When home is almost a castle

In my novel What’s Left, the home life of Cassia’s extended close-knit family revolves around a large Victorian house they call Big Pink. It’s just a block away from their restaurant, and sometimes it’s hard to count just how many generations and their guests are living within it.

~*~

This passage, though, didn’t quite fit on their plates:

Baba tells us of a dorm buddy who once bandied about the idea of taking an old house and serving intimate dinners in the various rooms. Be like eating in somebody’s private home, he’d said.

Well, Dimitri says, we have this imposing but monstrous citadel in our project. (Meaning Big Pink.) We could move the restaurant right here, but I rather like it as the center of something better. He reaches for a piece of paper and hands it to Baba.

See, if we enclose the porch, like this, and put a grill in here … uh-huh, they grin as Baba pencils in this creation. An entryway here. Steps leading up to an enlarged dining room, which goes here. The kitchen, you see, builds into this area, and …

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy and Big Pink remains filled with children.

~*~

As I’ve learned the hard way, old houses demand a lot of repair and maintenance. One like Big Pink could be a full-time job. Fortunately, Cassia’s great-grandfather Ilias left his imprint, and some of her cousins follow suit.

Traveling about, it’s always fun to look at different kinds of dwellings, especially where people have made their signature marks.

Tell me what you’d most want as your dream house.

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A spotlight for new talent

In the years after World War II, many older neighborhoods fell into neglect as home buyers and developers fled for the suburbs. You could buy up in-town properties for a song in some places – districts that have now become quite trendy, even chic, especially when gentrification takes place.

In my novel What’s Left, her great-grandfather quietly snapped up many of the sites around the family restaurant – storefronts and offices, old houses and apartments – and, as a result, added real estate rentals and leasing to the family business. He saw the ‘hood as his own urban village, one he nicknamed Mount Olympus.

One of its anchors was a big pink Victorian house with the witch’s hat turret, the imposing dwelling that became the family headquarters a block away from the restaurant. At the time, it would have been more destined to become a funeral home or law offices or a flophouse than a revived mansion. It was too large for the typical nuclear family, and developers would have deemed needed renovations and maintenance too costly for the existing market. If it sat a few blocks closer to the hospital, it might have found use as medical suites.

So Cassia’s family’s timing was right. Victorian came back into style, in part as a reflection of hippie style.

Another twist in the story involves the building next door, an old white-frame church her uncle buys up on a whim. Apart from its location, there was little to support the decision as a business move. Another uncle, in fact, wanted to see the money used for a more promising development – there was a no-brainer payoff in that option.

When I introduced the church to the story, I had no idea where it would fit. Would it become the Tibetan institute Cassia’s father was helping establish? Or a hippie hangout of some sort? Or an underground theater? So it kind of sat there for a while, largely as the kids’ indoor playground, probably sapping up money that could have gone elsewhere.

And then it took off on its own, in part inspired by tales I heard of another restaurant and its live music influence. But that one was in a big city and was set in an old movie theater where the staff would party in the balcony.

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What’s happened to Portsmouth?

The Port City is hemmed in by water on three sides, and it’s running out of room to grow.

While the waterfront and beaches are part of the city’s tourism and residential appeal, the demand on downtown real estate has been going up steeply. Literally.

Not all that long ago, Portsmouth was a sleepy little New Hampshire city with a hippie edge and a lot of historic Colonial houses. Unfortunately, the city fathers had jumped on the urban renewal boom in the early ’60s, nearly demolishing one old neighborhood that was instead miraculously transformed into the Strawbery Banke living history museum. Visit it, if you can.

The side opposite the downtown wasn’t so lucky. Much of it, an Italian neighborhood of large Victorian houses with impressive interiors, was razed to make room for a small mall that never took off. It instead became a forbidding asphalt graveyard for private parking surrounding some kind of small bunker.

At least that vacuous mistake and eyesore is finally gone.

I’m not so sure about the replacement, though.

In what seems like one fell swoop, a monolithic set of five-story buildings has popped up to form a forbidding wall along the north side of the downtown.

It’s all new.
But does it leave you with any invitation to walk along this?

It has none of the variety and charm of Congress and State streets that run parallel to it just a few blocks away. It’s largely not pedestrian friendly, preferring instead to maximize every square inch of rentable space, and despite its visual unity has a cookie-cutter quality that bears no kinship to the rest of the district other than brick. Where are the quirky touches that abound so close at hand in the earlier eras?

There is one exception.

This break in the wall has some of the pedestrian welcome you might feel in the North End of Boston. The slight bend in the street and awnings help.

Downtown Dover, ten miles to the north, is undergoing growth of its own and seems to be avoiding this kind of monolithic development, even while going to five stories. Whether we can avoid something similar on the riverfront project on the other side of the Cocheco is another question.

In both cities, these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for defining the larger community. What does this say about Portsmouth?

Welcome to the bar

At the risk of being considered a prude, I’ll have to admit I’ve rarely been fully comfortable in a bar. Could it be a reflection on my tea-totaling upbringing? Still, I can think of places I’ve loved to listen to jazz or even read poetry to an appreciative audience.

The developments in my novel What’s Left, by the way, parallel events in at least one restaurant/bar I’ve heard related. And then there is an old church a few towns over that has a respectable history as a launching pad for hot musical acts. I’ve had some memorable musical experiences there, come to think of it.

Back to the book. Nothing seems to escape their notice as they anticipate changing their core business. Here’s how another passage stood in an earlier draft of my novel:

Our Taverna presents its own challenges. Under Papou Ari and Papou Perry, it’s been largely an afternoon refuge for retirees who are joined by tradesmen quitting their shifts. But it’s never developed as a destination for older students or faculty, who have gravitated to an English pub across from our Hoosier Dog House.

Barney senses the Taverna might attract a younger late-night crowd as the original clientele thins out. Plenty of up-and-coming musicians would be eager to play for us if the Taverna stays open later – and, as we discover, stay busy to the end, most nights.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy. She really can have a hard-edge reality.

So as we put the Taverna together? What would most attract you to a nightspot – live music, big-screen sports action, the crowd itself, a quiet corner for conversation, a dart board or pool table? Something we’re overlooking? Is there someplace you especially enjoy? Tell me about it, pretty please. Imagine ourselves sharing a drink.

Getting ready for the big moves to begin

By this point in the story, we have what could well be a business-based fairy tale. Everything seems blessed. For me, as the author, this required a lot of business-cap thinking. For the reader, though, many parts can be distilled and compressed – a suggestion rather than detailed descriptions will do.

Here’s how part of the timetable stood in an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left:

We modify our plan. Bliss will open first, at the beginning of summer. It requires minimal behind-the-scenes support and will give us a sense of the new building’s food storage and laundry functions. The traditional Carmichael’s and Taverna would close for the month of August and reopen in the new space at the beginning of the school year – each with twice the seating of before. Graham worries that what’s felt cozy might now feel cavernous if we don’t attract a lot of new clientele.

Barney will have his hands full training staff and adjusting to the expanded operation. What dawns on us is that we’ll be veering sharply away from a purely family-centered operation. We’ll have to rely on a large staff. The kitchen design, for one thing, now has men’s and a women’s locker rooms, plus staff restrooms. Not everyone can run home to wash up and change into uniform, not the way we have with Big Pink around the corner. Will Barney be comfortable in his new role? This, too, is a gamble. If nothing else, though, he needs an office to shelve his cookbooks. 

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Someplace around here I should have been asking myself what Harry Potter would have done in this situation. Despite the fact that many of these details are among those I turned up in my research, I’m on some very unfamiliar ground, as one insider reminds me.

If you’ve ever worked in a commercial kitchen, what would you most want to see in the new Carmichael’s? What common-sense touch would be most welcome from the workers’ end? What improvement is usually overlooked?

A little more lighting on their restaurant redesign

How trendy do we want their restaurant upgrade to be? It’s a great location they’re developing, and they already have an established reputation.

Here’s another passage I cut from the final version of my novel What’s Left:

Barney also welcomes the opportunity to have a menu more in tune with our vegetarian precepts. At first, he reasons this would naturally go in the cellar – Carmichael’s Underground, as he dubs. But we want natural light in the vegetarian enterprise and the building sits right at the edge of the sidewalk, so basement windows are out of the question.

The basement is more suited to the Taverna anyway,

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Hey, how about taking a break to make time for a shout-out? Who are some of your favorite food bloggers? What makes them stand out for you? I’m curious how many of your choices are ones my wife already follows.