Some Spirits With Your Meal

Though always a guy who kind of believed that ghosts exist, I’ve also been one who certainly never wished to encounter any. And thus far I haven’t. But I would eventually find myself in the middle of exactly one good ghost story, which stemmed from working at the former DaVinci’s Ristorante, located on the corner of Henderson and Reed Roads.

Desperate for cash one year near the holidays, I took a second, part time job waiting tables at the restaurant, an experience I found enjoyable enough. The owners were pretty chill for an upscale Italian place, my coworkers were cool, the pay decent and we even got to eat whatever leftovers were to be had at the end of every shift. There were a couple of weird features to the building itself, however, including a massive upstairs that wasn’t used for much of anything that I could see, a really deep elevator in the kitchen, and an insistence that the bread makers for some reason plied their wares in the basement.

But I never really thought much about these features, nor the constantly flickering lights. There was this hall area in between the dining room and kitchen where we servers would hang out during lulls in the action, because it allowed us to keep an eye on things while remaining out of the way. The light globes in this hall would often either brighten or dim for no discernible reason, usually a handful of times a day. I just chalked this phenomenon up to bad wiring and never commented on it to anyone, or asked if they’d noticed this, until one day when a few of us were hanging out in the hall and it happened.

“What’s the deal with these lights?”

“Didn’t you know?” one of my coworkers replied with an amused smirk, “this used to be a funeral home.”

And as it turns out, this is true. The DaVinci’s Ristorante name first surfaced in 1974, diagonally across the intersection from here, and moved to this corner in 1982. In so doing, it displaced a funeral home. This would explain the wide, recessed elevators, which needed the extra space for moving coffins. Also, I am told, the basement bread making room used to be where they embalmed people, which adds a whole other layer of creepiness to that space.

Still, though now hearing for the first time that this place is allegedly haunted, I can’t see any proof of that apart from maybe the lights. Until, that is, the day of the 26 top.

The numbers associated with this party are forever etched on my mind. By this point, I’d been working here a few months, well into the new year, and most afternoons I was saddled in the smoking section with Karen, the two of us, who could handle the somewhat smaller room in tandem, even though it was routinely packed. This was mostly due to the popularity of our buffet, which made serving here a breeze, even if it did cut into to the tip making aspect substantially.

Despite being packed, what we didn’t experience very much of at all were large parties arriving out of the blue. Typically these were scheduled well in advance and were slotted into one of the banquet rooms, which a couple of old ladies almost always handled. On this particular day, however, in the middle of our lunch rush, we got a phone call requesting 26 seats in our smoking section.

Karen and I scramble around moving some things, securing a couple of extra tables, and while we’re able to assemble a large enough surface in the middle of the room, it seems that, with every other chair in our section accounted for, currently in use, we can only come up with 17 seats. This prompts a question I haven’t had to ask before, namely, where do we keep spare chairs around here, anyway?

She explains that I have to take the elevator up to the attic, a space hinted at but never seen. Once there, I will need to cross this spacious room, and that I will find the spare chairs stacked up in neat rows along the far wall. Okay, simple enough, no problem. I duck into the kitchen and climb inside the elevator, shut its massive door. Press the up button and wait…but nothing is happening. I keep mashing this button, with similar results, and eventually give up, attempt to reopen the door instead. Except this also appears to be stuck, malfunctioning, refusing to budge. As it so happens, amusingly enough, there’s a tiny window in the door, and at this juncture I begin rapping on it with my knuckles, pounding on the door, waving in the window, attempting to get the attention of the cooks I can see from here, or anybody else who happens to drift past. All to no avail.

By my watch a good five minutes have now gone by. I’m laughing in disbelief of this situation, but figure that if nothing else, Karen will come looking for me when the party arrives. And yet with nothing else to lose, in a desperation move, I press the up arrow again, and now for some reason it’s magically working.

So up to the attic we go. Now the door’s functioning freely too, another miracle, although any potential good cheer drains from my face the instant I swing it open. For right outside the door, inches in front of me, legions removed from the far wall where the remainder of our spares are stacked, there’s a single column of exactly nine chairs. Spooked beyond belief, particularly in consideration of the dingy space behind them, I pull these chairs toward me and get the hell out of there without ever stepping off of the elevator.

This little episode demonstrates to me that ghosts can have a sense of humor, and might even be helpful. That they were detaining me on that elevator long enough to perpetrate this prank. And a few years after working there, in 2006, when hearing that this location would close and that they were opening a smaller café up on Tremont, my first thought was wondering: will the spirits follow them there? Either way, I came away from this experience believing that ghosts do indeed exist, and all the more convinced I hope to never lay eyes on any.

Arlington Cafe

My jaw nearly hits the floor to see this place now. Can there possibly exist a more indelible message that nothing ever lasts? My friends were mostly never fans of this fabled club at 1975 West Henderson, whereas I was an early convert, yet what seemed immediately after ascending to its all-time apex and winning over even those staunch holdouts, doors began shuttering and cobwebs descended from the rafters.

Arlington Café was always a bit of an anomaly, but made its idiosyncrasies work. Situated at the end of a shopping center counting Kroger as its anchor tenant for eons, in front of a sleepy, upper middle class neighborhood populated with stuffy senior citizens, by day this bar was a dark dive which working class drunks were fond of slipping off to for their liquid lunches. Then come nightfall, shortly after the DJ slid into his glass lined booth and began cranking out modern dance mixes, it came alive with a completely different and still younger clientele, albeit one all the daytime regulars felt perfectly comfortable rubbing elbows against, having perhaps never left themselves even after the final happy hour bell finished ringing.

Much of this was attributable to at least four distinct moods to be found within its cavernous interior, and perhaps as many as six. Achieved effortlessly, I might add, a natural extension of its contour, flowing with contrivance. Contrast this against busted downtown experiments like Long Street, a much ballyhooed dance club which hit everyone over the head with all their themed rooms, tallied some staggering crowds in the early going, and soon bit the dust. Meanwhile, Arlington Café thrived, expanded, even, as it annexed the shops in front and added a second, massive dance floor.

There was even this cool, long, almost impossible to believe and semi-secret tunnel which had for some reason been carved in between the Kroger and the cafe’s western wall, leading interested seekers from the shopping center’s front parking lot around to the bar’s rear entrance. That side of the club, once indoors, also featured a vaulted glass ceiling – various people through the years told me this was retractable, even, though I never witnessed such and doubt that tidbit’s veracity – towering above a smaller dance floor or two, a horseshoe shaped bar, and seating on a couple of different levels, while the eastern, more spacious room beyond featured all of the same, pretty much (minus the vaulted ceilings) but with a larger dance floor where the DJ plied his wares from a walled in nerve center, and there were also scores of pool tables, along with the juke for non-disc jockey curated nights. And in later years, after the businesses in front were annexed, still larger dancing regions existed for would be booty shakers, in front of those pool tables. Giants TVs mounted everywhere, of course, and the lighting I recall as being colorful, neither too bright nor too dark regardless of the hour or day. But mostly what I remember are the forever changing vibes, dependent upon whatever moment you chose to show up.