Remembering the Algonquin’s Patsy Smith
By Kate Baker
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I spent some of the most hilarious moments of my life sitting at a table in the Algonquin, after hours, listening to Patsy Smith tell stories. The customers were long gone, but the stories of the day were fresh and fantastic. Patsy was the best storyteller I’ve ever known, and the customers of the Algonquin were her raw material.
Who will ever forget the newly-arrived group who insisted on a front table with “a view of the riv-AH”? Her telling of their tale lasted 10 minutes, was much-embellished and devastatingly funny. All her stories were like that. As we sat around that small table, coming down from the adrenaline rush that is restaurant work, Patsy’s stories would make us laugh until we cried.
When I first started working at the Algonquin, I was Patsy and Teddy’s babysitter, and Patsy was a young mother and waitress for Teddy’s mother, Peg. By the late 70s, however, Patsy was front and center in the restaurant and had become the heart of the Algonquin. Teddy kept the kitchen and she managed the front of the house. When I asked my brother, Art, for stories about Patsy, he gave a quick smile. “What are you remembering?” He gave a full grin, “Patsy was the go-to person at the Algonquin when you needed something done.” She was everywhere, yet you could always find her when you needed her. (Hear that, Arthur?)
She instilled in the Algonquin staff a work ethic that endures to this day. We split our tips, and that worked in the Algonquin because Patsy made it work. That, along with the shared work, made us the tightest restaurant group I’ve ever seen. We wouldn’t have dreamed of calling in sick unless we were near death, and the most common phrase heard among us was, “Anybody need anything?” She had a cleaning schedule that she made sure was followed – as a result, the Algonquin was the cleanest restaurant I’ve ever worked in. We dusted and polished those wooden chairs every week, for God’s sake. Tables were scrubbed down, shelves emptied and wiped, windows were polished several times a day. This kind of side work typically engenders complaints, but who would complain when Patsy was cleaning harder than any of us?
There is a whole generation of us, trained by Patsy, who are offended by dinner dishes still on the table when dessert gets served. Who see dirty wine glasses as carelessness in the extreme. Who move a ketchup bottle closer to the edge of the table as a message that we want it removed before we pay the check. Who cringe when a server puts a tray down on the table. Who don’t enjoy playing meal roulette. (Who had the cheeseburger? Who had the chicken salad?) Patsy wouldn’t have tolerated such sloppy service, and it still makes us itchy.
She took care of us, too. A couple of regulars started a cruel game out of making their waitress cry. Week after week, they would torture one of us until there were tears or they left. After a month of this, Patsy cornered them and told them if one more server cried, they would be banned. The ridiculous requests stopped.
She was the first face most people saw as they entered the “A”. She kept the wait list, since there were no reservations. I looked at the list often, and was amazed years later at how often people told me that Patsy always moved them up the list. If she really did, it was invisible. Before DWI became part of the lexicon, people waiting an hour or two for a table would enjoy many cocktails. Navigating this minefield of slightly (or very) drunken, hungry customers became her specialty. Serious problems were handled with dignity and intelligence. And we got to hear the hilarious story of it afterwards.
We all miss you, Patsy.