It was Friday or Saturday night and I was back from college. I don’t remember what the occasion was anymore, but I’m pretty sure it must have been 1993. I got together with some friends back home in St. Louis to blow off steam.
I did this a fair number of times when I was in college. I don’t remember what movie we saw and I barely remember who I was with. There’s no reason for me to remember that night. Except for one thing.
His name was Bernard. I worked in food service for 2 1/2 years, and one of my managers told us to be legendary. That was our location’s catchphrase. But in all my years, I’ve never encountered anybody in a restaurant more legendary than Bernard.
We stopped off at the usually reliable Steak ‘n’ Shake. This particular location was at the intersection of Watson and Elm, near the border of Crestwood and Webster Groves. The Watson corridor–part of the old Route 66–was still a booming commercial district then, so it was a good place to go. There were two movie theaters–the old Kenrick Cinema and the theater in the old Crestwood Plaza–within minutes of it. And for a time, it had Bernard.
If I had to describe Bernard in three words, I wouldn’t struggle. Bernard was flamboyant, colorful, and entitled. We knew that much about him the moment he opened his mouth after handing us menus. He told us his name was Bernard and he’d be taking care of us this evening, but the tone of his voice said he would have preferred a trip to the dentist, or pretty much anything else, over taking care of us that evening.
Of course he started us off with drinks. Two or three of us ordered Pepsi. Bernard didn’t bother to write down the drink orders. He immediately disappeared, and a good number of minutes later, Bernard reappeared. With five Pepsis for the five of us.
“You had Pepsi,” he loudly announced, as he set our drinks down. Then he got to my friend Tim, who has only once consumed any drink in my presence other than coffee.
“You had Pepsi,” Bernard announced, as he had for everyone else.
“I had coffee,” Tim said with firmness and a glare. Bernard’s Jedi mind trick wasn’t working on Tim.
“Well you got Pepsi,” Bernard said even more firmly, slamming the drink down. “I’ll be back.”
Tim wasn’t in the mood to wait. He stood up with the look of murder in his eyes, picked up his Pepsi, and briskly followed Bernard through the dining area and back behind the counter. I wondered what ideas were going through Tim’s mind besides dumping the Pepsi on Bernard, throwing it at him, and smashing the glass over his head. But Bernard paid no attention and kept walking nonchalantly into the back. Tim evidently thought better of following Bernard into the back room and assaulting him with the Pepsi glass because he stopped suddenly, placed his Pepsi under an empty heat lamp where it stayed for the duration of our lovely evening, then turned around, poured his own cup of coffee, then came back to the table.
Several more long minutes later, Bernard reappeared with a flourish–and a cup of coffee for Tim. The coffee may have had a flourish too, but none of us saw what went on in that back room. The chain’s motto is, “In sight it must be right,” but Bernard knew all of the hiding places.
I suppose I should mention that somewhere along the way, Bernard managed to take our orders. As I recall, he got them reasonably correct as well, even though we didn’t all order the same thing.
Several more long moments passed before Bernard reappeared with some chili. With flourishes, of course. With Bernard, there was no other way. Then he threw crackers at everyone who ordered chili. I guess he had some left in his apron, because then he looked straight at me. “Do you want some crackers?” he asked.
Before I could answer, several packages of crackers came flying at me. Then a barrage of crackers hit everyone else at the table. “Dees are de appetizers,” Bernard announced. “The main course will arrive momentarily.”
You see, Bernard had a sophisticated side too. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional annoying, colorful, flamboyant, entitled… twit. (You thought I was going to call him the wrong end of a horse, didn’t you?)
Dinner somehow arrived with minimal incident, or at least, minimal visible incident. I know I thought twice about eating what he brought, but we were all still under 20 and nearly broke, so we ate.
We only saw Bernard once more that night–to bring us our check. What, you were expecting refills? Bernard didn’t do refills. At least not on purpose.
So, with check in hand and no further obligation to Bernard, we walked up to the front register to settle up. Well, actually we had one more obligation: The small matter of Bernard’s tip.
Of course we discussed it. There were five of us, and this was Steak ‘n’ Shake, so a $5 tip would have been minimal and $10 would have been generous. But Bernard’s performance threw all of that out the window. Just leaving nothing was out of the question–then he might think we honestly forgot. We had to leave something. So we all dug into our pockets in search of pennies. Three or four seemed about right. But somehow, none of us had any pennies. None of us had any nickels either.
I had a dime. So I walked back over to the table, placed a single dime on the table near the middle where it would be visible, and walked away. Another friend thought that was a little too subtle. He grabbed a napkin and a pen, drew a dime-sized circle on the napkin, and inscribed the words “YOUR TIP” in large letters along with an arrow pointing toward the circle. He then placed the napkin on the table, and set the dime in its rightful place.
We then departed, and the rest of the details of the night are lost to the ages, other than exchanging a few rude words about our server that night after we piled into the car.
A year or so later, several of us returned to that Steak ‘n’ Shake location. Of course there was one question we were absolutely dying to ask.
“Does Bernard still work here?”
The greeter rolled her eyes. Ah, she remembered him!
“No,” she said flatly.
I remember nothing else about that return visit. Considering it was about 18 years ago, that’s probably the way it should be. It was Steak ‘n’ Shake. The food and service are supposed to be pretty much the same every time.
Not with Bernard though. That’s why he’s the legend.