Eleanor's Last Dance


Besaw's Eleanor from Matthew Ross on Vimeo.

I'll never forget the night I met Cana.

I've loved Besaw's since I was a teenager. Growing up in Lake Oswego, driving to North Portland was a BIG DEAL. Especially at 3am to get curly fries and malts. Very outrageous.

After I graduated from high school - I only came back to Portland on holidays. But I still loved to drive over to Besaw's for special occasions. I have celebrated many birthdays in this place.

So when I saw the ad on Craigslist for a server position, I thought, "Well, that'd be a lark."

I was working at South Park at the time, having moved back to Portland from NYC. I'd gone to New York after grad school to begin my career as a professional actor, but ended up spending three years polishing my waitressing resume.

I had awesome restaurant jobs in NY. I was lucky enough to work for a man named Danny Meyer, who has a string of fabulous places. I got to work at Tabla (where Chef Floyd Cardoz just won Top Chef) and Union Square Cafe, the flagship property that has topped Zagats list several times. Danny Meyer is known for legendary hospitality - the hallmark of his fame.

Working for him was a gift. I learned so much about service, and what it means to really take care of people. When I came back to Portland, I didn't think I'd ever find a restaurant job, or boss, that I'd like as much.

And then I met Cana.

Cana and I just clicked. If you've met her - you may have had that experience yourself. Most people do. She is the warmest, most engaged person I've ever met. Our interview went on for hours, because we had so much in common. She'd been a server for years - and buying Besaw's was the craziest thing she'd ever done. She'd never run a restaurant, and had learned everything on her feet, the hard way. But she and I shared a really fundamental belief in that what makes a restaurant special is making people truly feel welcome and seen, and dare I say it? Loved. We both love people. Getting to serve them, to take care of them, fulfills a fundamental desire.

Plus, she really cared so deeply for the place. It was evident in so many small details - the flowers, the menus - always trying to make it better, nicer, warmer. You might think a place that's 109 years old would be a little ragged around the edges - but Cana doesn't let that happen.

She offered me the job on the spot, and I immediately accepted. That was almost 5 years ago. Coming to work at Besaw's was kind of like coming home. For a while I worked two jobs, but after a few months, I knew I was done with the kind of high-end places I'd thought were the pinnacle of my serving career. I love the sense that I could be myself at Besaw's. I could wear colorful socks, flowers in my hair, and still be professional.

But the real revelation was breakfast.

I got cast in a play and could no longer work dinners. At many places, taking a few months off to do a show means losing your job, or scrambling madly to find people to cover your shifts. Cana just said, "Why don't you work breakfast?"

Oh God, I thought - starting a shift at 6:15am? I'm a night person! 4 days a week? Is that even possible?

But almost from the first week it felt like the perfect fit. Turns out, I'm a morning person! (I started typing this at 6:30am). I love getting up and being on the road before anyone else. I love being the first person to bring you coffee. Seriously, no $300 bottle of wine comes close to the reaction that a coffee-starved person gives me when I fill their cup. It's truly precious.

And the regulars! Oh, they're something special. There are people who have been coming to Besaw's for years. To become a part of that - to share this long-term relationship with dozens, if not hundreds of people, has been a gift. I will miss them - YOU - so much.

I will miss being a part of creating new regulars - those people who stumble into Besaw's for the first time - from out of town, or just always intimidated by the line outside the door on weekends - who feel like they've discovered the place. I know how they feel.

I'm leaving Besaw's next week, not because I am burnt out or unhappy, though the truth is I have been a server for 20 years (I started my career at 19 at Kornblatt's - the deli just up the street!). I am making this leap to live my life as a professional artist. I plan to run my theater company, Dance Naked Productions, full time.

I have been an actor since I was a child. I come from a theater background (my mother is actress Vana O'Brien, and my grandfather is actor Van Heflin - and there are many others in my family). I have two degrees in theater (and a lot of student-loan debt?). But I never quite believed it was possible to make art for a living. (To be honest, I'm still not sure). Somewhere along the way I subscribed to the belief that you have to pay your dues in the restaurant industry.

It's 2012. I turn 40 this year. My dues are paid up. It's the time to leap into the unknown.

I will still pick up shifts here and there, and I so much look forward to reconnecting with you when I do. But for the next year anyway, I'm going to make theater.

(Shameless promotional pitch - feel free to skip this paragraph)

My next show is a 3-week run of a solo show I wrote called Good Girls' Guide: Dominatrix for Dummies. It's adult material - so not for the kids or easily offended - but it's funny, touching, and a play I'm really proud of. I am touring it to several cities this year, but I wanted to start in Portland, my hometown. The show runs Thurs-Sun from February 10th-26th at Theater! Theater! and you can find more about it here.

I also look forward to coming back to Besaw's as a CUSTOMER! I'll be waiting in line, right along with you, my steaming coffee cup in hand, wishing those people sitting inside, with amazing looking eggs benedict in front of them, would HURRY THE HELL UP!

Thank you so much for being part of our family. Thank you for helping to make Besaw's the place that it is - an institution, a Portland landmark, an amazing place to come home to. (And Cana - I look forward to seeing what you do with Wildwood, another Portland treasure).

Much love (and coffee!),

Eleanor