"You should check out Graber!" My good friend Cath had once said. We were both drunk under a row of glittery string lights, just outside a brewery that I can't remember the name of. "Graber?" "Mm-hmm!" Cath tilted her glass back, smudged with sweat and fingerprints. Cold alcohol ran down her chin and dripped onto her white linen shirt. "Went there a couple years back. Nice place. Good food." "It's called Graber?" I asked, wiping the midsummer sweat from my eyebrows. "G-R-A-B-E-R," Cath spelled it out for me, "One B, not two. Look it up for me, m'kay? Check it out." We both laughed, hard enough so that the couple sitting behind us exchanged worried looks. We didn't care. We ordered more beers and eventually called it a night. I took an Uber home with Cath, forgetting about Graber and not remembering it for another five months.
Mid-December, I found the place Cath was talking about. I was on my way to the new Whole Foods down the street when I almost accidentally bumped into the Graber restaurant. Built next to a closed-down laundromat in the middle of nowhere, business wasn’t exactly booming. There were two cars in the parking lot, both of which I assumed belonged to the employees. I thought about it. Nice food. Good place. Something like that. None of the cars in the lot looked particularly in shape. I figured that whoever worked here was probably being paid minimum wage just to wash dishes every day, and I thought, What the heck. I'll give it a try. Whole Foods was just going to have to wait. I pulled into the parking lot, reading the sign above the door. G-R-A-B-E-R. One B, not two. I climbed out of the car, wrapping myself up in my thin jacket. Peering through the glass door, I looked around the restaurant for any sign of life. A tiny teenage girl wearing a blue crochet beanie was sitting on top of a table, swinging her legs from side to side. I pushed through the door. A bell dinged. The whole place smelled like mildew. "Hi," the girl said, unenthusiastically. "Hello," I returned, glancing around the restaurant. The walls looked bent, the tables looked janky, and the hallways winding around the room had a gauziness to them that reminded me of some images of liminal space I’d seen online. "Are you waiting for your food?" I asked the girl. “No,” she said, tousling her grimy ponytail, “I work here.”
“You work here?”
I paused to look around the restaurant again. The heating ducts had been shut off. There was no sound. Then I said, “Whole Foods is hiring, you know.” She puckered her puffy, wet lips. It occurred to me then that she meticulously resembled a Kardashian (if the Kardashian in question had dyed her hair blue/moved all the way to Toledo to work at a low-rent diner beside a soon-to-be-wrecking-balled laundromat). “Yes, I know.” She replied. “So why don’t you go work there?” The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like it,” “Oh, that . . . . makes sense,” I said. She nodded, as if I’d finally caught on. “So, what do you want to eat?” “Um,” I paused, watching her bulky studded boots hover off the floor, “I don’t know, exactly. What are my options?” She blanked for a few seconds. Then she said, “We have chicken. Do you want chicken?” “Um, I . . . . I’m a vegetarian.” “Oh,” She looked disappointed. “We have . . . . uh, give me a second–” She got up off the table and left, boots clanking all the way. I felt as though I had no other choice but to sit down. She was back a second later, this time with a laminated menu and a nametag pinned to her Foo Fighters shirt. I read the tag. Kelly. Her handwriting looked like that of a third grader’s. “Hi, I will be your waitress for today,” She said in a new, almost professional voice that I didn’t immediately recognize. “Can I start you off with a drink?” I thought about it. “Do you have Coke? Diet Coke?” “Um, no. We have . . . .” She squinted as she read the menu. “Le-mon . . . . Lemonade. Homemade lemonade. Would you like that?” “No, thanks,” I said, “Come to think of it, I have an iced tea in my purse.” That was a lie. “Okay, well, um . . . .” She said, rereading the menu. “Aren’t you supposed to give that to me?” I asked. “Oh, that’s right.” I felt like I was playing restaurant with my four-year-old niece. Kelly handed me the menu. “I’ll just have a salad,” I said, reviewing my options. “Sure. Organic?” “Yes,” I said. It was more of a question than a preference. “I’ll be right out with that,” And she disappeared down the hall for a second time. It was awkward, sitting in a darkened, unheated restaurant all by myself. Two questions. One: What the absolute hell was Cath’s deal? Two: Why had she recommended this place to me, of all people? I glanced around at the unoccupied tables and immediately got my answer. Because she was drunk. Because she was being sarcastic. I groaned. I should’ve left right then and there. But I couldn’t. I was probably Kelly’s only customer in months. Years. Decades? An empathetic part of me felt bad about leaving her there, all alone with a fellow sad employee in an unseen kitchen with my organic salad. That, and within a week or so, at a Christmas party, maybe, I knew I would get to tell my many (three) friends all about Graber’s terrible customer service, and there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if I’d left after ten minutes. So I hung around. “Hey, um,” Kelly said, re-emerging, “I forgot to ask if you wanted iceberg or Romaine.” “What about Batavia?” “Who’s that?” She looked confused. I exhaled through my nose. Of course she didn’t know what Batavia lettuce was. “Never mind. Romaine, please.” “OK. Thank you for, um, clarifying.” Gone.
Twenty long, saladless minutes dragged by. Just to entertain my bored ass, I tried to identify every spelling error/grammatically incorrect sentence on the menu (who spells ‘Strawberry Smoothie’ as ‘Starwbery Smuthy?’). Thinking Cath would find the word ‘Hamagurber’ amusing, I sent her a pic of the menu, with my favorite misspelled phrases underlined in red. She responded with four question marks.
Me: I’M AT GRABER! 🤪
Me: Remember that time we got wasted at that one brewery? The one by the Marina?
Me: You said I should check out Graber! Here I am, at Graber!
Cath: REALLY? OMFG I was far too drunk to be serious, luv.
I sent her another pic, this time of the empty tables.
Me: No shit.
Cath: LOL 🤣
I wanted to tell her it’s really not that funny. But Kelly was back again, this time with my organic Romaine salad sitting in a blue Tupperware container. She plopped it down in front of me, plunking a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette on the table. She dug a dusty fork and knife out of her pocket and set them down neatly beside the container. Guess what? Organic Romaine salad now qualifies as finger food! “Will that be all for you today, ma’am?” Kelly asked. “Yes, thanks.” “OK, um. I’ll . . . . I’ll be back soon with the check.” “Thanks,” I said again. She didn’t leave. She stood there, hovering over me, waiting. Hesitantly, I plucked a reddish tomato from the bowl and put it between my teeth. I chewed. My taste buds were set ablaze. It was unironically the sweetest tomato I’d ever eaten. “Wow,” I said, swallowing briskly, “This is a damn good tomato.” Had she laced it? She must’ve laced it. That was the only logical explanation. Kelly half-smiled. “Um. Thanks. Um, I’ll tell my boyfriend you said that.” “He grew these?” I asked, reaching for another. Laced or not, I could eat about a thousand of those tomatoes in one sitting. Kelly nodded. “Yes, he did. He, um, really likes veggies.” She paused to correct herself. “Fruits. Whatever. He likes to grow stuff.” “Huh, wow. Huh.” I said.
I finished off mystery-boyfriend’s tomatoes within minutes. The salad alone was uninviting. Uninviting, but tolerable, thanks to my little red friends. “Hey,” Kelly said, placing the check on the table, “Um, thanks for . . . . you know, being here. We don’t, um, get a lot of business . . . . in the winter. Graber usually gets ten, fifteen customers per month. So . . . . thanks.” I scoured my purse for my wallet, “Please, it’s my pleasure. Do you accept Visa?”
“Hm. I have a twenty.”
“Well . . . . OK. That’s fine.”
She stuffed the crusty dollar bill into her pocket. “Thanks, have a nice afternoon,” she added, sauntering away. I got up to leave when an idea hit home. “Hey, Kelly?” “Hmm?” She whirled around, as though she were surprised I’d taken the time to remember her name. “Now that Whole Foods is open, more people will see your restaurant from across the street.” “So?” “So, Whole Foods is doing you a huge favor. People will feel, you know, more obligated to stop by, right? Now that a familiar grocery chain’s opening up right next to your place, they’ll feel more . . . . experimental? More comfortable when it comes to trying something new, something different, as long as it’s close and convenient . . . . right?” She processed that. Then she nodded. “Right.” She looked up, all smiles. “Thank you,” she said, like I was the reason Whole Foods had opened. “Mm-hmm,” I replied, slipping her a tip, then heading out the door, maybe not for the last time.
After my Whole Foods marathon, I ran to my computer and looked up Graber on Yelp. There were several reviews, but one in particular caught my eye.
One star. Terrible customer service. Even worse food. Never taking my children to this atrocity of a ‘restaurant’ again.
I responded. ‘Even worse food?’ Haha. You, Donna, clearly did not order the organic Romaine salad. And left a comment of my own.
Damn good tomatoes.