Our parents worked hard, always, to keep a nice roof over our heads and food on our plates, but there was rarely money to dine out. If we went to a restaurant, it was usually a fast-food place where we feasted on little paper-wrapped McBurgers or a bucket of chicken. But as Christmas Eve drew near, as the snows swirled and houses and hedges were woven with twinkling lights, we knew we would soon be dining at "Famous" Bill's Restaurant.
Not Bill's Restaurant. "Famous" Bill's Restaurant. (I'm not sure what made it "Famous". Certainly it was popular with local businessmen and with tourists and locals alike.) Somewhere along the line Christmas Eve at "Famous" Bill's had become a family tradition. Dad and Mom must have pinched quite a few pennies to save up for this annual outing. Dad had to call ahead to be sure they'd have a table for us. You couldn't just breeze in unannounced on Christmas Eve. This wasn't the Colonel's place. This was a real restaurant.
Dad wore a suit. Mom and sis and I wore dresses. Our brother wore nice slacks and a nice shirt and possibly a little clip-on tie. Mom, a true New Englander, was usually sparing with makeup and scent, but for a meal like this she would wear her pretty red lipstick and a splash of perfume.
"Famous" Bill's was on Federal Street, one of the main drags in Greenfield, the county seat. Greenfield was big-time compared to our hamlet of 2,000 just a couple of miles across the Connecticut River. Greenfield had a population of about 25,000, and a Main Street with banks and a courthouse and a movie theater built in 1929 and an elegant old department store that opened in 1882 and a stationer's and a bridal shop and a five-and-dime.
Dad drove us through the bitter cold from our house on the hill, across the river, past homes with electric candles in the windows and webs of lights--icy white, or frosty blue, or twinkling multi-colored lights--draped over their houses and trees. When we arrived at "Famous" Bill's on Federal Street Dad parked the car very carefully, as was his habit, and we navigated the frost-heaved sidewalks glazed with thin layers of black ice and went into the restaurant.
"Famous" Bill's opened in 1927 and it seems it hadn't changed much of anything by the 1970's, when we ate our Christmas Eve dinners there. It was a classic American steakhouse in the best possible ways. You were greeted at the door by the scents of cigarette smoke and the astringency of gin and warmth of hops and the mouth-watering fragrance of sizzling steaks, and by Mike, a diminutive man with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, merry eyes, and a rather reedy voice. MIke was aces. He always wore a suit, and he was always glad to see you. He greeted our father and our family--and all guests, no doubt--as if we were the Rockefellers, and he couldn't be more pleased to see us. He was charming in that down-to-earth way that New Englanders (some New Englanders) manage so effortlessly.
We hung our coats in the cloakroom, a ritual that we never enacted at any other eatery. The elegance of it always impressed me. At "Famous" Bill's, you sat at table unemcumbered by coats and scarves. "Famous" Bill's was quality.
Once we were divested of our coats and hats, Mike escorted us to our seats. LIke all excellent steakhouses "Famous" Bill's was dim and smoky, all dark woods and dim lights, with rows of tables and rows of leather banquettes and a bar off somewhere in a nearby room. (You could hear the murmur of voices from the bar and the clink of glasses all through the meal.) We sometimes sat at a table and sometimes in a booth.
The first order of business was to order cocktails. We kids would get mocktails, of course--Shirley Temples for the girls, and, I believe, a Rob Roy for our brother. Not caring for ginger ale, I would let my brother have my Shirley Temple
The menu items seemed unbelievably fancy. As I recall, Dad would order steak, mom seafood, my brother a burger, my sister chicken, and I would order the ham steak. The napkins were cloth, and true to our well-mannered upbringing, we placed them on our laps. The food and beverages were served at a leisurely pace, in a gracious manner, on real plates, with real utensils, the heavy plates, and heavy metal utensils, of the old-time steakhouses, of the Perry Mason and "Mad Men" eras.
We would talk and laugh and linger over our meal. This was a special event and it truly felt special. There was very little squabbling among us kids at these Christmas Eve dinners. We were on our best behavior and didn't mind because that was how you behaved at "Famous" Bill's--you were your best self, and liked being your best self.
After dessert--little sundaes or silver dishes of ice cream for us kids; I believe Dad capped his meal with coffee--it was time to collect our coats and scarves and mittens and head back out into the bitter cold. Dad drove us home again, through Greenfield and across the river, and we watched the sparkling Christmas lights all the way home.
Those were always a bittersweet few moments for me. From the time I was a child I have always been conscious of the flow of time, and the poignancy of its passing. Another wonderful Christmas Eve at "Famous" Bill's had ended. But there was Christmas Day to look forward to, tomorrow. Finding stockings from Santa Claus at the foot of one's bed, and opening all the prettily wrapped presents under the tree while Dad played Christmas carols on the upright piano. Granparents and aunts arriving for Christmas dinner--Dad's "roast beef of old England" and Mom's delicious desserts. A play or concert written and peformed by us kids after dinner. And next year, there would be another Christmas Eve at "Famous" Bill's ...
We stopped going to "Famous" Bill's for Christmas Eve sometime when we kids were teens, maybe around the time my brother and I left home for college and the military, probably somewhat before that. Going to "Famous" Bill's is pretty clear in my recollection; stopping is not. Somehow the tradition just ended. And with all of us kids ultimately moving to California, and Mom and Dad moving to Maine, it was never revived.
"Famous" Bill's isn't "Famous" Bill's anymore. It was sold in 2008 to local businessmen. It has been a grill and a seafood place but hasn't made the impression, hasn't become the indelible local fixture, that "Famous" Bill's was for more than eighty years.
This evening I am meeting my brother and sister and their spouses and children at a local family restaurant in Pasadena where we will order, no doubt, a melange of burgers and steaks and seafood and vegeatarian fare, as well as coffee and pie. It won't be "Famous" Bill's, but it doesn't have to be, and in fact it shouldn't be. Life moves forward.
We won't hang our coats in a cloakroom, and Dad, who passed on in November of 2011, won't be driving us to the restaurant. But he is in our hearts, and will certainly be remembered during our chatting and story-telling this evening. And though Mom is in Maine, she will be present in spirit too, as will our aunts. My brother and sister and I will laugh and trade tales and catch up on each other's lives. We will refrain from squabbling and be our best selves. We will dote on the kids, and together we will all create new memories, and perhaps even new traditions.
Life moves forward. Farewell, "Famous" Bill's.
And "Merry Christmas" to you and yours!
Leslie Le Mon
December 21, 2014