Why were so many people waiting to go in?

Published 1:54 pm Saturday, July 3, 2010

Every once in a while, you have one of those experiences you know you’ll never forget.

Such was the case for me in visiting the Palace Grill in Old Town Santa Barbara. A taste of New Orleans in a small California city, it doesn’t take reservations. You show up and stand outside on the sidewalk, waiting for an opening to appear from a packed house of hungry, delighted souls enjoying a wide variety of Cajun cuisine. No worries, though, as the waiting patronage seemed to comprise excitedly friendly folks all anticipating their turn to sample the hot appetizers served cheerfully on the house by a staff voted 22 years in a row as the best in Santa Barbara.

We were greeted and seated at our table by the owner, a black man dressed in a polo shirt and beads, with a smile that made me think he’d been waiting for us all night long. As I passed the large framed paintings of Bourbon Street-type horn players, I noticed the fascinating aromas wafting over the partition of the open kitchen where scrumptious meals were prepared over open fire. I looked up to see a giant shark light fixture beaming a soft light and exposing the smiles of couples romanced by the delectable tastes of flavorful fish, steak or pasta combinations placed before them by the cheery waiters and waitresses. I looked up to see the ace of hearts tacked above my head among assorted cards distributed all over the ceiling.

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The first of many servers arrived to give us an assortment of five specialty mini-muffins including orange-apricot, molasses-date and buttermilk-rosemary. We ordered a starter of coconut shrimp, which ended up being large enough to be an entree in itself. My catfish Creole with crawfish was trumped only by Carol’s chicken Marsala with a vegetable blend consisting of carrots and green squash in a seasoned butter sauce, braised to perfection.

Before finishing our main course, another waitress set down a portfolio next to each of our plates as if she had already prepared our bill. I thought it was a bit early for the check, but we were instructed not to open it until we were told, so we continued our conversation about the delectable tastes of various mushrooms, seasonings and spices.

At precisely 8 o’clock, the entire staff of waiters, waitresses, chefs, busboys, cooks and greeters paraded out in the dining room scattering themselves as if to make some kind of presentation.

We began to hear Louis Armstrong’s voice come over the loudspeakers singing “What a Wonderful World” and were instructed to open our portfolios containing the lyrics to the song. The entire restaurant bellowed robustly as we were reminded of the many blessings we all have, including the incredible meals we were eating. At that moment, I felt “at home,” realizing these servers had just knit together a bunch of strangers who had never met each other, unified in gratitude. The song lyrics were collected, and we all continued our in culinary adventures.

A while later, someone broke out in a happy birthday song and the entire dinning room spontaneously joined in to wish the happy soul an inspiring celebration, followed by unanimous applause.

We finished the evening with a bread pudding soufflé with creamed whiskey sauce. We exited the restaurant fully understanding why all those people coming out the front door while we had been waiting to go in were oozing such joy.

It’s as if we had gone in and out of a dream, not sure if what we had just experienced really happened, but the smiles on our faces and the lightness in our hearts gave a clue that the experience was indeed the real thing.

Sometimes life just can’t get any better.

David Larson, M.S., C.P.C.C., is a licensed psychologist and life coach. He can be reached at 507-373-7913, or at his website, www.callthecoach.com.