Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Lunche-r-r-r-r-o!"

"Lunche-r-r-r-r-o!" The announcement would come over the tinny loudspeaker in our South Central Los Angeles office at precisely 9:30 every weekday morning, when the food truck made its first appearance of the day. It was good to know that people were thinking ahead.

Of the many pleasures in life, my perennial favorite is lunch. I really have a thing for it. I guess many people do, but I'm a morning person, so by the time lunch rolls around, I'm ready to rock and roll, whether it's a weekday or the weekend. It's more than just food to me -- it's a chance to get out and immerse myself in the rest of the world, and I find that if I don't take that break, I'm generally frustrated by day's end, a little out of sorts and feeling that I've missed something. I realized some time ago that the roots of my lunch obsession run pretty deep and that they can be traced back to my early days of weekend work at my dad's grocery store.

Ladies lunching at National Cash Register, Dayton, OH, 1902
My father managed a store on Lamar Avenue in the city of Memphis, and it was patronized by a broad cross-section of the citizenry. Most of my dad's friends were salespeople or food brokers, and they usually arrived a little before lunchtime. After doing a bit of business, they typically would offer to take my dad, and sometimes me, out to lunch at any of a number of local favorite spots. One-of-a-kind cafes and restaurants were abundant in those days, and many places offered plate lunches consisting of homemade specialties and scrumptious desserts. People in sales seemed to know both the new places and the classic establishments, and in their company, we sampled everything. I always looked forward to these forays, and the sales people were usually lively conversationalists who didn't exclude me from the proceedings; indeed, they often kept two threads running: one for the shop talk with my dad, and the other asking me about school and outside activities. I liked the idea of being around adults and eating good food while being made to feel a part of it all.

When I began working in the late 1970's, people still did serious lunches. It was not out of the ordinary to find myself sitting at a hotel restaurant, sipping a before-lunch alcoholic beverage (scotch and water with a twist was my favorite), at the mercy of whichever manager had decided to take us out. Back in those days, talk about work issues rarely made it to the lunch table, and instead, we traded stories about movies, concerts, family, politics and home repair, in no particular order.

One of my favorite memories from that time was dining at the Golden Gate Restaurant, a family owned business on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Our company's CEO, a kindly elderly gentleman whom we referred to as "A.M.", would invite three of four of us to accompany him almost every week to the Golden Gate, and once seated, we would be presented with a generous basket of bread and butter, into which we would all dig with abandon. The food was predictable and good, and the prices were very reasonable. Going to the Golden Gate with the "big boss" really made me feel part of the working world.

The Beef-Eatery, on the other hand, was our quick go-to greasy spoon. This tiny establishment, just around the corner from our office, featured a selection of burgers and sandwiches, all prepared in a dark, low-ceilinged kitchen. Once the staff had prepared your order and placed it into a brown paper bag, you either took the bag with you back to your office or headed up a rickety flight of stairs to a "dining area" which could only be described as spartan. If you chose the takeout option, the bag would usually be spotted liberally with grease by the time you got back around the block.

We had many other favorites in Chicago: Burger Baron, The Off-Center Cafe (A.M.'s quote about Off-Center was, "I could make better chicken salad at home"), some Irish pub whose name I do not recall...the list goes on and on. I never tired of heading out for lunch, regardless of the schedule or the amount of snow on the ground at the time. Sometimes, we would head to my boss Al's brother's cafe on the West Side, where we would be greeted with something like "Yo, Al...you brought all da guys!", then treated to a hearty hot plate lunch. Of course, there was always Diana's, which had absolutely no signage on the building but was a favorite of the Chicago cops, who would park in a somewhat hidden lot around the corner from the entrance. We always felt safe there.

When I started traveling to Los Angeles for work, I carried on the tradition I had started with my dad and made friends with the company salesmen, who would always take me to their favorite Mexican restaurants. We usually ended up at any number of places in the community of South Gate, just a little east of the Harbor Freeway. The guys knew when my morning flight was arriving, and by the time I had driven from LAX to the office, I had just enough time to put my briefcase down before they were ready to head out to lunch.

When I moved to Atlanta in the early 1980's, I reacquainted myself with Southern delicacies such as barbecue and Brunswick stew. At the time, Atlanta had a local Mexican chain called El Toro, and I wish I had a dollar for every "Speedy Gonzalez" lunch I had at one of their many locations -- I would have retired ten years ago.

For two brief periods in the 1980's, I broke tradition and became religious about bringing my lunch. The first time was when we were saving up a down payment for the house we planned to buy when we moved to Atlanta. The second time was solely for the purpose of saving money. Both periods were successful but marked a real departure from the typical midday break.

Back when CD players had just been invented (yes, I'm dating myself), many lunch excursions culminated with a trip to one of our local Atlanta stereo stores, where we would listen to the various players and push the eject buttons, just to watch the CD drawers slide in and out. A few of us had made the leap from vinyl to CD's, but for most of us, this was window shopping. In those days, stereo stores were staffed by people who could seamlessly launch into a discussion of frequency response, wow and flutter, or the merits of Dolby C over Dolby B. Sadly, those days appear to have vanished into the ether of flawless digital reproduction.

One of my favorite lunch traditions became known simply as "Tsu's". One day back in the late 1980's, a small group of my friends headed to a north side cafe called North Peking and sampled the General Tsu's dish which, of course, goes by about twenty names: General Tsu's, General Tso's, General Chow, etc. The original group reported back to the office that they had discovered something quite grand, so the next week, a larger group headed out to North Peking. This tradition continued every Monday for four years, with the crowd gradually increasing in size to over a dozen participants. Only when several of us moved away or to other jobs did the tradition finally come to an end. I still drive by the place and have a hankering to go in.

Nowadays, we try a little bit of everything: new places, old standbys, "meat and three" cafeterias, sandwich shops, pizza joints, cheap Chinese, and occasionally, the high spice of Indian or Thai. We tend to look for value, and Atlanta is pretty good in that respect. I've never really gotten into the "power lunch" thing, because a) it's too expensive, and b) it requires too much focus and concentrated thought. I'd rather just go out and be surprised by whatever happens on that particular day. And besides, lunch is our chance to reconnect, catch up, trade stories, and resolve crises. It is a sacrosanct time, and my friends and I tend to become rather annoyed when others do not respect the noon hour. So many fascinating things have occurred during lunches: emergency whiskey acquisitions, random power outages, even insects falling from the ceiling onto us. The list goes on and on.

In this new year, I'm thinking that I may want to economize a bit more, because after all, there may come a time when I want to do something drastic, like being able to retire. I consider it now and then, and I guess retirement would be okay, as long as I could maintain some semblance of my lunch habits. Without lunch...well, I don't even want to think about that.

Until later, bon app├ętit, my friends. Maybe I'll see you at the next table.