The Blue Bistroby Elin Hilderbrand
A new novel by the author of The Beach Club and Summer People about the last summer in the life of a popular Nantucket restaurant
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The Blue Bistro
By Elin Hilderbrand
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Elin Hilderbrand
All rights reserved.
Adrienne needed a job.
She arrived on Nantucket Island with two maxed-out credit cards, forty borrowed dollars, and three rules scribbled on an Amtrak cocktail napkin. She spent seven of the dollars on a dorm bed at the hostel in Surfside and slept with the cocktail napkin under her pillow. When she awoke the next morning in a room full of slumbering college students, she read the rules again. Rule One: Become self-sufficient. Rule Two: Do not lie about past. Rule Three: Exercise good judgment about men. The last thing Adrienne had done before leaving Aspen was to turn her boyfriend, Doug, in to the authorities. Doug had been living with Adrienne in the basement of the Little Nell, where Adrienne worked as a concierge; he had been stealing money from the hotel rooms to buy cocaine, and he had stolen more than two thousand dollars from Adrienne.
Adrienne quietly slipped into clothes and stashed her belongings in a locker, which was free until noon. She set out into the bright but chilly May morning with her money and the napkin, repeating a tip that a man had given her on the ferry the night before. A tip about a job.
The Blue Bistro, 27 North Beach Extension. The man who suggested this place was a freelance writer who had been coming to Nantucket for over twenty years. He came across as a normal guy, despite his square wire-rimmed glasses, thirty years out of style, and the way he licked his lips every five seconds, as though Adrienne were a T-bone steak. They had started chatting casually over the ketchup dispenser at the snack bar. He asked her if she was coming to Nantucket for a vacation. And Adrienne had laughed and said, Hardly. I need a job. I need money.
If it's money you want, the man had said, the Blue Bistro is where you should go.
I don't work in restaurants, Adrienne had said. I work in hotels. At the front desk. I'm a hotel person.
There's a hotel down the street from the bistro, the man had said. He paused, wet his lips. But, like I said, if it's money you want ...
Adrienne walked to the North Beach Extension, stopping twice for directions. The road was quiet. There were a few houses along the way but most of them were still boarded up; one had a crew of painters working. Then, to the right, Adrienne saw a parking lot and a one-story cedar-shingled building with a green slate roof, all by itself on a stretch of windswept beach. Adrienne stopped in the road. This was the restaurant. The hotel, as the man on the ferry had described it, was down the street on the left. She should go to the hotel. But then she caught a scent of roasting meat and she thought about money. She decided it couldn't hurt to check the place out.
A sign taped to the front door read: THE BLUE BISTRO, OPENING FOR ITS FINAL SEASON JUNE 1ST. Adrienne perused the menu. The food was expensive, it sounded delicious, and her stomach complained. She'd trekked halfway across the island without any breakfast.
She peered in the dark window, wondering what she might say. She had never worked in a restaurant before; she knew nothing about the business except that it was, prostitution aside, the quickest way to make money. She supposed she could lie and say that she'd waited tables in college. She could pick up the skills once she started. Kyra, her desk manager at the Little Nell, had told her that waiting tables was a piece of cake. Nantucket had been Kyra's idea. After the whole disaster with Doug, Kyra suggested that Adrienne get as far away from the Rocky Mountains as possible. If it's money you want, Nantucket is where you should go.
Adrienne tried the door. Locked. She tapped on a windowpane. Hello? She felt like the Little Match Girl, hungry and tired, bereft and friendless. Can you save me?
She thought of her father, at that minute probably elbow deep in a root canal. Since Adrienne's mother died, his concern for Adrienne's well-being seemed so heavy as to actually pull the corners of his mouth into a frown. He worried about her all the time. He worried that she was too adventurous, working in all these exotic locales where the men weren't necessarily principled. And he was right to worry. He was so right that Adrienne hadn't been able to tell him how guests of the Little Nell had been complaining about cash missing from their rooms and about how Kyra had interrogated the battalion of Mexican chambermaids. When the chambermaids proved a dead end, Kyra had come to Adrienne and asked if she had any idea who might be taking the money. Adrienne was confused about why Kyra was asking her but then, somehow, she realized that Kyra meant Doug. Doug, who had lost his job in February and whose behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. Doug, who traveled down-valley several times a week to visit a "friend" in Carbondale. Adrienne had snuck down to their basement apartment while she was supposed to be at work. She found her hotel master key card in the pocket of Doug's ski jacket. And then, on a second dreadful hunch, she checked the tampon box where she saved her tips, the money for her Future, which she had always thought of with a capital "F"—money for something bigger and better down the road, a house, a wedding, a business. The box was empty. He had stolen her Future; he had snorted it. Instead of killing Doug herself, Adrienne followed Kyra's advice and called the Pitkin County police. They caught him robbing the Alpine Suite in the middle of the day. He was arrested for larceny and possession, and Adrienne left town in the midst of his court proceedings, flat broke.
She had only asked her father for a small loan—two hundred dollars—enough to get her back east on the train and set up someplace else. But he must have sensed something in her voice, because he sent her three hundred, no questions asked.
Adrienne heard someone shout, "Hey!" She whipped around. A man was striding toward her from a silver pickup truck in the parking lot. She smiled at him, squinting in a way that she hoped conveyed her innocence. I'm not trying to rob you. I just want ... a job? When he got closer, she saw he had red-gold hair and freckles—he was a man who looked like a twelve-year-old boy. His hand shot out as though he'd been expecting her.
"Thatcher Smith," he said. "Thatch."
"Oh. Uh." Adrienne was so nervous, she couldn't remember her name. The man raised his pale eyebrows expectantly, waiting for her to identify herself. "Adrienne."
"Adrienne Dealey." His tone of voice said, Of course, Adrienne Dealey, like they had an appointment. "Can I help you, Adrienne?"
Adrienne opened her mouth but no sound came out. So much for knocking them dead with her confidence and charm.
Thatcher Smith laughed. A short, one-syllable "ha!" Loud and spontaneous, as if she had karate-chopped his funny bone. "Cat got your tongue?"
"I guess," she said. "Sorry. I came for a job. Is there an application or something I can fill out?"
"Application?" He looked at her in a strange but pleasant way, as though he'd never heard the word before.
"Don't you work here?" Adrienne asked.
"I own here."
"Oh." The owner? Adrienne took another look at this guy. He was about six feet tall with sloping shoulders, strawberry blond hair, green eyes, freckles. He wore jeans, running shoes, a red fleece jacket that was almost too bright to look at in the morning sun. She couldn't tell if he resembled Huckleberry Finn or if it was just the name, Thatcher—like Becky Thatcher—that summoned the image. He had a clean, friendly Midwestern vibe about him. He wasn't handsome so much as wholesome looking. Adrienne corrected her posture and cleared her throat. She was so destitute it was hard to feel impressive. "Would it be okay if I filled out an application, then?"
"We don't have any applications. It's not that kind of place. I do all the hiring face-to-face. What kind of job are you after? Front of the house? Back of the house? Because I can tell you right now, we're not hiring any back of the house."
Adrienne had no idea what he was talking about. She was after money, a thick wad of twenties she could roll out like a Mafia boss.
"I thought maybe I could wait tables?"
"Do you have any experience?" Thatcher asked.
I waited tables in college, she thought. But she couldn't make herself say it.
"None," she said. "But I'm willing to learn. Someone told me it's a piece of cake."
Thatcher laughed again—"ha!" He moved past her to the door of the restaurant and took a giant ring of keys from his jacket pocket. Adrienne noticed a wooden dory by the front of the restaurant filled with fresh soil. They probably grew flowers in the dory all summer. That was a nice touch. This was a nice restaurant. Too nice for Adrienne. If she wanted to be self-sufficient, she would have to sell her laptop.
"Never mind," Adrienne said. "Thanks for your time."
She turned to leave, making an alternate plan of attack. Back to the road, down the street to the hotel. After she filled out an application there, she would have to surrender some of her money for breakfast.
"You understand?" Thatcher said. "I can't exactly hire you to wait tables when you've had no experience."
"I understand," Adrienne said. "I was just checking. Someone I met on the boat told me how great your restaurant was. He also said there's a hotel down here?"
"The Nantucket Beach Club and Hotel," Thatcher said. "But Mack won't hire you without experience either."
"I have hotel experience," Adrienne said. "I just came from Aspen. I worked at the Little Nell."
Thatcher's pale eyebrows shot up. "The Little Nell?"
She nodded. "You've heard of it?"
"Of course, yeah. What did you do there?"
"Front desk," she said. "Concierge."
Thatcher pointed his head at the open door. "Are you hungry?" The door of the restaurant swung open. "I was going to have an omelet. Would you like to join me?"
Adrienne glanced back at the sandy road. She should go. An omelet, though, sounded tempting. "I don't know," she said.
"Oh, come on," Thatcher said. "I hate to eat alone." He ushered Adrienne in. The roasting meat and garlic smell was so overpowering that Adrienne nearly fell to her knees in hunger. What had she had for dinner last night on the ferry? A hotdog that had spent seven hours spinning on a rack and a cup of gluey clam chowder.
"Someone's cooking?" she said.
"My partner," Thatcher said. "She never sleeps. Follow me. I'll give you the grand tour."
When they stepped inside the front door, Adrienne was overcome with anxiety. She checked her watch, a jogging watch with an altimeter. It was just after ten o'clock; she was three feet above sea level. What was she doing? She had to find a job today. Still, she trailed Thatcher, trying to seem polite and interested. Free food, she thought. Omelet.
Thatcher stopped at an oak podium. "This is the host station, where we greet guests and make reservations. We have two public phone lines and a private line. The private line is very private, but sometimes guests get ahold of it. Don't ask me how."
He led her past a bar topped with a shiny slab of blue-gray stone. "Now here," he said proudly, "is our blue granite bar. We found the stone in a quarry in northern Vermont." The wall behind the bar was stocked with bottles on oak shelves. "We only sell call and top shelf. I don't ever want to drink Popov and I don't want my guests drinking it. Not in here," Thatcher said. There were two small tables in the bar area and a black baby grand piano. "We have live music six nights a week. My guy knows everything from Rodgers and Hart to Nirvana." Down two steps was the dining room, maybe twenty tables, all with views of the ocean. The restaurant had no walls—it was open from the waist up. In winter, Adrienne could see, they hung plastic sheeting to keep the wind and sand out. There was an awning skeleton off the back. They placed six tables under the awning on a deck, Thatcher said, and four four-tops out in the sand under the stars.
"Those are the fondue tables," he said. "It makes a royal mess."
They returned to the bar, where the tables were set with white tablecloths, china, silver, wineglasses. Thatcher indicated Adrienne should sit.
"Let me take your jacket," he said.
"I'll keep it on," Adrienne said.
"You're going to eat with your jacket on?" he said.
She handed him her purple Patagonia Gore-Tex that she'd bought with an employee discount from the ski shop at the Little Nell, and lowered herself daintily into a white wicker chair, as though she were accustomed to having breakfast in glamorous bistros like this all the time. Thatcher hung up her jacket then disappeared into the back, leaving Adrienne alone.
"The Blue Bistro," she said to herself. This was the kind of place that Doug would have called, disparagingly, "gourmet"; if it wasn't deep-fried or residing between two pieces of bread, Doug didn't want to eat it. Prison food would suit him fine.
Adrienne took a white napkin off her plate and unfolded it on her lap. She lifted the fork; it was heavy, beautiful silver. And the charger—she flipped it over. Limoges. She replaced the plate quickly—this was the restaurant equivalent of checking someone's medicine cabinet. Before she could inspect the pedigree of the stemware, Thatcher was back with two glasses of juice.
"Fresh-squeezed," he said. "The last of the blood oranges." He set the glasses down then disappeared again.
Adrienne eyed her glass. "The last of the blood oranges," she whispered. The juice was the fiery pink of some rare jewel. Was it okay to take a sip before he got back? Adrienne listened for noises from the kitchen. It was silent. She took a deep breath. The air smelled like something else now: toast. Hunger and thirst, she thought. They'd get you every time. Thatcher hurried out of the kitchen with two plates and set one in front of Adrienne with a flourish, as though she were someone very important.
It was the best omelet Adrienne had ever eaten. Perfectly cooked so that the eggs were soft and buttery. Filled with sautéed onions and mushrooms and melted Camembert cheese. There were three roasted cherry tomatoes on the plate, skins splitting, oozing juice. Nutty wheat toast. Thatch had brought butter and jam to the table. The butter was served like a tiny cheesecake on a small pedestal under a glass dome. The jam was apricot, homemade, served from a Ball jar.
Adrienne dug in, wondering where to start in the way of conversation. She decided the only safe thing was to talk about the food.
"This jam reminds me of when I was little," Adrienne said, spreading a thick layer on her toast. "My mother made jam."
"Is she a good cook?" Thatcher said.
Adrienne paused. Rule Two: Do not lie about past! But it was hard when someone hurled a question at her like a pitch she couldn't hit.
For Adrienne, the silence that followed was studded with guilt. She should have just said, "She was," but then, by necessity, there would be tedious personal explanations about ovarian cancer and a motherless twelve-year-old that she was never in the mood for. She would rather talk about her felonious ex-boyfriend and her empty Future. It's okay, she thought. She would never see this guy again after today and she vowed she would tell the truth to the next person she met. Her mother was dead.
"Well," Adrienne said. "This is the most delicious breakfast I've ever had in my life."
"I'll tell Fee," he said. "She likes to feed people."
Adrienne ate every bite of her eggs and mopped up the tomato juices with her bread crust and drained her juice glass, thinking to herself—Manners, manners! Turn the fork upside down on the plate when you're finished, very European. If nothing else, this would make a great e-mail to her father. Her first morning on Nantucket she ends up eating a breakfast of champions in a restaurant that wasn't even open.
She collapsed in her chair, drunk with food, in love with this restaurant. If she ever caught up enough to pay off her credit cards and refund her father with interest, she'd come here for dinner and order the foie gras. "Why is it your last season?" she asked.
"Ahhh," Thatcher said. He pushed away his plate—half his omelet remained and Adrienne stared at it, wondering how audacious it would be to ask if she might finish it. Thatcher propped his elbows on the table and tented his fingers. Even his fingers, Adrienne noticed, were freckled. "The time has come."
The time has come? That was a noncommittal answer, an art form Adrienne wished she could perfect. So she, too, had asked a tricky question. In the interest of changing the subject, Adrienne offered up something else.
"I just got here last night."
"You've never been to the island before?"
"You came straight from Aspen?"
"I'm intrigued by the Little Nell. They say it's the best."
"One of. Relais and Chateaux and all that. They gave me housing."
"In the hotel?"
"That must have been sweet."
"It was okay," Adrienne said. She and Doug had lived in a studio apartment with his retriever, Jax, even though pets weren't allowed. No pets, no drugs, no stealing from the rooms!
"Did you go out at night?" Thatcher asked.
"My bartender here, Duncan, works at the Board Room in Aspen all winter. You ever go there?"
Excerpted from The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand. Copyright © 2005 Elin Hilderbrand. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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