'Don't be sad, be happy," said the young Latino server to his co-worker as tears streamed down her cheeks. "How good was it?" he said. "So good it made you cry."
The middle-aged woman wasn't the only one in tears as St. Helena's Tra Vigne restaurant closed its doors for good Dec. 20. On its final night, Tra Vigne's typical hum of conviviality was punctured by exclamations: a patron telling a server how much she loves him and will miss him, a hostess hugging a chef, salting his kitchen whites as she buried her head in his chest. It was a wake, a mix of revelry and sorrow, with servers bustling to get everything right on the final night, just as they have for almost three decades.
Like a great Tuscan home, Tra Vigne's ivy-laced walls have stood proudly over Napa Valley, offering exquisite and generous plates at affordable prices. When I had little money in the '90s, I'd splurge there and was treated just as well as high rollers like Francis Ford Coppola. My wife and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner there in June 2011, a golden night when we drank Pinot on the patio as the Wine Train chugged by at sunset.
On the final night, when tables began to clear, the servers and chefs started grouping by the open kitchen. A spontaneous howl of appreciation rose through the dining room as patrons raised their glasses to the hard-working crew that made the magic happen every night.
For some of the staff it was too much; a few went back to work to avoid getting overwhelmed by the river of emotion. I even saw one resetting tables and straightening the silver, even though the last party had already been served.
Our server said Tra Vigne was profitable, but its lease wasn't renewed. The new place (to be overseen by Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow) may be great, but the death of Tra Vigne seems premature and unnecessary.
I've rarely been to a place where the employees were so openly affectionate with one another, and that made it a joy to be among them. My wife and I merely lost our favorite restaurant, but these workers lost their family, and a place "so good it made you cry."
Michael Shapiro is author of 'A Sense of Place.'
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