My father-in-law, George Crowder aka The Guv’nor, opened the Red Lion in 1956 and was well known as one of the “lions” in the world of Houston restaurateurs. And it is because of him that I get to sit in the rocking chair out front of the Duck.
Some of you folks may recall the Red Lion as the place where you would eat prime rib and then pose for pictures outside by the London taxi before heading off to your Senior Prom. It was during the late 70’s of the 1900’s that I began my “career” in the restaurant business when I began working for my f-i-l at the Lion.
Okay, I realize this may sound like nepotism … but let me explain .. prior to working at the Lion I was the manager of a grocery store (for those who may remember, Weingarten’s), and then moved on to being a salesman for a food distributor, a “tradesman” or “purveyor,” as George called my job of selling “gourmet” delights including fancy mustards and meats to the grocery stores that I had previously managed, so my work experience was somewhat based around food.
I have to say that there some pretty nice perks to being a salesman, one of the best parts was being able to set my own hours. This was way before the days of “flex time” and “hybrid hours” of today’s working world. I would start every morning with breakfast with my fellow purveyors at the Denny’s closest to the office and then we would all head out to our accounts.
Once my rounds were made and orders were placed the rest of the day was mine. I could often be found getting a nice tan on the tennis courts with George and his fellow restaurant owner friends. I was what he called a “ringer” among his friends. Did I mention that I was 26 at the time while George and his friends were collecting social security?
Well, one afternoon after tennis we were celebrating our victory on the court with a couple of tall boys at a picnic table in the shade of the pin oaks near the courts. The conversation drifted to restaurant talk as it often did. George had expressed concern that the OTC (Offshore Technology Conference) at the Astrodome was coming up soon and that he was short-handed in the bar.
I didn’t really know what a bar-back was but it occurred to me that I could work behind the bar. I could learn to make fancy drinks for my friends. This seemed like a great idea! I told George that I would be happy to help during the convention, so before I knew it I was signed up for my first OTC. I went immediately out and bought every Holland House bar mix that was stocked at Spec’s to ready myself to utilize what were soon to be my new skills as a bar-back.
I soon came to find what a bar-back actually does during a convention. Wash glasses. Many, many, many, glasses, all while stooped over a sink built for a person much shorter than me, so that the bartender (he must have been the bar front) can make and serve the drinks. I believe that this Is where the phrase “oh, my aching back” was coined.
As fate would have it, not long after the OTC ended, George’s part time maître d’ quit. I was offered the position. Again, I needed to do a little research so that I would know what a maitre’d actually did. What I learned was that the most important part of the job was managing the service staff and ensuring that guests received impeccable service. Seemed easy enough to me. I went out and bought a new suit and voilá, I was a maître d’ on Wednesdays after I got off work at my day job of being a salesman.
There was one problem with this maître d’ thing. The first, and what was apparently one of the most important parts of this job, according to George, was to offer a warm greeting to every guest. Have I mentioned that I am shy? Well, I am. And way back then, I was even more shy. Sure, I could hold my own, one on one. But being a public facing person was not my strong suit. My first night, standing at the front door in my brand new suit, I thought “Please don’t anyone come in.” “Please don’t let anyone come in.” “Please don’t let anyone come in.”
Now, I guess you know that little mantra is not exactly what a professional restaurant man should be practicing. I think George may have noticed my hesitancy.
Now, George was known far and wide as a genial host. Both Houston newspapers, The Chronicle and the Post (remember when we had not one, but two major local papers?) had written pieces on George, The Guv’nor, and his bigger than life personality. I remember one titled, “He brought a London cab to Texas” and one was about his mustache.
George was no stranger to publicity. And he was loved by the public. He always had a story to tell or a joke to share.
This is the man who asked me, his shy son-in-law, and brand new part time maître d’, to join him in the Churchill Pub for a drink. He removed a notebook and a velvet Crown Royal bag from his suit pocket.
The notebook contained “punch-lines” for his stories and the the Crown Royal bag contained 2 walnuts. You will have to work out for yourself what the story was that involved the walnuts.
The Guv’nor shared with me that even he, the most genial host in the restaurant business, occasionally needed a reminder of a good story to share with his guests. He also encouraged me to change my mantra from “Please don’t let anyone come in” to something along the lines of “It’s so nice to see you.” “Allow me to show you to your table.”
We have some great shows on the horizon. Hope to see you soon.
It will be so nice to see you and it will be my delight to show you to your table. 😎