“Funny about restaurants. Some open with great fanfare and never get off the ground, whereas others open quietly and are eternally crowded from the first hour onward. The latter phenomenon would seem to be the happy fate of Victoria Station, an imaginative collection of seven freight cars grouped around a “station” entrance at the foot of Broadway. The wheels parked outside attest to the types inside: Ferraris, Alfas, Jags, Fiats and MGs. Those old freight cars are there to stay but the young owners are obviously going places.”
— Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, January, 1970
Excerpts from Chapter 1
I had never been behind a bar. Oh, I’d certainly spent enough time on barstools in front of them, but I never stood back where bartenders pour the drinks. Nonetheless, that’s where I was a little after nine in the morning on July 15, 1970. It was my first day of
management training for a railroad-car restaurant in San Francisco called Victoria Station. And in the slang of an era that honored The Grateful Dead, I didn’t know diddly squat about the restaurant business.
Only five months before, my wife Sukie and I had risked it all to seek a better life when we purchased a VW bus and drove away from New York City, leaving our jobs behind. We’d spent months talking about our dreams of living in California, and now we were doing just that. With this job, I had a chance at running one of these classy, popular restaurants someday. So I was all hope and ambition. I had resolved that first morning to remain positive, no matter what, and to focus on whatever task they set for me. But the smell of prime rib cooking was making me awfully hungry.
I was putting on a dark blue apron when a tall, skinny guy with a mustache and sideburns emerged from the kitchen. He looked like Brett Maverick. Carrying a cup of coffee and a nasty-looking butcher knife, he sauntered purposefully toward me, pulled up a bar stool and placed the knife on the bar. With a twirl, he aimed the point at me. He tapped a pack of Camels on his wrist and lit up a smoke.
“Suppose you’re another one of those frat brothers?” he said. A vein pumped in his temple. If this were TV, I’d be reaching for my gun.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, hoping I sounded polite but sure of myself.
“Another Cornell hotel-school guy who gets hired but doesn’t know shit about restaurants.”
His expression was as cold as the ice cubes I was shoveling into the bin in front of me. His features were sharp, especially his deep, brown, penetrating eyes.
“I didn’t go to Cornell—”
“Don’t matter,” he interrupted. His hands shook, probably from too much caffeine or not enough meat on his bones.
“Peter and I were in the Navy together,” I said, referring to one of the owners and praying the name-drop wouldn’t piss him off.
“Navy, Cornell, Merrill Lynch, all the same—friends of the owners—you’re all frat brothers to me.”
He took a drag and stood up. He pointed the knife at me like a rifle. “Stay out of my kitchen.”
He turned away from the bar and walked back across the room, past the weathered baggage cart with its three oak wine barrels. Richard Harris was singing “MacArthur Park” on the jukebox.
As the cook retreated, I could see his posture was terrible. I doubted if he’d ever done a pushup in his life. His slumping shoulders craved a couple of clothespins to hold them up. If Victoria Station ever created a public relations position, he wouldn’t be a candidate.
Two other cooks wearing blue engineer’s caps were chopping vegetables behind the display window that permitted guests to observe activity in the busy kitchen. Meanwhile, Mr. Congeniality had stopped to look through the glass doors of the cold storage box where on racks, the ends of fifty 22-pound racks of uncooked prime rib faced into the center room, looking like monster-sized bloodshot eyeballs. There was a green British Railroad sign above the doors that read “Pandora.”
If his intention had been to unnerve me, he had succeeded.
I was assigned to work with Mike Nevin, a fellow management trainee. He came out from the liquor storage room in time to see the knife wielder’s retreat and said, “You met Cookie. Nice guy, isn’t he?”
“Nice guy? Who’s he?”
“The kitchen manager. Behind that tough façade is a big heart.” Yeah, I thought. You could say the same about grizzly bears, but you don’t turn your back on one.
Manager Fred Parkin walked up. (Who else had witnessed this showdown?) “Don’t worry about that knife act. When I first started working here, he crossed two bread knives in front of me. It’s just a game with him.” I felt a little better.
Typical Victoria Station floor plan -
4 boxcars and a cocktail caboose
Victoria Station had opened in December, 1969. The owners — Bob Freeman, Peter Lee and Dick Bradley — were graduates of the renowned hotel school at Cornell. I was told that employees referred to them as the Big Three, likely because they were almost always seen together.
Lee and I had been based together at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Fallon, Nevada. After the Navy, I got an MBA from the University of Michigan and went to work for American Airlines in New York City. Lee also worked for American in New York City, and we were good friends.
When the Big Three started planning to build more restaurants, they offered me a job.
“What time do Bob, Dick and Peter come in?” I said to Mike, hoping to see a few more friendly faces.
“A little after noon. They have an office across The Embarcadero in Pier 5 North. They don’t pull shifts anymore, they are building a chain,” said Mike.
There was much to learn, lots going on and so many employees to meet that I don’t remember much about that first morning except “Cookie’s” grumpiness. Mostly, I fetched free sodas for employees whenever they asked.
At eleven o’clock, the hostess came in. She offered me her hand. “Hi, I’m Donnanne.” She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen—as pretty as her name. She was wearing a white dress with blue polka dots the size of soccer balls. Her skin was a soft olive shade; her brown eyes twinkled. She walked to the jukebox and selected Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and started singing the words. Watching her, I knew working at Victoria Station was going to be fun.
Nevin told me she had been a Playboy bunny, but was studying to be a teacher.
At 11:30, Donnanne went to the front door, bent over to unlock the padlock and removed the chains. Victoria Station was open for lunch.
By noon, there was a waiting list. In seven months, Victoria Station had become the most popular restaurant in San Francisco. Nevin said the Big Three were making quite a name for themselves. About twelve-fifteen, the Big Three came in.
End of Excerpt