Opening the boxes that the Gracie's kitchen staff had packed for us, Dave and I felt like kids on the first night of Hanukkah.
As a touring comedian, I ate terribly on the road for years. Pre-show dinners at university mess halls regularly consisted of frozen veggie burgers, pizza, veggie burgers, and veggie burgers. But following one especially disruptive on-stage emergency ("Let's all take a bathroom break, folks!"), my comedy partner Dave and I finally decided that we needed to take better care of ourselves: as a single concession of comfort from the grueling traveling that was slowly taking its toll on our ragged bodies, we made it a policy to enjoy a nice, quality meal before every show whenever possible* (*in some far-flung American food deserts, it just ain't getting much fancier than Applebee's). Since making this decision, we've enjoyed some of the finest meats, vegetables, and shellfish (don't tell Dave's rabbi) nearly every continental U.S. state has to offer.
Such was the impetus for stopping at Gracie's, Providence's only AAA Four Diamond restaurant, before a recent performance at Rhode Island College. I was immediately struck by how elegant this place was: cozy and rich, refined without being too stuffy or too earnest. If a waiter had an opinion on the two perspiring, sweatshirted comedians double-teaming a breadbasket amidst a sea of far more civilized folk in trousers and sport coats, they certainly didn't show it.
I had barely buttered my honey-glazed beer bun (which was delectable, by the way) when I received a text message from a harried student advisor: "No sound check tonight?" Due to the booking of an opening act, our supposed 7 p.m. call time had been bumped to 6:30 p.m.—in other words, now. And for comedians who sing and play guitar, a sound check is only optional if you don't mind sounding like feral cats howling into trashcans.
As Dave immediately jumped into crisis management mode, I slowly began pulling my bread plate closer, like a mother bear instinctively protecting her cub. Fighting the urge to growl and swipe a paw at him, I realized he was right: he would need to take the car to start the sound check without me, while I waited for our dinner and an Uber ride. Thankfully, our blue-button-downed server at this white-tablecloth establishment was all too understanding about breaking protocol and agreed to send us off with our gourmet food as takeout.
I have to admit, despite the hospitality we were met with at Gracie's, I was still pretty bummed about the situation. I had heard nothing but great things about the service at this restaurant, and—while Front of House Manager Stephen Willson and his staff had certainly proved worthy of such a review in a different way—I was very much looking forward to experiencing it myself. But when I finally arrived at the college at 7:40 with just enough time to eat before hopping on stage, I was no longer disappointed. Opening the boxes that the Gracie's kitchen staff had packed for us, Dave and I felt like kids on the first night of Hanukkah.
There we were: two road-weary comedians in a backstage storage closet, giggling like idiots as we opened Styrofoam container after Styrofoam container of delicacies: roast duck with wild rice, roasted autumn roots, crispy sage, and sour cherry; Hudson Valley foie gras accompanied by roasted mission fig and sunflower seeds and sprouts; and russet potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, autumn squash, and foraged mushrooms. And all of it was fantastic.
Sure, our feast was less than civilized. Yes, Chef Matthew Varga would have likely had four heart attacks and a stroke watching two barbarians virtually inhale some of the finest cuisine that can be found in the state. But the truth is, while pleasant ambiance and service are always appreciated, the food—no matter how or where you eat it—is, and always will be, the single most important component of any restaurant. Without high-quality grub, there's no point in dining out in the first place.
And hey, how many people can say they ate duck, foie gras, and rabbit gnocci with a plastic fork and spoon out of a foam carton in a storage closet? The irony certainly wasn't lost on me. And the victory—one of eating great food on the road for yet another night—tasted that much sweeter for it.