I was raised in Paris, France, where food is sophisticated, the dining atmosphere is quiet and reserved, the service is unobstrusive, and the portions are small. Gastronomy is practically the national religion.
At seventeen, barely recovered from jetlag, I encountered Lambert’s Cafe. It was like landing in someone else’s family reunion, complete with embarrasingly loud, obnoxious, backwoodsy relatives. I had never seen anything like it. Frankly, I was appalled.
We had to wait forever, the line stretching around the building. Inside, the restaurant was crowded and loud. Once we were seated, waiters came around with cauldrons full of hot food they call “Pass Arounds”: fried okra, fried potatoes and onions, macaroni and tomato, and blackeyed peas. They scoop out portions of the fried okra and drop it on a paper towel in front of you. You can probably imagine my astonishment. (Fortunately, they did provide us with flatware!)
When the food came, the portions were HUGE. I had never seen such large portions in my life. Naively, I ordered a salad because I assumed it would be the lightest, smallest thing on the menu. Wrong!! It came in a massive breadbowl. At the end of the meal when I’d hardly made a dent in my salad, I asked for a to-go box, which ended up being my second mistake. They do not provide “doggy bags.” Instead, the waiter brought me a clear plastic bag, stuffed my salad inside, and tied it at the top with a knot.
And yet, despite my own horrific experience, I looked around the restaurant and everyone seemed to be having so much fun! They laughed, they ate, they smiled … and they ate some more. Everyone was having a wonderful, relaxing time.
I didn’t go back for another seventeen years. By then, I’d grown a little more used to American ways and enjoyed Lambert’s not as a wide-eyed French girl but as a tourist on an adventure in good home cooking and dining entertainment — Country Style.
Oh, and just a bit of friendly advice. When you hear the waitstaff call out “Hot Rolls!!!!!!!” — Duck.
They don’t call it the “Home of the Throwed Rolls” for nothin’!