Sunday, November 15, 2009

For the people all said "sit down"

If I'm going to tell you the story that's awakened the Munch Detective from hibernation, I have to tell you about the Watson Seats.

The Watson Seats are those two seats that are tucked away by themselves, revenue-maximizers that are crammed into some corner of a restaurant or into some awkward short row of a theater or sports arena. For example, there are Watson Seats at Midway Stadium (first-base side, top row of Section K) and at the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center (Row O). The beauty of Watson Seats is that their relative isolation lets you experience whatever you're there for as though it belongs to you and your companion alone. There's nobody hogging the armrest next to you, nobody eavesdropping as you whisper a critique of that bad jazz ensemble, nobody breathing garlicky breath in your general direction. While most people think the Watson Seats undesirable because they're too far from the action, they're always the preferred seating for Mel and me.

We discovered the Watson Seats last week at The Publican. They're the only two seats on the short side of the L-shaped bar, and they offer a great view of both the kitchen and of the woman who labors with great concentration over the fresh oysters: shucking them, sniffing them delicately, nestling them gently into beds of shaved ice. When Mel and I walked into the Publican at 9:00 on a Thursday, we expected to have to wait a while, having been told by the New York Times Style section some months ago that Thursday is the new Friday. Not only were we seated immediately, we were shown by happenstance to the Watson Seats, where we had excellent beer (including two beauties from Michigan: a Dark Horse Fore Smoked Stout and a New Holland Brother Jacob Dubbel) and delicious, I-never-woulda-thought-of-that seafood-plus-meat dishes (littleneck clams with pork shoulder, squid with kielbasa; both are much more than the sum of their parts). Mel also had oysters—Bagaduces from Maine, described on the Publican menu as "unyielding and brackish"—while I pounced on the homemade crackers that accompanied them.

While we enjoyed our beer and our food, we also enjoyed the show. The Publican is always unbelievably busy, but the staff never seems harried. Nobody’s pitching a fit in the kitchen. Everybody, from the cooks to the busers to the servers, knows exactly what they're doing and knows how to get from point A to point B quickly and unobtrusively. The only ripple happened when the restaurant's co-owner Donnie Madia—leather-jacketed, groovy-spectacled and Jim Jarmusch-haired—walked into the kitchen around 9:45 and started talking, tasting, making the rounds of the kitchen and bar before he started to work the room. Mel and I had a great time watching him. We could tell that he was seeing everything, even in the parts of the restaurant he didn’t seem to be looking at.

Donnie was stationed at the door as we were leaving. "How was your dinner?" he asked. "Terrific," I told him. "This place makes us really happy." "Oh, you had the best seats, those seats at the oyster bar," he enthused. “We love them,” I replied. Donnie grinned and turned to the woman at the host stand and said, “Hey, can we do a favor? They love those oyster bar seats. Will you put a note in the system so they get those seats whenever they call?” Mel and I (who, I should note, are by no means prone to falling for a suck-up or a glad-hander) swooned. It was a cool thing for him to do, and a supremely savvy one, because those few keystrokes turned us from people who really like the Publican into full-on Publican regulars and evangelists. We’re going tonight for the Allagash beer dinner, and will report on the food and the drinks—and whether we enjoyed them from the Watson Seats.

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