it isn't any of those. Instead it tastes like rosemary, which it can't possibly be. Everything tastes like rosemary to me, now that I put it in popcorn. Where the hell is the waitress? Thank you for the bread. What is it exactly? It seems like blueberries. Oh, it's an olive loaf? Why do I think it tastes like blueberries? It's delicious. (I do not say out loud that the butter is too hard, but I have plenty of time to think it.) I would like the smoked-salmon sandwich, please, the one that's $19 and has caviar on it. It's either that or roast chicken (why buy something I can do myself?) or, like, Icelandic herring. I don't want Icelandic herring.
Mmmm, the smoked-salmon sandwich. My first bite is slow and deep, sinking through layers of lox and soft walnut bread. The onion is not offensively sharp, but how can you taste the caviar when there is onion crunching round your mouth? I take off the onions and try it without them. Yes, it's mushy now, but preferable. Even though the texture is now off, the caviar no longer has to fight for recognition. I notice my lemon garnish and rub it on the soft bread. This, surely, is uncouth, but it was probably uncouth to stay dateless. Hell, I probably have cream cheese smeared across my mouth, too. I take a small spoonful of the caviar mounded on my plate. It is more sour than salty. Is it off? I'm pretty sure it is. Do they know the caviar is off? Do they not care because I am a youngish woman without a moneyed escort? The capers are perfect. They're supposed to be sour. My beer costs $6.50. My Swedish princess cake—marzipan and strawberry jam—is too sweet. None of these things would matter if my date had shown up to pay the bill, but when one is forking out $19 for one's own sandwich, it should be a sandwich made of cocaine. (Of course, if someone else were footing the bill, I wouldn't dream of ordering a $19 sandwich; I did so purely because I was alone and didn't want the waitress to think I was cheap.) Anyway, it could at least come with fries. When I got home, I called him, and it turned out I had the wrong day.
Gustaf Anders, located at 3851 Bear St., Ste. B-21, Costa Mesa, is open Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. N 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. (714) 668-1737. Full bar. Lunch for two, $30, food only. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.