In the foyer of the restaurant stood an urn. It looked Phoenician, or at least very old.
It was the kind of amphora that could have sat dustily in a patrician cellar, safekeeping the wine and oil as empires burned and fell. It was an urn worthy of Atlantis, an urn crafted for Byzantium, an urn that should have been pouring libations for the doomed queens of Carthage. Instead, it squatted like a burnished throne on the cool marble tiles of the restaurant, guarding the festivities. Patrons rubbed its lambent metal as they swept through to supper, pausing sometimes to gaze into the ornate mirror half hidden behind the vessel. With the fattened candles flickering, and surrounded by full buckets of hyacinths, they could almost imagine themselves to be denizens of a smoky Vesuvian fresco, bedecked with jewels and about to take part in a spectacular Saturnalia—featuring volcanic orgies and brisk business at the vomatoriums—at the moment the fatal ash fell.
That room with the urn was the threshold. It was perfectly enclosed, a place to shed the grime and dust of the city and make the mental ablutions before entering the sanctorium. Beyond, the restaurant pulsed with kinetic abandon. There lay the mead, the meats, the hot stirring blood. There churned the crowds, downing the whiskey lees. Here in the foyer, though, one was still a liminal creature, mask held limply at the side, ever unsure of whether to join the night’s queer society.
As soon as the second door opened, the gust of noise and clamor sucked the hesitant in like a great typhoon. First to greet him: a squad of sylph-like hostesses, sleek in black, glistening hair slicked back like dark sealskin. These sea-girls beckon to the expected guests, sliding through the black waves of human voices and frenetic bodies. Back, back, until suddenly the girls dock at the main dining room. Here the tables are smooth and glassy, ringed by plush banquettes: little pleasure islands on an opalescent sea. On each one stands a gourd of oil, a beaker of vinegar and a bowl of sea salt.
From all the tables in the dining room, one can see the open kitchen. It is bright, burning, built around a heaving open hearth. There, crocks and pans burble and hiss. The chefs pitch back and forth, rowing the hulk, keeping the course. Up onto the pass they fling their labor—bowls piled high with noodles and bright diced tomatoes, bubbling lasagnas, quivering casseroles of tripe, fat cuts of beef, whole roasted fish. The runners slice hunks of bread from rustic loaves then whisk the dishes away to the floating islands, where waiters pour wine and offer libations to things gold and silvered and stone.
Around and around they run, these fleet-footed runners, down again into the bowels of the restaurant. This circle is made of ice and steel. Stainless. Efficient. It is the demimonde of the dessert chefs, the cool quiet domain where they measure the flour and butter, macerate hothouse grapes, arrange fig tartlets on chilled plates and dive into the icebox for cold berries and thick cream. The runners wait for the finishing touch—a dash of balsamic on muddled strawberries, a dice of basil on blood-orange cannoli—then up they tread, paddling the journey in reverse to bear their sweet gifts to the guests.
If the main dining room is the familial alter of the restaurant, the cheerful purvey of household gods, the private room is its Mount Olympus where deities dabble in their ambrosia and their amorous games. Inside this room, behind softly susurrating curtains, emperors entertain important men. Inside this room, playboys lounge with svelte nymphettes. Inside this room, carnal pleasures reign. The beverages poured here are of a rarity and excellence so remote that few mortals have ever tasted them. The food is ordered to excess—large carving boards heaped with sliced meats and tangy cheeses, plates spilling over with roasted ducklings, suckling pigs, and pasta snowy under avalanches of truffles. Most of the victuals go untouched—the same cannot be said of the wine—as the gods of the city make their deals and plow their lusty plunders.
The walls of this room depict inscrutable tales. Murals of gossamer seas grace every angle, curving around the guests like iridescent nacre. In one corner: the yellow-blue cave where Circe soothed her restless sailors, not far from the isle where Cyclops herded the sun-king’s kine. Nearby, the ships at Mylae plow winedark under the rushing stars. On the opposite wall, a painted bark of white and gold churns the milky Sea of Azov, guided into the Crimean twilight by the bright Maris Stella. High on the curved ceiling, clouds mass in triumphal arches, carrying the fallen day about them—while deep in the back, on the furthest and dimmest wall, the hot leaden waters of the Pacific seethe, with their underwater cities and secret coral tombs. Lost boats bob along these reefs, where seafarers beg for rain and shrink from the green lightning nights. For these divers, there will be no kissing the ribbed sand that marks the shore at home. They belong to the deep sea, to the mewing gulls and to the deathless pearls.
As far back as any of the oracles could remember, the restaurant had been the object of a power struggle. There were open brawls and secret cabals and more than one palatine coup. When the dust had settled and the knives wiped clean, Frank Pittura crouched upon the gilded throne.
Frank had made his fortune as a wine merchant—some speculated it was actually in garbage removal, but this was never said openly—and he lived with his only daughter in a large Capitoline mansion, graced with a miniature replica of the Trevi fountain out front. The girl, mothered by his mistress in Sicily, was a shy child of nine, with dark eyebrows and deep sad eyes. She held that Mediterranean fullness about her, a suggestion that in a few years she would blossom into something ripe and sun-kissed. Her name was Philomena, and it was after her that the restaurant was christened.
Frank brought Philomena in on Friday nights, when all her father’s subjects would dote upon her. She was the bellissima, the principessa, the marguerite. The runners would tease her when they dropped off her pasta, and the hostesses would coo and tickle her cheek. At nine o’clock, her nanny arrived to take Philomena on the late train to the countryside. Fifteen minutes later, one of Frank’s girlfriends would appear. Frank would order champagne and sturgeon soup and tell the lady about his days in the minor leagues, when he was known as the Tyrant of Tivoli. The ladies stroked his rough cheeks and laughed at all the wrong moments, their teeth white as pearls against their currant-brown skin. These were the best nights in the restaurant, for Frank was relaxed and distracted by the glitter of his date’s synthetic jewels. On nights when his women were absent, every small thing would make him irritable; he would send back the food and berate the waiters for wearing creased shirts. The bartenders particularly vexed him. Anyone who worked in the liquor business was a crook, Frank said, lowering his heavy eyelids significantly. They had dollar bills stuffed in their body cavities and were all conspiring against him.
Frank’s tempers had an unsettling effect on the restaurant’s managers, who acted skittish when they heard his name, even when he was away at his ancestral home in Anthemusa. The managers had been around since the restaurant’s opening. The man, Art, was a silent fellow, tall and willowy, always dressed in the same chocolate brown suit. The woman, Olympe, was short and fit and boisterous; she preferred crisp blouses and red kitten heels. Frankie liked to yell at her, and she liked to yell at the waiters, who referred to her as the Queen of Situations.
When the restaurant swung open its doors to the world, Art would slink off downstairs to indulge in his favorite obsession: orchestral compositions by obscure European composers.
In his twenties, Art had almost defected to Switzerland to live with a band of string musicians who performed near some remote, splendiferous Alpine lake. But on the eve of his departure, his father had fallen fatally ill and Art ended up staying in the bayou, turning to bartending instead of the cello. Two decades later, he’d made it as far east as the big city, where the missed connection with his past seemed so close that it wrapped him in a desperate longing. So he would sit in the wine cellar under the stairs, tapping out forgotten cantos and cadenzas by phlegmatic Frenchmen.
While Art drowned in desolation, Olympe ran the ship upstairs. That old saying—“her lips were red, her looks were free”—is a ditty that certainly could have applied to The Queen of Situations.
She had the sea-green irises of an Egyptian cat, limpid under a shock of white-blonde hair, and she wore a signature perfume that mingled the heady scent of pale hortensia with a disturbing hint of amber. Olympe had been an actress in her youth, which helped her project her voice when she was gossiping about the boss and the head chefs. If Frank had a battle with one of his ex-wives, or Chefs Gurov and Gong showed up for work smelling of the underworld and gin, Olympe was the first to know and the first to tell.
The chefs were Olympe's chief nemeses—Frank pitted her against them for his fitful approval—and to keep them in check, the Queen cultivated a vast spy network that tentacled throughout the ranks of the restaurant. Anything that happened during a dinner shift—Gurov stirring up insubordination among the line cooks, Mr. Gong drinking absinthe in the basement—eventually made it back to her. Olympe amassed this knowledge pearl by luxuriant pearl, knowing that one day it would help her bring down her foes.
Gurov and Gong were latecomers to the restaurant. Frank brought them in after he fired the original chef, a loyalist to the previous owners, and after he’d cycled through a roster of cooks whose lackluster attempts at the sturgeon soup made the restaurant worry about losing a star. Chef Gurov, who could simmer a classical stock in his sleep, was the answer to Frank’s dreams. He was no Escoffier, but he kept the standards up.
Mr. Gong came along as Gurov’s first mate. A plump Prussian with deep dagger scars on his arms, he wore his silver hair, Samson-like, down past his waist. To the managers’ dismay, this hair often ended up in the food. There you’d be, about to deliver a gnocci to a four-top, and draped across the rim like some malevolent seasoning, Gong’s hair. If the table saw it before you did, the whole meal would have to be comped (and Frankie hated comps). The waiters collected these hairs and hid them inside an old dessert menu, to place on the blood-orange cannoli when they wanted to get the chefs in trouble.
Mr. Gong was usually in trouble on his own, as he suffered from most of the nastier addictions known to line cooks. When he was on pills, he would rebuke the staff in strange figures of speech (“Do not stab me up the back or I will stab you up the front”) and smash plates to the ground. When he drank, he descended into a noirish self-pity, and cornered the hostesses to weep about how his wife had abandoned him after he’d threatened her with the chopping knives. It wasn’t rare for a night to end with the nereids hiding out in the foyer and motioning for the bartenders to cut Mr. Gong off from the wormwood.
The bartenders had a hard time cutting anyone off, especially themselves. When Frank and the managers were out of sight, the bartenders topped up glasses and poured free shots, tossing out one-liners and raking in the tips. The bar was its own polis—it had its own mores, its own laws, its own supplicants and kings. Anything existing outside its borders was irrelevant.
The bartenders worked in teams: on weeknights, there was Myrte, a brassy redhead who moonlighted as a tarot reader; she worked with Mikey Sutchan, who had briefly been a soldier. On the weekends, they were replaced Mikey Seton and a rogue named Fabian, who had been fired from every other bar on Sahalin Street and who liked to wink at himself in the mirror as he combed his lustrous hair before his shift.
Fabian had already seduced most of his customers at some point over the past decade. It always made for an awkward moment when a lady came in and recognized him from his days at the Black Monk Bar. Sometimes, she would demure and wave. Usually, she’d grimace.
Fabian would lean forward on the great bronzed bar and give her a lupine grin.
“Hello, Mary,” he’d drawl, his voice taurophagically low.
“It’s Molly,” the woman would say.
Fabian would call to a busboy without taking his eyes from Molly’s face, the way an archer fixates on a plump gazelle: “Run to the cellar and get that bottle we’ve been saving for this unforgettable sphinx.”
The busboys, who knew the routine, would scuttle off to the hull to find a bottle of cheap plonk. Fabian would pour the woman a big glass, murmuring rivulets of babble in her ear as if they’d just come from the boudoir, and not as if he’d never called her back after the second date. Meanwhile, Molly would begin to soften. It’s hard to stay mad at bartenders, particularly the unrepentant ones.
About a year into Frank’s reign, he had a mosaic installed behind the bartenders—a most magnificent centerpiece. Its turquoise stones were imported specially from Sicily and a famous smith hired to hammer them into a glittering scene. In the center of the mural, a boat floated languidly on a foamy sea. On its deck, Maenids danced with troupes of gleaming kouroi, while frenzied sailors threw themselves overboard into the vinous waves. The captain, that dark stranger, reclined at the top of the bark on his liquid throne, tippling his ram’s horns of milk and honey and blood. He looked bored and impetuous, this Bacchant god, and it was for him that the men drowned in ecstasy; it was to him that the guests drank and prayed; it was he who ruled this universe and all within it—the anthropomorphic dolphins and the rutting satyrs, the bartenders and their woozy sprites, even the erebic restaurant itself—existed solely for his destructive pleasure.
The Spanish billionaire who showed up at the restaurant every night was rumored to be a criminal—at least that’s what the busboys said. There was some detail about a pyramid scheme on the Bolsa Madrid. He came in to ogle Olympe’s red heels and order plates of glistening salmon roe for his favorite dining companion, a black hunting hound. The Spaniard and his pup liked to sit in the furthest corner of the private dining room, away from the hoi polloi. Once, he brought in his collection of Mariner’s knives to impress the busboys. He flung the daggers, one by one, into the splendid murals, gouging a deep hole in the plaster right above the painting of a giant clamshell. Some nights, the busboys would swear that they had seen the hole shimmer and bleed light, as if something rare and precious hid behind the walls.
The weeknights also brought in Dr. Eugenides, a portly pediatrician who doled out free morphine pills to the waiters. The doctor would sit with Olympe and gossip about the chefs, saying that Gurov must be poisoning people on the sly, and they should search the pasta for traces of nightshade. Every so often, he and Olympe would steal a smoke in the waiter’s back alley. On one such evening, when Dr. Eugenides was feeling particularly amorous, he gazed at Olympe’s honeyed hair as he lit his cigar and flicked its ashes into the sooty darkness. When she leaned in to whisper a secret, the doctor pulled her close, nuzzling her neck and breathing in the aroma of her laestrygonian perfume.
Just then, something warm and noxiously slimy dribbled down his fleshy cheek.
The doctor and Olympe peered up at the doorway from whence the offending drop had dripped. There, they spied a trio of inky marks—they looked like clovers, or tiny wands—daubed onto the wall in what looked (and smelled) like tuna-fish blood.
Olympe grabbed the pediatrician and they backed into the restaurant, glancing at the alleyway’s stygian shadows for an intruder. Nothing revealed itself, but a day later, after Olympe’s spies had scoured the premises, they brought her a disturbing clue: one long black hair, still sticky and slick with blood, which had been stuck haphazardly to the bricks.
On the following Friday, a few minutes after Frank Pittura’s latest date arrived at the restaurant for a drink, Olympe approached the owner to tell him that Mr. Gong had been painting chthonic curses above the back door. Olympe said, Frank should fire Gong on the spot.
Frank laughed and waved the manager away—but when she wouldn’t let it go, he exploded. Just as the runners appeared with his sturgeon soup, Frank sent his dinner back and hissed to Olympe, “Let’s go see these idiot marks.” Clenching his date’s arm, he stormed out to the alley, where Olympe pointed out the small red thyrses.
Frank stared at the symbols and narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t see anything,” he growled.
(“But Frankie,” his lady stammered, “there’s blood above the door!”)
“Apologize to the chefs,” Frank snarled at Olympe, “and if this restaurant gets burgled, it’s your head that’s gonna be on that plate.”
Olympe’s cheeks turned purple. Frank stalked back into the restaurant.
And that was the last time anyone discussed the dark marks in front of the managers or Frankie.
If the amorous doctor and the Spanish billionaire were known as “Olympe’s regulars,” then the poor souls deemed “Art’s regulars” tended towards the shattered and the mad.
There was the red-haired card sharp who obsessively counted the breadsticks, and who muttered intricate spells over his bowls of Sicilian Sauce. For all his oddities, he was a generous bloke: he liked to order a vintage Brunello, pour one glass for himself, then leave the rest for Art and the bartenders to enjoy. On Mikey Sutchan’s anniversary—the soldier had been married to his bride for one blissful year—the gambler didn’t even open his nice bottle; he just sent it straight over to the bartender with his warmest blessings.
Frankie didn’t witness the gift, but he did spy Mike putting the Brunello in his bag at the end of the night. Frank stopped the bartender as he was walking out the back door, searched his rucksack, and yanked out the wine. Art, who happened to walk by as the altercation was unfolding, mumbled that it had been a present—but the owner just grabbed the manager’s wine key, opened the fine bottle, and poured its fertile contents out into the alleyway’s dust.
“This belongs to me,” Frank hissed at Mike. “And it’s worth more than your thieving life.”
Then he told Mikey to put twenty thousand leagues between himself and the restaurant.
After that, Art tried to be a little more cautious with his regulars when Frank was around—even his favorite, a savant named Progonnaya. It was widely assumed Progonnaya was an imposter, for he kept changing his origin story. One night, he was the son of a horticulturalist who had fled during the Trials of the Generals. Another night, he was an archduke deposed from his kingdom and cursed to wander the earth, searching for the fabled Navigator’s star. The busboys said he probably drove horse-cabs. Whatever the truth, Progonnaya liked to sit with Art at the bar, musing about ancient battles and swirling a glass of Gavi di Gavi in professorial contemplation. His presence pained the fillies who arrived in flocks to sip their champagne cocktails and flirt with Fabian. If a woman happened near, Progonnaya would serenade her with talk of Salamis and Thermopylae, running his hands over his bald pate until it shone like the moon. His pathos gave off a rank stench, like a whale rotting in the reeds.
Art had first met Progonnaya on a late and wintery solstice. It was one of those evenings when the rich and perfumed have finished their feasts but are loathe to leave the restaurant—and so they stumble, swelled with wine, up to the great bronzed bar. At this hour, the restaurant takes on the sad light of a fading principality. Lonely penitents mumble into their cups, thirsting for company like wine from a sponge, until the wealthy imperators push them aside and crowd around the bartender’s alter. Fabian pours them libations—digestivii from amber vials, medicinal liquor in golden thimbles—and winks at the drinkers with a conspiratorial grin.
On one such night, when the streets of the city were silent and the restaurant burned like a beacon to passing fleets, Art kept a late watch over the bar. He was absentmindedly tapping out an Austrian concerto when a gust of frosty air from the foyer signaled the arrival of a new guest. Progonnaya plopped down beside him, ordered a nip of Riesling, then remarked to no one in particular, “You and I are old … but some fateful work may yet be done, by men like us who strove with gods.”
And for a moment, from the depths of his fathomless misery, Art felt that the deities had not forgotten him and they had spoken to him through the mouth of this fool. So Art struck up a conversation with the bald man and learned that they shared a passion for Puccini and that his new friend liked to write. (His latest book, Progonnaya said, had just come out in Europe.) A few weeks and a few drinks later, Art declared Progonnaya to be a shoo-in for the literary pantheon. The day Progonnaya heard this, he didn’t bother anyone with factoids about the Phaeacians, no; he merely sipped his wine, sat a little taller, and when he thought no one was looking, smiled.
The bartenders disliked Progonnaya, for he took a seat away from their own devoted regulars—like Dancaïre, the smoldering son of a world-famous soprano, or Theonian, who had once been a member of the Twelve Caesars, which guarded the gold reserves.
On the weekends, Theonian brought in a parade of gaunt girls in glittering couture, exotic poppies who wafted a mysterious noir parfume. They smoked long cigarettes and drank cold vodka, their eyes glassy from psychotropics, while Theonian devoured ribeyes and guzzled his expensive wine. It was said that the girls were branded—one of them showed the bartenders once, while Theonian was in the washroom. The beauty had grabbed Fabian by the back of his lustrous hair as soon as her date turned the corner.
Fabian seemed intrigued, and a little alarmed—“Have I met you before?” he purred—and even more so when the girl lifted her shirt and showed off a tattoo of three small, dark wands under her left breast. Moments later, Theonian reappeared by her side and the girl slouched back into her glassy trance.
Theonian laughed with the bartenders about his groggy date, but later, the busboys saw him in the foyer, gripping the girl by the wrist and growling something about her traitorous eyes.
The bartenders never said anything about the incident to the managers, but Myrte, who read tarot, thought she recognized the symbol on the girl’s skin. She called it the ‘Mark of the Lightening-Black Tower’ and one evening, she brought in a large book to explain its significance. The bartenders thumbed through the different chapters until they arrived at ‘La Tour Abolie/La Maison-Dieu’: “The arcane XVI card of the tarot, the lightening-black tower, it signifies the destruction of Babel, or pride that runneth over before a fall.” A footnote mentioned some sort of doomsday cult that sacrificed bulls in the moonlit domes at midnight, throwing them into a sea boiling with blood.
And it was then that the bartenders knew they approached dangerous shores, and they marveled at how little they knew about the regulars who gathered at their bar, or what strange divinities they worshipped, and how mysterious their starlit lives must be even to themselves.