Friday nights, when I was about 11 years old, were often St. Michael's night. Excluding what seemed like a monthly trip for yet another wedding reception at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, St. Michael's was the first restaurant I remember my parents taking us to for dinner. Often, my dad would ask us if we were interested in going and you could see a smile hidden just underneath the blank expression on his face. The truth was also that I wanted to go as much as he did.
Walking to the stairs of the building and climbing up to the front door, you could hear the juke box, which more often than not was playing either "Bette Davis Eyes," "Jessie's Girl," "Morning Train" or "I Love a Rainy Night." Inside, it was always busy with couples and families all here for the same thing - the St. Michael's steak. We would all be seated right away, except for my dad who would go back into the kitchen to say hello to his friend, the cook. My mother would order our Cokes from Gloria, our server. To me, and probably everyone else, she was the face of St. Michael's. She was always smiling and always hustling from table to table serving all those excited people. She wore a large blond perm, large glasses and carried a heavy Fall River accent. Heavier still were the large oval plates she eventually would carry over with a giant pounded and flattened steak dripping over the edge, covered by a messy nest of the crispiest french fries ever, and fried eggs and a salty pepper buried somewhere in between. And best of all was that sauce - thin and broth-like with super beefy-savory flavor and no less than a dozen cloves of garlic hidden here and there, even under the steak. Grab the bread. I would rip through that plate faster than my presents on Christmas morning. It was great.
Over time, we started to go less frequently. I remember hearing my parents and their friends lament how St. Michael's wasn't the same since the cook left and went elsewhere. That is how it is in Fall River - the locals know who the chef is, and when he/she leaves, they leave, too.
In the '90s, I had gone back to St. Michael's as an adult about two times. No, it wasn't the same, but it was still pretty good. More recently, I've heard people rave about the steak and the great clam boil. So, 30 years after my first visit, I returned for lunch.
I parked in the lot, where my dad once parked, made it up the stairs, opened the door and took in the new kitchy layout. Where there were once only tables and chairs, there are now booths all along the four walls. I didn't see a juke box, but there was a giant bubbling fish tank by the door to the bar. The bar is a separate room, and it's really a "bar." I picked a booth and sat and waited. As the door to the bar opened, in walked Gloria. She looked exactly the same. Exactly. I thought that was strange because even after a few short years of not seeing a famous actor or singer, when you see them again like on Celebrity Apprentice—they always look different, fatter, older, etc. I didn't want to bug her, so I quietly ordered a glass of wine, some cod fish cakes and the St. Michael's Style Steak. Gloria quickly brought over my wine, which showed up in a glass that is larger than most cereal bowls, and it was full. The wine was a simple "house" red - it was not that good.
cod fish cakes
Eventually, she brought over my cod fish cakes. They looked good, and I could see that they were accompanied by that red cocktail sauce you get with cold shrimp. I had a bite, but I was really put off. Something wasn't right. I had another small piece, this time with the cocktail sauce and experienced the same result. It occurred to me that the cod fish cakes likely had been frozen for some time and I sensed what seemed like the strong taste of freezer burn. Too bad, but whatever - no big deal. I waited for the steak. At this point, some people might complain and make a fuss—I just didn't feel like bugging Gloria about it. That's just how I felt.
st. michael's style steak
So, later, in she came with my steak on a huge square glass plate. It looked good. As I usually do, I immediately grabbed some fries, and just went completely deflated. The fries also had that weird taste, and I don't know, but it seemed like they were fried in the same oil as the cod fish cakes - and the result was not at all to my liking. I tried the meat—it was OK. I tried the sauce—it was Ok, not the same, different and just Ok. I wanted to like this meal so badly. I have memories that have endured for three decades in my mind, so believe me I really wanted to love it, but I didn't.
I requested the bill. Gloria was surprised that I didn't want to take home my leftovers. She thought it a shame to waste that food. Me, too and felt guilty for not eating that food! Our conversation continued. "Do you live here in the Flint?" she asked me.
"No, I live in Rhode Island," I answered.
She told me how she keeps moving, keeps fit and loves to walk. "I'm 89 years old," she said, like it was nothing. I immediately felt lazy. She went on. "I've worked since I was sixteen years old. I've worked for 23 years after my retirement. I like the... " and she scratched her thumb with her fore finger, the universal sign for money, scratch. "That comes first," she laughed. "All my life I worked, and I only worked at places I could walk to. I love to walk." I told her that I remembered her from years ago when I was a child and would come with my family. "Sure," she said, "I've been here for 34 years." I wondered how many people she must have served over that time. (I figure its between 70,000 and 100,000 meals!) At that moment, I saw Gloria in my mind, back in 1981, having small talk with my mother, exchanging hellos and how are yous. "Are in you construction?" she asked me, as she pulled me back into the present.
"No.", I answered, as I wondered about the question.
"Oh, my husband was in construction for years." She went on to tell me about her grandson, who runs a restaurant in downtown Providence. The whole time, I'm having these flashbacks with sliced memories from the early eighties in Fall River—the accent, the energy, the openess, the humility and the earnestness of some of those folks I watched curiously as they spoke with my parents. I left St. Michael's shortly after feeling really happy.