In the early ‘80s, I was hired to be a singing busboy at the Great American Food and Beverage Company, home of the singing waiter. I knew the job was going to be different from, say, your average coffee-shop gig, but I really didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into. I was told that if I came to work early on the first night, I could have dinner before they opened the restaurant. I ordered a burger. The chef came out with a group of waiters, all of them smiling as they handed me my plate. There, sandwiched in the bun, right where my burger was supposed to be, was a dead rat!
This job was going to be different.
The Great American Food and Beverage Company (the G.A.) had been around since the ‘70s. Famous singing alumni include Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Lowen (Lowen & Navarro), Peter Tork (after the Monkees) and Vonda Shepard (long before Ally McBeal).
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I used to go to the Great American Food and Beverage to celebrate friends’ birthdays. I knew people who worked there in high school, but I never imagined that I ever would. Having studied art in school (because John Lennon did), I came back to Los Angeles with a BFA and was trying to be a singer-songwriter a la Jackson Browne. After a few years, I needed a job and the G.A. became my home for two and a half years.
Waiters, busboys and hostesses all sang at the G.A. We didn‘t rehearse; the music was wonderfully spontaneous. Each person seemed to have his or her special songs, and after a while, we all knew the routine, but the lineup changed depending on who was working that night, and that kept us on our toes.
Picture the fast pace of a restaurant like Gladstones at the beach. There weren’t any stages at the Great American, although one room did have a piano where we‘d gather around to back up whoever was playing. As a waiter or a busboy, we’d be doing our jobs, and if we saw a split-second lull, any one of us could grab a guitar and either ask for accompaniment or go solo. The idea was to stand somewhere in the vicinity of the tables we were responsible for and entertain. You might start off alone and be surprised by other employees jumping in on the guitar, accordion, vocal, sax, trumpet, fiddle, or by rubbing two menus together — a wonderful form of percussion. Sometimes the song was a ballad, and other times a blowout where the lead singer stood up on a table and belted out a song, and everything in the room stopped.
As soon as the song was over, we‘d put down our instruments and get back to work. Poof!
The tips were wonderful, and the better the entertainment, the better the tips!
We were a transient group of musical gypsies, so the management was constantly hiring new budding stars to entertain and serve (not necessarily in that order). Auditions were held every week. People came from all over to try out. Most were wannabe rock stars looking for work. It’s hard to eat and pay the rent when you‘re not famous yet. If you had to get a job, the G.A. seemed like the place to be!
I wish I had video footage of those auditions. They looked like casting calls for Hair. Everyone received a23 the same instructions: “Play something upbeat and well-known.” Invariably, every week, at least one of the applicants would pull out a 12-string guitar and start fingerpicking a slow song in a minor key they’d written about their dog.
When I came to the G.A., it was the early ‘80s, so the musical selections were pretty eclectic. We sang everything from current pop songs of the day to Motown, Beatles, musicals and pretty much everything in between. If I remember correctly, I auditioned singing a country song by Dan Fogelberg, but don’t tell anybody!
I started off as a singing busboy and worked my way up to a singing waiter at the ripe old age of 26. Fellow waiter Stephen Feldman (now a songwriting therapist) said that I was “older than jazz.” I‘d wait on friends from high school who would be surprised to see me there.
“So,” I’d say, “what are you doing these days?”
“Oh,” they‘d reply, “I’m a doctor now!”
“That‘s nice,” I’d respond. “Would you like to see a dessert menu?”
Weekends were crazy. Guests often had a three-hour wait on a Friday or Saturday night. They came for the food and the music, and there were lots of both! We served “plank feasts,” 3 to 6 feet long, thick wooden planks piled high with rice, fresh fruit, artichokes, chicken, ribs and flank steak. These were carried out by two people and placed in the middle of the table. It looked like the Beggars Banquet record cover and got very messy once everyone dug in. I dropped a pile of rice on a customer‘s head one night, but it didn’t faze him — all part of the zoo atmosphere.
After dinner, “ice cream orgies” were a must. Planks again, only this time they were piled high with ice cream and fudge and nuts and whipped cream — your basic Weight Watchers dream! If it was someone‘s birthday, the waiter would shout for the attention of everyone in the room.
“It’s Who-who‘s birthday,” he’d cry. “On the count of one, I want everyone to bang on the table lightly. On the count of two, I want everyone to bang on the table a little harder, and on three, everybody shout, ‘Eat it, Who-who!’”
If Who-who was a woman, there‘d be a protruding banana dripping with hot fudge presented to be bitten. Men were given a maraschino cherry to eat. Very subtle!
If it was your anniversary, we’d serenade with the Flintstones‘ version of “Happy Anniversary.” If someone was visiting L.A., we’d sing the same melody but change the words to “Welcome to Los Angeles.” Getting married? “Going to the chapel, and we‘re going to get married” was standard, only we’d end with the truly heartfelt flourish “. . . and we‘ll never be horny anymore!”
Ronnie B., a tall, handsome country singer of a waiter, trained me when I graduated from busboy to waiter. One night, in front of a group of tourists from Sweden, he was teaching me how to open a bottle of wine. I watched in horror as half the bottle of Burgundy came out with the cork. The wine landed on the freshly pressed white jacket of the tour guide. A lot of things were shouted in Swedish, but the guide managed to make it clear that he wanted his jacket cleaned by the end of dinner. Not an easy task for 10 o’clock on a Saturday night! Ronnie B. knew exactly what to do: He leapt onto the table, belted out a country song, and ripped his own shirt open at just the right moment. The entire room was spellbound. Somehow, a little red-wine stain didn‘t matter any longer. Go try that at Spago!
After hours, when the customers left and we had cleaned up the place, a group of us musicians were always tired but too wired to go home. Many card games and jam sessions lasted well into the night at the G.A. We also had our late-night haunts in Santa Monica. The long-gone Broken Drum, where we’d sit around the piano bar and continue singing. Harvelle‘s for pool and drinks. Toward the end of my tenure at the G.A., we hit the now-defunct At My Place, where at 4 in the morning I had my first chance to hear an 18-year-old hostess from the G.A. named Vonda Shepard play the piano and sing without the noise of the restaurant. She knocked my socks off.
It was humbling to sing at the G.A. No microphones, no electric guitars. Everything was acoustic. You had to be a crowd stopper to be heard over the din. Most of the time, the customers listened and sang along — that’s what they came for, to be entertained. Occasionally you‘d be in the middle of something quiet and low-key, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” and some really sensitive music-loving customer would be waving his coffee cup wildly and shouting out, “Refill!”
After crawling into bed at 4 or 5 in the morning, I‘d wake up early and spend my days writing and illustrating children’s books, in hopes of a career change. It‘s not that I didn’t like being a singing waiter; it‘s just that, well, I was “older than jazz.” When I sold my first few books, I left the restaurant. I still came back for dinner, though — it was a hard place to leave. A group of us still stay in touch. We tell war stories, over and over and over again . . . (Just ask my poor wife!) It seems fitting that the last Great American Food and Beverage location is now a pet store in Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard. I drive by slowly sometimes, and I can still see the people waiting out in the parking lot for a table. I can even hear the music: “Welcome to Los Angeles, Welcome to Los Angeles, Welcome to Los Angeles, Wellllllllcome to Los Angeles!”