When it’s time to pay respects and say goodbye to a cherished person, place, or thing, sometimes it’s good not to wait till the last minute. Better still, keeping in touch and enjoying their presence while things are going well means you don’t have to feel quite so lousy if they depart without you orchestrating a proper sendoff.
Today my wife and I had fun plans in downtown Indianapolis in the morning, a nephew’s birthday party out in Brownsburg in the afternoon, and a gap between them that might fit a nice lunch. Our schedule filled itself out when we learned this week that the Milano Inn, a renowned Italian restaurant serving the Circle City since 1934, would be closing its doors for good at the end of 2016, a year that just won’t stop racking up casualties. A husband-and-wife date before their farewell seemed in order.
Key word: “seemed”.
A summary of the Milano’s storied history can be found on their official site for now, lifted virtually verbatim and wholly uncredited from pages 40-41 of Reid Duffy’s Guide to Indiana’s Favorite Restaurants. My last meal at the Milano was twenty-two years ago. That time, I brought with me a baby and a different wife. I remember our table was in a shadowy corner away from the other diners, probably to minimize the baby’s ambiance disruption potential. I know we dressed more nicely than usual and we ate food. From there, that dim memory from a previous lifetime fades around the edges to black.
Anne had never been there before. Today would’ve been the first time we ate there. We’d hoped to create a new memory to carry with us and share with future Hoosiers and visitors who missed out on the great Milano. After the afore-linked Indianapolis Star article went citywide, I was surprised reservations were still available, but didn’t let my incredulity stop me.
Our reservations were for 1 p.m., but at our previous stop we’d prematurely run out of things to do and found we were both starving after our respective minimal breakfasts. We showed up shortly after 12:30, only to find that it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d shown up at 1 on the dot, or half an hour late.
One of the owners, doubling as hostess, had just hung up the phone and was visibly upset. She gathered herself, apologized, and refused to seat us.
I saw a few open tables off to one side and could tell overwhelming demand wasn’t exactly the issue. Problem was, so many employees had called in or simply not shown up for work that they only had two servers covering the entire place, whose current customers included a party of sixteen or more occupying their own hectic corner. She railed for a moment at the hypocrisy of no-show employees who complain that they need more money and hours. After a moment of exchanging sympathies, she half-heartedly offered to let us dine there anyway as long as we weren’t in a hurry. That’s close to an exact quote.
Before our current career tracks, Anne and I both worked in the restaurant biz far longer than we should’ve. We each have our share of restaurant war stories to tell. We know what it’s like to be trapped in a day when too many coworkers skip work and leave you facing the oncoming crowds shorthanded and overwhelmed. For the length of that entire shift, until and unless the next wave of scheduled employees arrives to save the day, life sucks for anyone on either side of the kitchen counter. Losing customers is the opposite of a job well done, but you can only overcompensate for so many missing bodies.
In retrospect I appreciate that her initial response was the hard choice of denying us service altogether rather than letting us in and giving us Worst Service Ever. I can’t fault her for that judgment call. It’s like those chefs who compete on Chopped and leave a mishandled basket ingredient off a plate rather than watch a judge gag on it and chastise them for it.
But in response to her counteroffer to honor our reservations in good faith despite the likely consequences, knowing she wasn’t having the best of times, we did the politest, gentlest possible version of “NOPE” right on out of there.
To get through the next few hours, Anne and I were forced to subsist on kiddie birthday party snacks at her brother’s place. Once our relatives began to disperse, we then made a beeline for a great Mexican restaurant down the road called Tequila Sunrise, which had served us fabulous offerings of ceviche and molé on one of my previous birthdays. Once again they impressed us and continue to hold our admiration. I’m now thinking about stopping there after every nephew’s birthday party for the rest of their lives.
Because if there’s any lesson we learned today, it’s this: if your city has a number of venerated restaurants and other institutions that deserve your attention, pay them a visit now, or tomorrow, or as soon as your free time and resources allow for it if you ever want that opportunity to see why all the fuss. Don’t wait for the going-out-of-business sale when many aboard are bound to be fleeing the ship during its farewell cruise into the sunset. Enjoy them in their prime if you can, not at the side of their deathbed.
I can’t say with any certainty why those collective employees bailed out. I can’t imagine they’re inspired by the knowledge of the exact end date of their current jobs, especially if that date changed for them personally after today. We know nothing of recent life at the Milano prior to our two-minute encounter, have no idea if there’s extra backstory to that IndyStar article that should begin with those dreaded words, “Meanwhile behind the scenes, things were falling apart.”
All we do know is, in the days and years to come, whenever other old people mention the Milano and offer their warm memories of that time they had some awesome spaghetti, found themselves enraptured by a heavenly basket of bread, or died from tiramisu euphoria, all we’ll have to share in return is that time we two married travelers arrived during the Christmas season but were turned away because there was no room at the Inn.