Our Reading Lives

The Well-Read Waiter

Jennifer Paull

Staff Writer

Jennifer Paull walks quickly.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stumbled onto a literary lagniappe: Matt, the incredibly well-read waiter at Café Jacqueline.

It started off innocently enough. He must have overheard my friend and me talking about our love of novels about decrepit houses while he set down our luscious, aromatic puff of cheese soufflé (Jacqueline’s specialty). He mentioned the novel A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, which neither of us had read. A smile peeked out from under his waxed mustache as he tantalized us with “decaying plantations… pirates…” before dashing back to the kitchen and reappearing with his copy, which he slipped onto the table so we could read the first lines.

By the time we cracked into our dessert soufflé, he’d revealed a love of Trollope. “Barchester!” We started to giggle like kids in the back of a classroom as he imitated Barchester’s Mr. Harding playing his imaginary cello. Matt whisked away again. Were we high on eggs?

With coffee, he brought his take on the best of the Palliser novels while we scribbled recommendations down on any scrap of paper we could find. In three minutes flat, we had a raft of suggestions and were united in our love of Alan Rickman in, well, anything.

As if this wasn’t enough to enchant us, Matt claimed to read his novels aloud to Madame Jacqueline herself, while they clean up at the end of the night. (She’s the petite and deft lady in the kitchen, behind the enormous pyramid of eggs.) Just think of Trollope’s gentle humor and pendulous sentences rolling around the kitchen, while the dozens of porcelain soufflé dishes are cleaned and stacked…

My friend and I left practically delirious. Having a great conversation with a bookseller at City Lights is one (awesome) thing. Sharing recommendations over soufflés was all the more fantastic because of the unexpected source.

How about you—what exciting bookish conversations have you had in surprising places?