There are plenty of times in life when one wonders, “How the hell did I end up here?” It could be during some extremely grievous times or even times when one couldn’t feel more blessed. Whatever the case that was how I felt when I was in the middle of my fifth or sixth week at The Good Knight. I was fortunate enough, I suppose, to be able to recall exactly how the hell I ended up there.
The Good Knight was a place that a seldom few people in Austin, Texas have actually heard of. If you didn’t live or work within a one-mile radius of the place you’d probably never catch it, and even that might be an understatement. Austin is a foodie town and a lot of those snot-nosed, trendy, trust fund, vegetarian soap-box-preaching kids like to think they know every eatery, bar or wine loft in the city. Not surprisingly enough, any time I told anyone where I worked they looked surprised at both me and themselves for having never heard of the joint. “No, it’s not new,” I’d say before they had a chance to ask. Get on Austin’s infamous 6th Street but head east away from the typical touristy bars and you’ll find yourself on East 6th on “the bad side” of 35. If you’ve never been there you wouldn’t feel safe walking around the street at night but it’s really not bad at all. Go down a few blocks to the corner of 6th and Attayac and you’d find a tiny, two-story building painted a grotesque shade of faded lavender with an almost unnoticeable sign that reads, “The Good Knight.”
If you actually had heard of The Good Knight it would probably have been on Yelp. Every single review I read about the place began with some remark, comment or question about how dark it is. The morning guy and I called it The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were still recent). The first time I went in for an interview I almost fell over more than one chair before my eyes adjusted. Guests would read their menus lit by their cell phones. The bar kept numerous flashlights on hand for who knows what that might happen or go missing. I can’t even imagine how many first dates went better than they might have simply because one of the pair looked better in low light. The pilgrims aboard the Mayflower ate in the dark so they couldn’t see the insects crawling on their food. Whether my appetites are culinary or sexual, I want to be able to see what I’m getting myself into. Some poor sap comes in and has dinner and several strong drinks in a dark restaurant, walks to the car with his presumably attractive lady friend under the cover of night, drives home in their dark car like a husband hiding a hooker, engages in all manner of unmentionable acts in the dark room of his house or hotel, only to have his ego, pride, checking account and erection all shattered the next day by the unrelenting sunlight putting his entire night of shameless debauchery on display.
Other than the darkness the cozy little place had a few distinguishing features. The furniture looked like that of an old castle and the walls were littered patternlessly with old pictures of the owner, Randal’s, distant family – It was odd to me that he’d be so personal with the decor when the man was never in the building unless there was a meeting, a problem or a meeting to address a problem. The collection on the jukebox was totally senseless. Several selections of golden oldies and some classic country were juxtaposed with some old Bob Marley and other reggae. There were some Beatles albums as well as many albums that sounded like they were all in the running to be the Irish National Soundtrack. I don’t know what supposed theme Randal thought he was going for, but when the place was empty and the oldies were on, it was downright horrifying. With enough of an active imagination it wasn’t hard to picture the corpse of some old ballroom singer garbed in tattered gowns slowly making her way towards you in the dark to permanently bond you to the undead. An empty house blaring ashy Tom Waits helped set such a mood.
If you weren’t equipped with the mind of a four-year-old like me, however, you’d probably find the joint charming. The kitchen was the smallest I’d ever seen, appropriate for the hole-in-the-wall that it was. It was, on most days, a two-man line. Walking in from the street you’re already standing in front of a reach-in cooler packed to the gills with a nice selection of fresh (or soggy) herbs, bins of veggies and starches, a few items of dairy, some bar stuff I never bothered to wrap my head around, a few flats of eggs, a few tubs of demi and chocolate and whatever prepped dishes were (or weren’t) necessary for service. On the left was the “hot side” with a cutting board and a protein low-boy in front of a tiny, three foot expo window. It was much higher of an opening when the building was a Mexican-only dance place but it was narrowed by a few feet to prevent women from being able to catch the cooks gawking at them – not that it matters. We’re shameless. Opposite this spot was an oven under a salamander under some steam wells. Next to it was an eight-burner range with an oven under it and a small but powerful table-top grill after that. Opposite that was the “cold side” where you had some prepped items and a sandwich box full of goodies to experiment with. On the other side of all this was the rack full of dishes, all purchased at Goodwill or handed down from dead relatives. Then there was a stand-up meat freezer that looks like grandpa never got around to getting it out of the garage before he croaked. Finally there was a tiny dish area with a three compartment sink and a mop sink. Not much else. From one end to the other it wasn’t more than fifteen feet.
This was a low-budget place. Over half the plate-ware was cracked or chipped. I’d have been fired on the spot for not throwing away a chipped plate at other, larger restaurants, but I guess they assumed nobody could see the damn food in front of them in the dining room anyway. None of the pilots in the gas equipment worked. In fact, most of them weren’t even there anymore. We all carried those long, skinny fire-starter lighters in our back pockets. The oven doors sometimes didn’t close all the way. Between the bars he owned and his involvement in the nearby Punk Rock scene Randal knew fucking EVERYBODY so it was easy to imagine him snatching this would-be equipment off of some buddy of his. We worked on a low scale to which I was very unaccustomed. Prep was usually not an issue. There was always time in and around the few tickets we had to knock out a little prep if necessary. Prepping what seemed to me to be enough of something to get by for a day or two usually meant throwing it away a week later.
Business was also small. The biggest rush we ever had was laughable compared to my busy days in bigger restaurants. The place sat forty people at most and many knew it more for the drinks than the food so a full house didn’t even mean everyone was eating. A server would say, “Hey, guys, we got a twenty-top at 8:30.” To which a cook would reply, “How many of ‘em are eating?” Depending on the answer it could be absolutely no cause for alarm.
So what kind of people ran this place? To give you an idea, the head chef, Brandon, made 11 bucks an hour. When the “General Manager” – for lack of a better term – quit to go back to being a wine salesman, Brandon became the GM and was boosted to a lowly 13 an hour. The main lunch dude, Jimmy, made maybe 8 an hour and everyone else, including the main night guy, Justin, who’d never worked in another kitchen, made minimum wage. The place was run by people whose major concern was not earning money, but blowing it on the next drink, or coke score, or handful of pills. These guys had no problem 86ing anything, having thirty-minute ticket times, or even just telling a server, “No, we don’t do that shit here.” I was used to catering to the guest. To making sure the restaurant never ran out of anything. A table asks about an item on the menu and a server has to explain why we don’t even have it? It’s embarrassing. What were these guys doing?
So this brings back the initial question: How the hell did I end up here?
To Be Continued…