Over the next 9 years, the Athena's volatile owner fired and rehired me at least half a dozen times. Once, after a long absence, he lured me back to work by promising in dulcet tones over the telephone, "You'll see ... I'm much nicer now." He was nicer at that point, but I had grown much meaner, and we continued to snap at each other until the raucous night that the restaurant closed forever in 1994.
The Athena had a legendary allure (see My Big Fat Mouth, page 42), unlike Papagallo, the restaurant that followed in the same location. It apparently had a loyal following, too, but I had such an intensely visceral reaction to its glowering owner, Ray Kattan, that I never could force myself to eat there. And because Kattan didn't do much with the aging interior, there was again that quality of déjà vu: Over there was the table where I shook with sobs delivering a plate of souvlaki to a particularly mean-spirited customer; here was the favorite table of that rich, neurotic (and stingy) vegetarian; and over there was the regular table of the two-timing doctor, who constantly cheated on his clueless girlfriend.
On my most recent visit to Café Trio, however, I finally felt as if most of the old ghosts had been swept away forever by the positive energy and graciousness of the good-looking duo of the namesake trio, Chris Younger and Tai Nguyen. (I haven't met the less-hands-on member of the triad, businessman Al Ritchie, though I have enjoyed the cheesy radio commercials for his surplus outlet business in the Northland.)
The distinctive new décor also helps banish the spirits of previous restaurants. It's so theatrical that it evokes both Norma Desmond's mansion in Sunset Boulevard and the swishy saloon in De-Lovely. The freshly painted bar, in fact, is pretty swishy on all fronts, from the tinkling of pink Cosmopolitan cocktails to one patron's cackling guffaw. "I don't need to see Disaster '74, honey," he said of the show currently running at Late Night Theatre. "My life is Disaster '04!"
"Still, it doesn't seem to be a gay restaurant," said my friend Bob, looking around at the predominantly heterosexual clientele in the dining room that night. "And then again ... "
Our server had arrived, bubbling with personality. Maybe too much personality. This effervescent former ballet dancer, Richard Strong, is truly a case of waiter-as-artiste. When he likes his customers, he gives a full-out, clucking, cooing performance. If he detects a chill in the air, he becomes as imperious as the Duchess of Kent.
"People either love Richard or they don't," Younger said later. "There's no in between."
At that meal, Bob found Richard's serving style "migraine-producing." And my friend Cindy later told me his rudeness had completely spoiled a dinner with her partner and two pals. For me, Richard's flamboyance is downright show-stopping, like a Bette Midler encore. Listening to him tell the story of his recent mugging -- the thief jumped down from a tree -- was as riveting as any one-man show I've seen off-Broadway. As a server, he might lack attentiveness, but as a performer he's divine.