I am easily intimidated by waiters in high-class restaurants. I apologize for taking their time and fidget in shame for not knowing that cotelette de porc frais is nothing more esoteric than a pork chop.
Mickey, my automobile mechanic, who reads books written by obscure poets, knows that cotelette de porc frais is a pork chop, and so does the Peruvian who pulls weeds in the neighborhood.
But I have somehow bumbled through life without adequate grounding in either dining lore or the culinary arts, and my self-confidence sinks to zero when I walk into a good restaurant. I have nightmares about it occasionally.
I dream I am at a place like Chasen's. As I follow the maitre d' to a table, my pants fall down, exposing a behind tattooed with gang graffiti. I pray no one will notice as I struggle to walk with my double-knits around my ankles. I almost make it to the table when a woman screams and points, and I wake up yelling and thrashing.
The roots of my insecurity lie in childhood. There were no fine restaurants in East Oakland. We ate pork chops, I mean po'k chops, not cotelette de porc frais , and we chowed down rather than dined.
Placing me in a fine restaurant with that kind of background is like asking Ronald Reagan to discuss logic at a meeting of the Mensa Society. It is cruel beyond words.
My job, however, requires that I rise above my roots occasionally and dine at someplace other than Denny's. La Famiglia, perhaps, or even Larry Parker's 24-hour Beverly Hills Diner.
At such times, I compensate for my whimpery lack of self-esteem by ordering whatever costs the most and by lavishly over-tipping. A restaurant in Venice called Sculpture Gardens was created for guys like me. They hand customers a menu without prices and let them determine how much to pay for each item. I was doomed from the start.
My wife was not a bit shaken by either the refined atmosphere of the restaurant or by the necessity to fix a fair price for the dinner. She walks into places like that with serene self-confidence. I trail behind like her nervous Puerto Rican houseboy.
"Stay calm," she says soothingly as we settle at a table. "I'll have them bring you a paper napkin if it will make you feel more comfortable."
"I don't want to call attention to myself," I whisper.
"You'll do fine. Just remember not to lick your spoon."
Sculpture Gardens blends art, classical music and good food into what restaurant critics like to call a "dining experience." It is owned by a psychiatrist named Jerome Rowitch, who knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to leave us to our sense of fair play to determine the cost of dinner.
Shrinks are aware that people like me are fools when it comes to fair play, not only paying more than necessary but offering in a burst of plebeian good will to help out in the kitchen afterward. That kind of gullibility, combined with my utter lack of self-confidence, makes me the perfect victim of a priceless menu.
Rowitch does not offer the no-price menu every night, by the way. I just happened to be there at the right time, or the wrong time, if you prefer.
My wife loves this kind of adventure.
She's fond of saying "This is fun!" under circumstances that try those of lesser mettle. She said it once when we were trapped in a blinding snowstorm in Colorado, and again in a tent surrounded by hungry lions in Africa.
"It's not fun!" I shouted in Africa. "Fun is when you are likely to live through the experience! Fun involves warmth and pleasure! Sex is fun! Lions are dangerous!"
She also said "This is fun" at Sculpture Gardens as we swept through a menu that would choke a goat: roasted peppers in a mustard honey dressing, smoked rainbow trout, stuffed mushrooms, lemon linguini, rabbit in a Cabernet sauce and white chocolate cheesecake in a warm raspberry puree to rub over our bloated bodies.
I even ate flowers that were placed on our plates, assuming they were meant to be eaten, though I noticed my wife didn't touch hers.
Sated with food and warmed by wine, we came at last to the end of the meal and to (shudder) the dinner tab. Each item was listed, but there was a price on nothing.
"Don't say 'This is fun,' " I warned her. "This is terrifying. I don't know what to put down."
"Be brave," she said. "Pretend you're Ollie North."
That's exactly what I did, and I ended up with a bill for $105, which I will have to pay myself. The L.A. Times is not about to spring a C-note for chow. An editor pointed out to me once he could eat lunch for a month on a hundred dollars.
What I paid for dinner, I learned later, was about 10% above the real menu price, which wasn't bad when you consider I'm never sure what cotelette de porc frais is and never ate flowers before in my life.
"Wasn't that fun?" my wife said later.
More fun than walking half-naked through Chasen's anyhow.