Not harried help with a grimace.
Not a smile paired with the total cluelessness that you might actually need a fork to get that food into your mouth and that you might want your meal before it is the temperature of that guy's body they found on Mt. Everest.
I'm talking about service that makes sure you have everything you need; service that checks back in again before the bill is slapped down; service that suggests you might want to reward it at some point. And the cherry on top: Service that doesn't try to make you feel bad that you're being waited on.
It's out there. And in places where you'd least expect it -- in restaurants where the waitstaff isn't pulling in $50 a table and the atmosphere doesn't make you nervous that dog hair from your suit is going to leap onto the tablecloth. Places where "No problem" comes as easily as "I'll take that when you're ready."
Places like Papa J's Italian Restaurant and Lounge.
Of course, unlike so many upstart eateries these days, Papa J's has had some time to practice the art of service. This Westminster spot has been serving up red sauce since 1976, when Julius and Antoinette Giraldi decided that between his artistic skills and her recipes, they could make a go of it. Now in their eighties, the Giraldis have long since "retired," but Papa J still comes in every day for three or fours hours to make some sauce and check on things, and every Saturday night he plays violin for his customers.
Nine years ago, one of the Giraldis' sons, Mark, took over. "They'd been in the restaurant business since the Depression," Mark says. "And we all kind of wanted to keep it in the family. Through the years, everyone in the family, and even our friends, helped out with the place, but I wound up being the one who wanted it the most."
It would be hard to let go of a place with such a story, one that's told all over its walls. Papa J's may have the typical red-checkered tablecloths and grapevines hanging from the ceiling that other Italian joints have, but it's the only one where nearly all the possible wall space is covered with some 200 celebrity caricatures, all drawn by Papa J and most of which were eventually signed by the celebrities themselves. Frank's there, and he signed. Bing Crosby, Bill Cosby, Pat O'Brien, Mitzi Gaynor, Joe Namath, John Elway -- they all signed. The Pope didn't sign.
It looks like Elvis signed, but it's a fake. There was one with a real Elvis signature once, but Papa J gave it away a long time ago to a little girl who smiled at him. "That's my dad," Mark says, sighing a little. "Can you imagine what that would be worth?"
Probably less than Papa J's own smile, since that's what got all of those celeb signatures to begin with.
"When all of these people would come to entertain at the old Elitch's or at the Denver Center, Papa J would draw their pictures, and then he'd go down to the show and somehow talk his way in to seeing them," Mark says. "He'd make them sign it, and then he'd ask them to come out and eat at the restaurant. And a lot of them did. And if they said they didn't have time or couldn't, he'd make up a big thing of food and take it back to them. And to this day, you'd be surprised at how many of them still keep in touch, send notes and call, send updated photos and autographs. It's amazing."
Papa J doesn't draw anymore, and Mark's not an artist. "Now I have to keep the restaurant alive, make it competitive with the chains, and it's a lot harder than it was back then for my father," he says. "We're lucky, though, that we have people here who've been with us for fifteen, twenty years."
It probably has more to do with the kind of place Papa J's must be to work rather than luck, though, because although one server has been there for nineteen years and a cook for twenty, most of the staff is young. But you'd never know it by the way they act, like the teenaged gal who asked me if I needed her to escort my daughter to the ladies' room. Since I was trying to settle the other one into a booster, I was grateful. "No problem," she said.
And that's how the rest of two meals went, with all the details -- extra napkins, drink refills, to-go containers, silverware with every course, more butter, less air conditioning -- anticipated and taken care of promptly and with so much good cheer that I thought Bing had leapt off the wall and we were in the middle of "White Christmas."