Two years ago this month we said goodbye to a dear friend who we came to know and love because of his extraordinarily loyal patronage at our restaurant, Sarello’s, and for his tireless commitment to the arts in our community. We think of him often, and Sarello’s has never been quite the same since he left our world. Upon his passing, I wrote a piece for a blog I was keeping at the time, and I have posted it again here on Home with The Lost Italian.
The Man at Table 34
James O’Rourke was no ordinary man in our lives. He was someone…exquisite. An angel, of sorts. Over the past week I have searched for the words to express how much James O’Rourke meant to Tony and me, and our entire team at Sarello’s. I thought that if I allowed the grief to settle, my intention would be clear and the right words would come.
But grief is funny that way, and I’ve discovered that Jim is a very difficult man to define, mainly because everyone has a different dictionary when it comes to James O’Rourke. Some definitions I’ve seen in the past week include: curator, mentor, lover of art, community leader, brother, legend, teacher, customer, hero, eccentric, uncle, trailblazer, artist, leader, icon, friend, and the list goes on. Jim was so much to so many, but for us, he will always be The Man at Table 34.
Mr. O’Rourke was our original customer – literally, the original. When we opened for business on Friday, December 15, 2000, Mr. O’Rourke and John Rowell were the first two customers to arrive. They walked in, introduced themselves and, after welcoming us to the neighborhood, asked Tony if his martinis were any good. Undaunted, Tony assured them that they were in excellent hands, and invited them to choose their table. Mr. O’Rourke surveyed the dining room and chose a table at the front, in the corner by the window.
They were seated, and Tony quickly retreated to the service station to mix up the meanest martini possible. After sampling the cocktail, Mr. O’Rourke told us that he would like to make a standing reservation for lunch, every Monday through Friday, but only if he could sit at Table 34. What a way to start the night!
For the next year, Mr. O’Rourke came in for lunch every weekday, without fail, and never ventured to another table. In fact, he became such a fixture at Sarello’s that other guests would stop us to ask who the man in the corner was, thinking that he might, perhaps, be a relative.
After our first year in business, we made the decision to stop serving lunch. As a married couple in business together, the pace was unrelenting, and we found ourselves in need of a little more down time. We had a very loyal lunch clientele and I dreaded making this change. I was especially anxious about how to break the news to Mr. O’Rourke. I should have known better. Many people were disappointed, some were upset, and some were both (my parents). But Mr. O’Rourke was gracious and understanding. “I’ll just have to come in for dinner more often,” he said. And he did, regularly hosting events after museum exhibit openings, or just to satisfy a craving for salmon.
Another year passed, and I grew weary of chance meetings with former lunch customers, who would always inquire “WHEN are you going to open for lunch again?” Some were relentless (again, my parents), and I’m sure that the guilt would have kept me up at night were I not so grateful to have a little more free time with my husband. But Mr. O’Rourke never once asked us about opening for lunch, and for this he will always have a special place in my heart.
However, by popular demand we opened again for lunch in the fall of 2002, but only on Fridays. Once again, Mr. O’Rourke was the first customer through our door. When he came in, I greeted him with enthusiasm: “Good morning, Mr. O’Rourke, it’s so good to see you!” I will never forget his response: he came right up and gave me a big hug, then kissed my cheek and said, “Please, call me Jim.” I felt like I had just been granted admission to a very private club.
Jim came to lunch every Friday for the next eight-plus years, missing maybe only two Fridays in all that time, and he always sat at Table 34. He was our original customer, in so many ways. For years our martini list has featured “The Rourke” – the classic martini, named for a true Moorhead classic.
When we were dreaming of opening Sarello’s, I had all kinds of ideas of the clientele we would attract. But never in my wildest imagination could I have created a customer as wonderful as Jim. His loyalty, humor and friendship were gifts in our lives, and he will be dearly missed.
So my final thoughts are this: When I no longer own a restaurant, I’m going to find a new favorite place to dine. And when I find it, I’m going to seek out the best table in the house and claim it. I’ll visit my table often, and from time to time I’ll order a fillet of salmon with a really dry martini. Then I’ll raise my glass and say “Thank you, Jim.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE, March 13, 2013: Jim was the founder and curator of the Rourke Art Gallery and Museum in Moorhead, two gems in our local arts community. A new exhibit opens this weekend, featuring the works of Jim and his brother, Orland, called Two Brothers: Two Ways of Seeing. For more about his legacy, and current happenings at the gallery and museum, please check out their website, www.therourke.org, and then visit them in person – your world will be better for it.