One morning I was having breakfast in the lobby lounge and ended up speaking with a young lady. She was enjoying a Healthy Start Frittata and I’d ordered my favorite, The Vegetable Omelet. This young woman’s name was Jessica and we spoke about many things including art, cuisine, travel, music. Most of the topics you hope a new acquaintance will be able to discuss at length. Eventually we got to the topic of relationships and Jessica told me a story about a preposterous first date she had recently gone on. One might say say her experience was uncannily similar to painting immediately to the right. Listening to her story again I return to the conclusion: “Who would take a girl to the grocery store?”
This story is a part of The Lunch Counter storytelling series which I curate on Milwaukee’s NPR station 89.7 WUWM. The piece originally aired Thursday January 5th during the Lake Effect show. To be clear, her awful first date didn’t take place at the hotel, she merely recounted the story over breakfast in The Cafe at the Pfister.
Come to think of it, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken my lady out for dinner. The holidays have wound down and now it’s easier to get a table in most restaurants. Perhaps Mason Street Grill should be in our near future…
To listen to this comedy of modern love errors simply click the player below. If you’d like to hear past editions of The Lunch Counter storytelling series visit here.
He sits by the window, the only person wearing a t-shirt amidst suit jackets, colorful ties, and stylish vacationers. Looking around, he says “I like the way it feels in here. It’s nice, but casual.” He glances up, gesturing to the red, brown & cream striped awning where the window arches, “this feels like the breakfast places in New York,” studies the menu for a moment, “and the food is really reasonably priced.” When his fresh vegetable omelet arrives, he exclaims over how greatly stuffed it is, full of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms. With the toast slices and hashbrowns piled onto the plate, it indeed looks like an impressive amount of food. Of course, though he tries hard, he can’t finish it all.
This is exactly what the Pfister is going for here in the café. The idea that having breakfast in a hotel is tough on the pocketbook is a common line of thought, but it’s proven to be an an unnecessary concern here. That massive veggie omelet that my friend couldn’t finish? A whopping $8.75 – add in the fact that the food is made fresh by some incredibly talented chefs, and that Bananas Foster French Toast ($10.00) is suddenly a foodie’s dream: a delectable, hunger-sating, melt-in-your-mouth bargain.
The café was one of Julie’s favorite things in her months as Pfister Narrator, with the oatmeal and fixins right at the top of her list, but I had yet to really take in the weekday morning scene here. My excuse has simply been that I am not a morning person. Recent rainy, cold weather only dampened any desire I may have mustered to leave behind a warm bed early enough to make good use of the breakfast hour. The newly arrived June sun is encouraging and invigorating, meaning – no more excuses! – coming for breakfast.
Tables hold little glass vases showcasing yellow carnations with orange splashes near their centers, reminding everyone that better weather is here. The shoes reflect this feeling, too, with Tevas, flip-flops, leather slingbacks, mahogany wedge heels, and euro-slippers adorning les pieds. Of course, being a place often featuring business meetings, there are plenty of shiny loafers and sharp wingtips traipsing along the wood floor. The most comfortable shoes are on the feet of the servers in their khaki shirts and striped aprons. They move with purpose, strides propelling them gracefully forward and through the dining room, managing an efficient quickness that never seems rushed.
Diners reflect the variety of their shoes:
A couple on vacation in their most comfortable clothes, reading out loud to each other from the newspaper: she reads him the weather, he reads her headlines, they converse about what they should do after breakfast. She wears some fabulously comfortable-looking open-backed teal flats with sunflowers and he sports a serious motorhead mustache.
A bearded gentleman in sneakers, a baseball cap and stereo headphones ribs the hostess, “Table for one? Right this way,” she says when he nods affirmation. He then quips as they walk away, “Unless I look like two today.”
One regular in a polo shirt and Skechers enjoys his coffee and complimentary paper, while bantering with a server animatedly about sports: does the Miami Heat stand a chance against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals? What about Shaq’s retirement?
A woman reclines in one of the cranberry easy chairs, ankles elegantly crossed, showing off lacy flats. Her coffee and pain au chocolat on the marble table at her side, holding her smart phone aloft, her face features a big smile and occasional chuckle as she streams a popular viral video featuring two cats arguing over how to properly play patty-cake.
Joshua Wolter (feet clad in Italian leather, no doubt) stops in to catch up with regulars and get a sense of the expected lunch rush due to Downtown Dining Week. The conversation turns (naturally) to the shoes on parade today, leading to a laugh over a hidden 80’s movie reference* in Joshua’s recent featured appearance in a video showing off the luxurious WELL Spa + Salon pedicure.
There’s an ebb in the tide of customers, countered by an increase in bussing: one employee impressively balances a tray with a mountain of glassware, topped by a snowy napkin peak begging for an avalanche–but nobody can manage a tray like Marisha.
It’s time to enjoy the peace before the next rush: the varying sounds of steps crossing the floor have subsided, chattering comes to a lull, the classical music can be heard once again, and employees share a brief chat and quiet laugh with one another before their attention returns, devotedly, to the diners streaming in for lunch.
I know people say change is good, patient but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
One thing I love about the Pfister is early mornings in the café. There’s a perfect rhythm to the staff, the guests, the light, the breakfasts and the coffee.
So, ask hearing that the café would be closed for renovations I had my “change is bad” reaction. Where would I have breakfast? Where would I listen to business people rehearse their presentations and have those all-important morning meetings? Where would I see travelers relaxed in sweat pants?
The good news is breakfast is still on. The café’s system, its buzz, is now in the Rouge Room, which is a great benefit to me. It’s the formality of Sunday Brunch, but with the regularity and gentleness of weekday breakfast. Ok, I decided, two spoonfuls into the oatmeal, I’m willing to try out change.
Same oatmeal, same coffee… same servers! I realized, with the soft carpet, higher ceilings, the more vast space of the Rouge Room, that the quiet buzz that I’m so fond of in the café is more like the humble rumblings of your alarm clock set to a talk radio station, chatting you into awakeness in the Rouge.
As I looked at the art on the walls, I realized I could really play the part of Rich and Famous and pictured this as my fancy dining room where instead of having a big night out to be treated to this kind of elegance, I simply was able to eat in this space whenever I wanted, even for breakfast. (Next time I may come in pajamas just to push the point!)
One of the things I noticed my first time in the Pfister Café was the staffers who snuck in quietly and put fresh flowers at every table. I looked at my big, drapey tablecloth and there it was—the same small vase of fresh flowers. This was the bridge of familiarity I needed to secure my morning routine. Same oatmeal, same coffee, same servers and…same flowers.
The space is so open; I don’t feel like I’m sneaking around to see which section of the morning paper my fellow diners are reading. Instead, we’re all kicking off our day together. It’s a hint of what’s to come in the café. The tall booth backs will no longer shelter us from one another, but rather be remodeled to open up the possibility of the day.
Sure, the tablecloths are softer than the vinyl of the booths; the space is bigger and unusual to us regulars. But the opportunity to pretend that every day’s breakfast is a fancy brunch while you wait to get back to your favorite space, well, that’s a part of the change process I can embrace.