We arrive relieved and a little breathless from the din. We almost didn’t find it; I had considered giving up.
But there it is on 6th Street, just past the tortilla place. Here is something different from the rest of Las Vegas: low ceiling, warm light, a host who enjoys the word “patio.”
He invites us to sit inside, in that low, warm room, or upstairs on the rooftop patio. But it’s “patioooo,” he says, drawing out the “o” because he likes patios or the “o” sound, or because he thinks the patio is where we should sit. And we do.
On that rooftop, the ceiling is all string-lights. Somewhere above them hangs the neon haze of Las Vegas. And above that, presumably, are stars, night sky, ascendant heavens, even (rumored) planets. A satellite blinking along.
But we are grounded at a table for two. And near us, a merry crowd is moored around three tables pressed together.
Theirs is a meal at its close: plates scraped clean, napkins wrung out and exhausted on table-top or under chairs. Wine bottles empty and glasses going that way. Six adults in Las Vegas, but without that glaze-eyed-look. They are laughing, leaning in, bright like string-lights.
And we are talking to our host about the menu, about the restaurant, about nearby Fremont Street and this refuge of warm wood and a menu drawn up by hand.
Then the host calls him over: the young man seated on the corner of the pressed-together tables. He stands, and I see the apron at his waist. He is one of their chefs.
He might be twenty-two. Maybe twenty-four, at the most.
We talk with him for a few minutes. Where he is from, how he came to be here. How he likes living in Vegas, how he likes working here. And they, he tells us, turning his chin toward his shoulder, are his family. Some of them live in town, but that one is his mother, just come to visit, he says, to see him at his new job. She’s going home tomorrow morning, early. It’s been a good visit.
He leaves us, rejoins his family, and Bill and I are happy to retreat to ourselves, anticipating the menu’s implications. I have ordered the salmon; Bill is getting the steak. Our host has insisted on the macaroni and cheese: it’s a family recipe and he is from Wisconsin. But first we enjoy the tempura green beans served with the brilliant miracle they call pepper jelly cream cheese.
From where I sit, dipping beans in cream cheese, Fremont Street’s panic seems almost impossible. The strobe lights, the neon; the girl in glittering bikini turning twenty hula hoops on her waist; the ring and clatter of the slot machines–all of it has dissolved under these lights. Here we have a friendly chef, a kind server, a host who likes words, green beans.
The chef’s family has left their table. They are disbanding, each taking a turn with the young chef in an embrace, a handshake. They move toward the stairs, but I’m not watching them: my salmon has arrived and I am taken with it, with its puree of spinach, with the way salmon breaks and folds so easily in the mouth. And Bill and I are having our Las-Vegas conversation, our wheat-and-chaff conversation, our practice of looking for beauty where much is not beautiful.
That’s when I see her: the chef’s mother, descending the stairs. She is with someone–her sister, perhaps–and that someone is turned toward her, talking. But I watch this mother, who can’t be that much older than I. She is listening to the one speaking to her, but watching her son as she descends the stairs, hoping, I would think, to catch his eye.
She leaves tomorrow early. She won’t see him again this visit. He is talking with a server, his apron hanging at his waist, hands on his hips. He has already said goodbye.
But still I think of her descending, watching her boy, holding–as she can’t help it–those things she knows of his childhood: his love for food, perhaps; the way he learned to make pancakes; the mobile above his crib of the solar system, planets suspended like string lights; the ceiling spangled in glow-in-the-dark stars.