We have just sat down at a curbside café table under a sun awning, on a busy avenue full of tourists. They’re mostly European Union folk, celebrating this mid-May day during the Queima das Fitas, the weeklong celebration of the end of the university year.
“No – this is fine. It’s fun to watch the passing crowd,” I say to Jorge, our 20-something waiter.
“Here is your menu!” he replies with great enthusiasm. “Look at the wonderful combo plates at the front! Check out the pictures.”
I quickly scan the prices three pages in, for simple fish dishes like squid, sardines and cod. They are all 9 to 11 euros (about Cdn$15 to $18 with tip).
Jorge sees my focus on the simple plates and tries one more time with the combo plates.
“How much are they?” I ask him.
“Only 49 euros,” he replies.
I think about having a $73.50-a-plate lunch and decline. We order two barbecue sardine plates.
“With red or white wine? Or beer? Or perhaps the specialty ports of Portugal?”
We order two white wines by the glass.
“Care for a bottle?”
“How about starters? Salad, soup, oysters?”
“No – we’ll go with our main course first,” I reply.
Off Jorge rushes to the kitchen. In a matter of seconds, he’s back with a charcuterie platter, a side plate of various cheeses and a basket of rolls. “You will only be charged for what you eat!” he smiles as the various plates and platters are arrayed on the table.
My wife and I smile back at Jorge, but say nothing. We look at the sliced meats and cheeses. They look a bit weary. Soon Jorge is back at table-side. “Do you want any?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I reply as all of the food on the table is whisked away to another table.
Next, the main courses arrive. The sardines are served three large fish to a plate, with an accompanying boiled potato. The whole presentation is beautiful, fresh and actually enticing. As we look on with knives and forks poised, Jorge is once again table-side.
“How about a side of French fries to go with your sardines?” he smilingly enquires. “Maybe you have changed your mind and want a salad now?”
“No thanks,” I ritually reply. “We’re both fine with our main course choices.”
We begin to eat and the sardines are lovely. We even understand that they’re to be eaten in their entirety – including heads and tails. The accompanying potato is also just right.
Jorge tries again: “How about a fine port?”
It’s becoming difficult to think of a new version of “No.” “No, thank you,” will have to suffice.
Soon we’ve finished the sardines and contemplate dessert. Jorge has read our minds and is table-side in an instant. “We have crème caramel, hazelnut ice cream and chocolate cake, which I am sure the lady desires!”
We take his counsel seriously and smile at one another. Chocolate cake it is – for her; hazelnut ice cream for me.
“Would you care for some crème de menthe on your ice cream, sir?”
“No thank you.”
Less than a minute later, the desserts arrive. They’re magnificent. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jorge quietly watching us tuck in.
“You must have coffee! How about Americanos with hot milk on the side? The perfect ending to your desserts.”
“Yes, we will both have Americanos with milk on the side,” we reply almost in unison.
“How about some brandy in your coffees?” offers Jorge.
“No thank you, Jorge,” I reply using his name for the first time.
After the Americanos are drunk, I request the bill. Jorge is soon table-side with an itemized listing of our lunch. “Thirty-eight euros, but with my recommended tip of 4 euros, it comes to 42 euros. What do you think?”
“Forty-two euros is fine with us,” I respond. “Here’s a 50-euro note.”
“I must get change for such a big note as this,” Jorge responds with a smile. He hesitates, watching my reaction before he departs. For the bank, I assume.
Finally he returns. “I had to go to the bank,” he says as he hands me eight euros. “I most sincerely hoped you enjoyed your meal!”
You know, we did.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.