This is one of those columns — I haven't done one in a while — that has absolutely nothing to do with comics or newspaper
strips or TV or show business or anything you'll find advertised elsewhere in this publication.
We have here three stories about things that happened to me in restaurants. They are all true. No one could make up stuff like this. No
one would bother.
One evening, I wanted a mushroom pizza. Not a big "want," you would think. A pizza with mushrooms on it. That's all. That's why I went
to the Piece-O'-Pizza that evening: Just getting a mushroom pizza is all.
According to the chart on the wall, a plain cheese pizza was $5.00 and each additional topping was a buck. Ergo, pizza with mushrooms
would be $6.00. Simple enough. But there was another sign over by the cash register and it said that the Pizza of the Month, whatever it was that
month, was five bucks.
I don't know how they determined the Pizza of the Month. I know I never voted. If I had, it wouldn't have been pepperoni-and-mushrooms
because I don't much care for pepperoni.
But I do like mushrooms and that's howcome this got complicated. Because it suddenly seemed to me that I oughta be able to get my
mushroom pizza for five dollars, not six. If pepperoni-and-mushrooms was five, why should I pay six for just mushrooms?
I asked the counterman about this and he told me that the only pizza that was on special was pepperoni/mushroom; anything else was six
"But," said I, Prince of Logic that I am, "if you'll give me pepperoni and mushrooms for five, how come you'd charge me a dollar more
for one less topping?"
The man said, "I don't make the rules. A mushroom pizza is six dollars."
"Okay," I said, feeling so clever I could implode, "then give me one of those five dollar pepperoni-mushroom pizzas...and hold the
pepperoni." Brilliant, right? Jack Nicholson would have been proud of me.
He headed for the kitchen with the order, then thought a second and turned back to me. "If I hold the pepperoni from a
pepperoni-mushroom pizza, it becomes a mushroom pizza and I have to charge you six dollars for it."
"No, no," I said. "It's not a mushroom pizza! It's a pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza without the pepperoni on it."
"Then it's a mushroom pizza."
"Only if you choose to view it as such. If you want to think of it as a pepperoni-mushroom pizza without the pepperoni on it, you can
charge me five dollars for it." By now, you should have caught on to the fact that the dollar was no longer the issue; the logical order of the
universe was at stake.
The counterman thought for a second. I guess he was sure I was tricking him somehow and was trying to figure out how. Finally, he
countered, "Why don't you just get a pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza for five dollars and pick the pepperoni off?"
I protested, "I don't want to pick the pepperoni off. Most of the cheese comes with it and you can still taste the pepperoni on what
remains. I shouldn't have to pick the pepperoni off."
We went around and around like this for...oh, I don't know how long. A lot longer than the topic was worth, that's for sure. Finally,
he said to me, "The only way I can give you a pizza with mushrooms on it for five dollars is if it also has pepperoni on it. If you don't want the
pepperoni, it's a mushroom pizza and that's six dollars." From the way he said it, I gathered it might be dangerous to pursue the matter much
further. But there had to be a way...
And then I thought of it. "I'd like one of your mushroom and pepperoni specials for five dollars please," I said. And then I added:
"And could I have mine with one piece of pepperoni only on it?"
The counterman stared at me: One piece of pepperoni?
I said yes: One piece of pepperoni.
He shrugged, decided that still made it a mushroom-pepperoni pizza and so went back and made it. I paid five dollars for it, went home,
picked the one piece of pepperoni off and...let me tell you: I never enjoyed (nor worked so hard for) a mushroom pizza in all my life.
That was Story #1. Here's Story #2.
My favorite joke is the one about the guy who goes into a lunch counter, asks for a menu and the waiter tells him, "We don't have menus
here. Our kitchen is well-stocked and our chef knows every recipe in the world. Order anything you like and, if we can't serve it, we'll give you one
The man sees a chance to make some money so he thinks of something impossible. "Bring me an order of hummingbird tongues on rye toast,"
he tells the waiter.
"Coming right up, sir," the waiter says. He disappears into the kitchen and returns, moments later, with a plate. "One order of
hummingbird tongues on rye toast. Will there be anything else?"
The man thinks for a second, then says, "Bring me a fondue made during a total eclipse from the nostril hair of a moose named Phillip
and poured over rutabaga-flavored noodles that were imported by Gavin McLeod from a hardware store in Bolivia. I want it accompanied by a croissant
with exactly 429 caraway seeds and served on aquamarine-colored bone china from the Yuan Dynasty."
"Coming right up, sir," the waiter says. He disappears into the kitchen and returns, moments later, with a plate. "One number eight.
Will there be anything else?"
The man thinks another second, then says, "Yes...bring me an elephant ear sandwich."
"Coming right up, sir," the waiter says. He disappears into the kitchen and returns, moments later, with a thousand dollars in cash,
which he presents to the man. "Well, you did it, sir. You stumped us."
With a broad smile, the man pockets the money. "Didn't have any elephant ears back there, huh?"
"Oh no," the waiter says. "We have plenty of elephant ears. We just ran out of those big rolls."
Okay, so maybe it isn't my favorite joke. But it's one that was resonating in my skull the time I was invited to lunch at one of the
fancier Italian restaurants in Hollywood. I would be dining with a very important producer — a man who, if he liked me, might do wonderful
things for my career.
This gentleman also owned the restaurant. The reason the above joke occurred to me is that, when I asked for a menu, he said, "You
don't need a menu. Just order whatever you want. The chef will make it up for you."
"I'd like to see a menu," I said. "Just to see what you have."
"We have everything," he responded. "Order whatever you want." His voice carried annoyance; I realized that there was no chance of me
seeing a menu.
It is my custom — first time at a new restaurant — to order the most basic, simple thing they serve. The thinking goes
something like this: If you go to, say, an Italian restaurant and you order the Tagliarini Verdi Pasticciati and don't like it...well, maybe you
ordered the wrong thing. But if you get the spaghetti and meatballs and don't like it, there's no point in coming back.
So I said, "I'll have spaghetti and meatballs."
The owner looked at me with unbridled shock. In a voice thick with indignation, he said, "You come to one of the great restaurants of
America, you can order anything in the world you crave...and you want spaghetti and meatballs?"
"Oh no," I quickly muttered. "What am I saying? I'll have, uh...ravioli. Meat ravioli?"
The owner's disgust with me only grew more visible. "Meat ravioli is just spaghetti and meatballs with the meatballs inside the
I was sinking fast in this man's eyes...and we hadn't even talked yet about my writing. My mind raced to think of something more exotic
to order. (I thought of asking him, "What would you recommend?" but I was afraid he'd give me a glowing endorsement of something containing squid.
You have to be very careful in fancy Italian restaurants because they'll sneak squid in on you when your guard is down. I make it a point never to
eat anything that has more arms than I do.)
I finally said, "Uh, how's the chicken parmesan?"
The man looked at me like I'd just asked for the McNuggets Happy Meal. "Mark," he said, as one would talk to a child, "this is one of
the highest-ranked restaurants in the world. The Zagat guide ranks us with the Four Seasons in New York or Maxim's in Paris. My head chef graduated
with honors from the Cordon Bleu. For God's sake, order something worthy of this establishment."
By now, I felt so small, I wanted to order from a kiddy menu. The waiter was hovering over me, pad at the ready, awaiting my selection.
"Uh, I'll have Veal Marsala," I said. I had no idea what Veal Marsala was but I'd seen the name once on a menu in a restaurant that let you have
menus. And I was reasonably certain it didn't have any squid in it.
"An excellent choice," the owner nodded. "My chef won the award at Florence for his Veal Marsala." Then he turned to the waiter and
said, "Just bring me a cheeseburger and fries."
That was Story #2. We close now with Story #3.
There used to be a great Chinese restaurant near my house. It's still there but it's no longer great: the new chef does aberrant things
to food...like putting peas in the fried rice. Better I should find little, creepy crawly things in my fried rice than I should find peas there.
But back when it was good, I was dating a lady named Valerie who never wanted to eat anywhere else. When time came to dine, I would
suggest elegant seafood palaces, world-class trattorias, four-star delicatessens, plush steakhouses...and Valerie would say, "Let's go to the Chinese
There, we'd dine on cashew chicken, shrimp with black mushrooms, sliced beef with oyster sauce...and pea-less fried rice. It was all
fabulous but, for Valerie, the best part came at the end when our waitress (always the same one) placed our fortune cookies before us. Valerie lived
for that moment when she would crack the cookie open, give its pieces to me to eat...and read aloud, some brilliant, insightful fortune like, "An
important letter will arrive any day now."
Or: "An exciting trip is in your future."
Or the ever-popular: "Your days ahead will be healthy and wealthy."
Some folks get their spiritual guidance from books...others in their halls of worship. Valerie cracked cookies.
She read aloud the contents of each, no matter what deathless prognostication lay within, and always vowed to take its stirring moral
to heart and apply it to her life. I paid scant attention to the lessons within my cookies...a practice that, to Valerie, verged on the
One night when Valerie wasn't around, I had an order delivered from the Chinese place — an order that included several fortune
cookies. I was about to set them aside unopened for when next I saw Val when I noticed that one cookie had a protruding fortune. It was possible to
pull it out without cracking the cookie.
I did this. It was another perfectly innocuous fortune — something about glad tidings in my future — but what intrigued me
was that I now had a fortuneless fortune cookie. I immediately hatched a plan, devilish to the extreme.
I printed out a fortune of my own devising, trimmed it to size and, using a pair of tweezers, inserted it into the cookie. Mine said,
"You will wind up in bed tonight with a tall comedy writer." (For those of you unaware, I am a tall comedy writer.)
Two nights later, it was Valerie's birthday. On my way over to pick her up, I stopped at the Chinese place. I gave them my "loaded"
cookie and one other...the one other marked with a little dot of food coloring on one end. I told the waitress that, when I came in that evening with
my friend and dined, we should be served those two cookies. A larger-than-usual tip was promised.
I picked up Valerie and asked her where she wanted to eat for her birthday dinner...Spago's? Morton's? The Palm? Valerie said, of
course, "Let's go to the Chinese place."
We went to the Chinese place and dined on cashew chicken, shrimp with black mushrooms, sliced beef with oyster sauce...and fried rice
that still didn't have any peas. After it all was cleared away, the waitress brought over the customary dish with two fortune cookies and placed it
before me with a wink. I quickly selected the cookie with the food color dot and allowed Valerie to break open the other.
"Uh-huh," she said. "Very interesting..."
I tried to not burst out grinning at my own cleverness. "Uh, why don't you read it aloud?" I asked her.
She shrugged and read: "You are the center of attention in any crowd."
My eyes widened and I grabbed it from her. That was what it said, all right. But I wasn't the only one in the place puzzled.
At the table opposite us, an 82-year old woman was looking at a little slip of paper and muttering, "Tall comedy writer —?
But I don't know any tall comedy writers..."