by Michael Bowen

Out for a pleasant night of fine dining at Clinkerdagger? Relax. Take your time. No concern of yours that just beyond your gaze, back in the kitchen, there's bowling for humans. The servers are the tenpins, you see -- and the bowling balls? Those are the orders that you and the people at five other tables just placed.

With wait staff scurrying past while holding aloft dinner trays laden with delicacies, with busboys muttering "behind you" and hostesses ushering guests to their seats -- if you tag along with a server like Clink's Jacob McCann, the best strategy is to seek out any available wall and flatten yourself against it. It's like being trapped inside a 3-D video game.

"Gotta make sure I have plenty of bread going, 'cause I'm about to distribute," says McCann, stuffing another loaf of ciabatta bread into a mini-oven, checking to make sure there's plenty of garlic herb butter to slather over it once it's done.

He slices, he dishes, he serves. One table gets a virgin strawberry daiquiri and a pea salad; another orders the filet and lobster, medium rare -- and the house salad, with crumbled Roquefort on the side, please. Orders roll into the kitchen, scattering the tenpins: Almond-Crusted Sea Scallops, Peppercorn Steak, Southwestern Salmon With Blackbean Salsa.

Every time McCann exits the dining room -- every time -- he laughs and says "All right!" to himself, often clapping his hands together ("that's just self-motivation"). On to the next task.

"They just ordered an appetizer sampler on [table] 17 -- comes in a tower, really very impressive -- and so I'll let them sit awhile. They have that relaxed vibe," McCann says. "OK, so we need a little more water on 15, but otherwise we're all right."

McCann hustles into the servers' backstage area, laughs, says "All right" to himself and picks up the pace.

"Guy's a real machine," murmurs a fellow waiter in admiration.

And it's true. Other servers falter a bit over Clink's computerized dinner orders; some even slow down to hunt and peck. Not McCann.

Remember when Capt. Picard would bark an order and the Star Trek camera would close in on a flashing control panel and all you could see was some ensign's fingers tapping out 27 commands in 2.4 seconds? That's McCann punching in his dinner orders. The ordering screen at Clink's identifies him not as Jacob but as "Woo-Hoo!"

Another flurry of activity: "I need three breads ... Request, please: 16's a non-starter ... OK, change off a hundred," and he's off to the well with two crisp $50 dollar bills fluttering on his tip tray. Moments later, it's "OK, I got the change down," and he skips up the stairs, claps his hands twice, yells, "Who wants that?" while eyeing a dessert coming off the pastry line. "I've got two house salads down on 15."

At next glimpse, the whirling dervish whips a lighter out of his pocket and illuminates the candle on top of a cr & egrave;me brulee even as he negotiates two downward steps at full tilt, then screeches to a stop at tableside and delivers the dessert with delicacy and a smile.

His first table has turned over. "The tower comes off 17 ... I messed up on 14, forgot that gentleman's Caesar salad" -- but he's still smiling, and you sense that grace under pressure, smiling even when there are foul-ups, is key to making guests feel comfortable.

He's just taken dinner orders from nine guests at three different tables. "Time to get in the zone and ring up all three," he says, kicking into a higher gear known only to him. An observer's questions are mere distractions. He's in the zone now.

He'd better be. On a typical Saturday night at Clink's like this one, the restaurant will serve 350 dinners. The sweat is starting to show on Jacob McCann's forehead.

McCann, 29, has bachelor's degrees from EWU in history and humanities, but he's studying environmental science at SCC now "and dealing with water resources, that sort of thing." (Ironically, he wants "to work outdoors.")

He has toiled in the restaurant business for 11 years, eight of them at Clink's. Five nights a week, he works a five- or six-hour shift without a break -- "only smokers take breaks in this business," he says. He averages $150 a night -- that's after he has tipped out to bussers, bartenders, the front desk and the expediter. He has "made as much as $250, $300 in a night," but that's unusual -- just the night before, he'd been "stuck in a slow section ... one of my worst nights in months," and had earned only $60.

On the night I shadow McCann, he's certainly working hard, with three birthday gatherings and a couple celebrating their first night out since the birth of their baby. He's serving a lot of complimentary cr & egrave;me brulees.

"Hey, my split plate came up right," McCann announces, sounding surprised. One of the mother-daughter pair on 15 didn't want any mushrooms, shiitake or otherwise, on her pan-seared chicken breast with goat cheese and caramelized onions.

But when McCann serves the meal, he confuses the two plates, delivering the mushrooms to the girl who didn't want them. "Oh, wait, I'm backwards," he says. "That was just a tease," he jokes quickly -- and both diners are smiling, McCann is smiling, a slight tension averted. "Just grin and keep going," he advises.

The men in the foursome at table 17 opened with a little good-natured but still competitive jibing about the relative merits of blended whiskies. Now they've ordered a Ferrari Carano chardonnay that doesn't appear on Clinkerdagger's 102-item wine list.

McCann seeks out manager Debi Moon. "What should I ring in?" he inquires, and Moon isn't sure. (The procedure is that the server has to hunt down off-the-list wines in the cooler, then, as a theft-protection measure, present a receipt to the manager.)

One of the men on 17, having finished his whiskey, starts shoveling a house salad rapidly into his mouth. Chunks are falling out and back onto his plate.

McCann locates the Ferrari Carano, then huddles with Moon, who gives him the name of another wine to code in. Then it's time to drape a fresh white napkin over the arm, cradle a bottle streaming with condensation and get ready for the tableside presentation.

"Yeah, that's right there," offers the diner who ordered the obscure $53-a-bottle wine. McCann pockets his corkscrew.

Next crisis, please. "The teen on 15 doesn't like the chicken," McCann reports. She'd just sent it back. "Too bad -- it was a tough sell for me to get them to split that."

Fifty minutes into his shift, and McCann is serving 15 people at five different tables.

The Picky Eaters on 17 order the Filet Oscar (at $26.50) and two orders of end-cut prime rib, one medium well and the other rare. McCann explains that with the prime rib being roasted with rock salt for 10 hours, the rare portion "ends up cooking up to medium rare. But I'll see if we have any really rare."

An extra trip to the line cooks; they do have some done rare; McCann reports back to the table. Rare it is.

Half an hour later, one of the Picky Eaters doesn't like how her Filet Oscar (tenderloin medallions with Dungeness crab, asparagus and b & eacute;arnaise sauce) turned out. With his brow furrowing ever so slightly above his ever-present smile, McCann dashes back to the kitchen and faces all five line cooks. "Request, please," he shouts. "Can you grab me an Oscar? Not rare, but medium rare?"

It seems the Oscar has been undercooked. McCann reassures the guests: "The Oscars get ready quickly -- they broil them on each side, three to five minutes -- so I can get them another one real quick." It's the kind of thing only an experienced server would know.

Meanwhile, two of the waiters mistake a reporter for a first-night employee. So does one of the hostesses. (Must be the maroon Clinkerdagger blouse and long white apron.) "I hope you know you're being trained by the best," she whispers.

"The Oscar's up," shouts the kitchen, and McCann eagerly echoes their call, hopping to it and delivering Filet Oscar Version 2.0 to table 17. No sooner has McCann cracked a joke about how much water they're drinking at 14 than the Oscar is being sent back, remarkably, a second time.

McCann's face never stops smiling. "It was too done the first time, now it's not done enough," he mutters, irritated but still optimistic: "We gotta reach the middle ground here." After a brief stint in the kitchen, buttering and slicing the bread, not smiling, he's back in the dining area, smiling. He pours water at another table while making wine suggestions: "the Sterling Reserve ... the Meridian Merlot, it' s nice and dry ... the Washington Terra Blanca is a little more full-bodied."

On Oscar's third appearance, no complaints. "Third time must've been the charm," he says, back in the kitchen. "Just nod and smile," he says. "Nod and smile."

Time for the Picky Eaters' coffee and dessert. They order bread pudding and key lime pie and expect good service this time -- "your tip depends on it," they laugh, booming with tipsy glee.

Back into the kitchen, where for once the tenpins are all lined up. "Hey, I got some ice cream on the side of my key lime!" McCann says, pleasantly surprised. "My dessert came up just like I expected it."

He serves the pie, hustles two pewter mugs and some napkins out of the dining area, glides off with another tray on his shoulder. His shift will last for another three hours, and he needs to work hard. His tips depend on it.

Check out the rest of our behind the scenes stories in the arts and culture section.

Publication date: 04/14/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.