Adjusting expectations

Dining gratefully on Martha’s Vineyard.

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A brined and blissful bird at Chilmark Tavern. — Scott Plath

Despite our midsummer vacation being still weeks away, and perhaps Pavlovian in nature, my tongue began wagging in early July: Where to eat?

A common conundrum, I suppose, and the greatest “first world worry” you will read about today — our family’s annual summer “struggle,” given the oh-so-many dining choices that Martha’s Vineyard bestows each getaway.

Then, forced to pump the brakes, my conditioned response was interrupted. Surprised, then humbled, to learn that one of our mainstays — the Chilmark Tavern — was limiting reservations, now closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ouch, babe.

Alongside tempered enthusiasm, memories of the true struggle of the past two years came flooding back, that which restaurants continue to suffer at the hands of this damned perpetuating pandemic — the gift that keeps giving. These are times for adjusted expectations, a strategy that I advocate on the regular, when not blinded by self-centered whimsy.

Something else hit home. If I can forget the what’s-what in the restaurant business, how hard must it be for you normal folks to summon empathy, to adjust your own expectations? Shame on me.

In full disclosure, my wife Kathy and I own three restaurants north of Boston. We continue to struggle for survival alongside our industry brethren. Not so long ago, we were forced to lay off nearly 100 staff — the most difficult day ever. These days, we communicate widely, often through the 60ish team members we’ve returned since, appealing to guests to please remain patient and kind despite our imperfections.

Which makes me even more appreciative that the Tavern’s owner, Jenna Petersiel, returned my call that same day and found us a table. She remembered us, perhaps because we have shared restaurant stories during past visits, or maybe more particularly for the night my self-imposed tipsy, impassioned sister-in-law inadvertently sounded like she was trying to poach the chef — dear Lord …

Jenna is a consummate professional, then and now, against all odds. While she visited our table last week, we lamented the seemingly insurmountable challenges: record-high labor expense, labor scarcity, reduced sales, and ever-rising product costs. We both admit to wondering how it all ends as we face butter that’s tripled in price, and eggs. Beforehand, it was beef, chicken, and fry oil. Beer and pork increases are forecast. We fret over the point that our faithful guests will not forgive that menu prices must keep pace or we’re done. It’s simple math, not so simple.

Seeking rest and relaxation, we mixed our vacation meals up per usual, blending homecooked evenings (including Vineyard-sourced ingredients) — enjoying an incredible grilled swordfish from Net Result in Vineyard Haven — with casual spots like Edgartown’s Seafood Shanty. During a rare and precious “date night,” we escaped family for Woods restaurant at Lambert’s Cove Inn, where we met the new innkeepers while enjoying a distinctly upscale, perfectly prepared (prix-fixe) four-course dinner. We were both proud and grateful for each restaurant’s ability to (mostly) overcome current challenges while making our vacation nights joyful.

In the end, we were so impressed by the consistent excellence of the Chilmark Tavern — clearly conveyed by a hands-on owner, inspiring a terrific team while tending to the details … including the second best roasted chicken ever! That’s right, I ordered chicken — ready to be disappointed at myself for being foolish, or blown away. Thrilled at the latter — my excitement was slightly diminished that this particular (brined and blissful) bird came from a Pennsylvania farm, the result of Martha’s Vineyard’s GOOD Farm having moved off-Island and Cleveland Farm (the first best chicken ever!) no longer being in the fresh chicken business — as our favorite Island is constantly challenged by conflicting economies. This, perhaps, for a column for another day.

Scott Plath and his wife Kathy own the Stones Hospitality Group in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley. Scott was a columnist for Merrimack Valley Magazine for 14 years before they recently ceased publication.