Publisher’s View: Dinner with strangers

Ashley Sexton Gordon
Ashley Sexton Gordon

We had been watching the man at the table next to us for an hour, intrigued. He was alone, he was loud and gregarious with the wait staff, and he looked and sounded like he had stepped right off the set of The Godfather. While my husband and I had excellent service at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, this man had exemplary service—at least three waiters circled his table throughout the meal, pouring his wine, bringing courses of food and laughing at his jokes.

I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

When I overheard him ask a waitress if she could take home a bottle of unfinished wine if he opened another—and she said no—I reached over, touched his back and said, “We can take home the bottle.”

He turned around with a delighted smile on his face and pulled up a chair to our table. Dessert was ordered, and more wine arrived. And our dinner-for-two turned into a surreal experience for the storybooks.

“I’m boring. Really boring,” he said, when pressed about his vocation. “Tell me more about what you do.”

He was evasive, and mysterious, and funny as all get out. We were fascinated.

What I managed to find out from him, after pounding him with a questioning that would have made my journalism professors proud: His name was Michael. He had just flown into town from Fort Lauderdale, where he had put his Scandinavian wife and two children on a boat for a week. (“I don’t do cruises,” he said.) He was in New Orleans for two days for some unfinished business and was returning to New York the following day. His occupation: “Let’s just say, I take care of other people’s problems.”

“He killed someone this morning and disposed of the body, and we are spending the evening with him,” my husband quietly remarked as the three of us were ushered from our table—where Michael had paid with wads of cash—for a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen and the wine cellar by the restaurant manager.

“But we’re in the wine cellar,” I said, arms open to celebrate the 10,000 bottles lined floor to ceiling. “Isn’t this great?”

The truth is, we really liked Michael. Or the version of him that we knew. And he seemed to like us. Plus he had a reserved table at the lounge next door where a jazz musician was playing, and he wanted us to join him.

Heck yeah.

Did I fear for my life? No. Was I concerned that the last name he begrudgingly gave us was, in fact, not a real name? Perhaps. But at the time, it was a risk we decided was worth taking because we were having a great time. The evening was long and was filled with more hilarious stories and more wine. The wait staff from R’evolution found us in the lounge and personally thanked him for the generous tip that he had left them. The jazz musician played on. We had made a new friend.

“If you ever, ever need anything in New York, give me a call,” said Michael, giving us his cell number at the end of the evening. “A restaurant reservation, a Broadway ticket. Anything.”

We assured him that we would, knowing we would never call, and hit the streets outside on the way back to our hotel.

My husband and I have eaten at communal tables in Germany, where we have happily conversed with the diners next to us. We have swapped stories with strangers at a castle in France where the hostess’ version of a picnic included multiple courses and plenty of libations. But dining with a potential member of the Mafia tops our list of meal-sharing experiences. I would catch my husband’s eye, over the course of the night, with a look that said, “Can you believe this is happening?”

No, his look said. No, I cannot.

Was Michael really a wiseguy? No way to know. But the excellent meal became even more interesting because he was there. Sharing a meal with others, although public, can be intimate too. You can learn something new—something that you might not learn in a casual conversation at a cocktail party. And that night we learned plenty. Meals take time, and timing is everything.

As for the phone number, I still have it. One never knows when I might get in a bind in New York and need Michael no-last-name to fix a problem. A problem such as needing reservations at a packed restaurant or tickets to a sold-out show. It’s nice to know that there is someone out there that has my back.