A Waitress Named Hydra

Rhumba and I both work. Moreover, we carpool. I pick her up each evening, and we head for home.

And, silently, we each review what awaits us there: Two hungry cats with special dietary needs. A freezer-full of plain and healthy casseroles prepared last weekend, which require a half-hour to microwave. A table to set and dishes to clear afterwards. Phone messages to check, mail to bring in, trash to take out.

And if we are weary enough, one of us turns to the other and says one word: “Palomar?”

“Palomar,” the other agrees.

Every town has a venerable, reliable restaurant that its citizens use as surrogate parents: the people who care of you when you’re too busy or weary or fretful to take care of yourself.

The food’s reliable and moderately priced. The wait staff knows you, as they know everybody, and nods companionably as the hostess guides you in. The dining room has character: not calculated by some restaurant designer, but homegrown from disparate elements that melded into a whole as the years passed.

In Santa Cruz, for us, that place is El Palomar. It is a Mexican restaurant. It will serve you crab enchiladas for twenty dollars, or as fine a bowl of beans as you will ever eat, for three. And fresh corn tortillas made on the premises, hot and sweet. And salsa that burns the back of your mouth, and makes you like it.

But if the Palomar stands in for your parents, they are eccentric ones. And there is only one waitress for the entire dining room. Her name is Hydra. Of her, more later.

El Palomar occupies what was the dining room of the Hotel Palomar, as classic a piece of ’30s Moderne architecture as you will ever see. The hotel is long gone; low-income housing occupies the upper floors. But the faces of dead Spaniards still leer down from the eaves.


As you traverse the old hotel lobby, more faces stare at you from the ceiling, lit from below for maximum creepiness.


Then comes the dining room, and suddenly you walk onto a 1930’s movie set. The ceiling lifts 40 feet on titanic arches which preside over a companionable darkness full of booths and balconies, hanging lanterns and potted palms, dark beams and painted panels.


Carmen Miranda might make an entrance from the bar at any moment; Bogart and Bacall could sit in a dark corner booth, plotting the best way to escape a vengeful mob boss.


For years Rhumba and I speculated on the decor; what exactly was it supposed to be? What fantasy fever dream had the decorators brought to life back in 1932? A Moorish theme? Persian? Arabian Nights? Certainly not Egyptian. Then one day we noticed the dragons carved into the green stone fireplace.

Hollywood Chinese. Should have known. Overlaid with a few Mexican touches, but otherwise maintained intact. Who would want to change it?


Dimness is the watchword here; in few other restaurants is the dining room darker than the bar. Servers in black clothing merge with the gloom, unnoticed by you until a disembodied hand throws down a bowl of tortilla chips or a smiling face materializes, floating in air, to inquire about drinks. I exaggerate, but only in a literal way.


And in that same way, there is only one server; I call her Hydra, after the creature of ancient Greek myth that had many heads. Though while the Hydra of legend breathed poison gas, the heads of this Hydra brings salsa and iced tea and tequila drinks. It is one being in many bodies.

One head of Hydra may take your order, but another might bring it. A third may bring your chips and water, or the first will. Iced tea may be topped off by anyone. Your check may appear from any hand: it may appear magically on your table, the departing back of a fast-moving hostess being the only clue to its arrival. Your credit card may vanish and return just as mysteriously, though the sound of “thank you” may be left hanging in the air by unseen forces.


And yet Hydra has your best interests in mind; the order is correct; the glasses, always full. Any complaint, quickly addressed by one person or another. Hydra knows what you like and how you like it, even if you have never met that part of her before. For she is a group mind that shares what it knows among all her component parts. Who are each formidable on their own merits. This is Theresa:


Hydra’s only weakness lies with tortilla chips. She thinks you should have many bowls of them. Truly, the chips are fine: warm and fresh and served with tubs of that scalding salsa that I have been known to drink straight from the container – sometimes to my regret, later.

And when you finish your bowl of chips, Hydra will offer you another; and another; and another. Sometimes she won’t even ask; she just brings. Rhumba and I draw the line at one bowl, or we’d have no room left for dinner. So when our waitress offers a refill, we refuse.

And that should end the matter, but it doesn’t; other arms of Hydra see the empty bowl, and swoop in to fill it.

“No more chips!” we shout: again and again. For it is here that the group mind breaks down; to each head of Hydra, the sight of a table without a full bowl of chips is an obscene, horrible thing that must be erased. We do our best, but sometimes Hydra sneaks a second bowl onto the table and runs away before we can stop her. And then we eat the chips, dammit.

It is a small eccentricity; we almost see it as a game, though I am tempted to bring in a small, battery-operated dome light with “NO MORE CHIPS!” painted across the lens. But in all other ways El Palomar serves us well, and we try to be appreciative, make our menu choices promptly, and run the waitresses as little as possible. Hydra looks out for us, and we try to look out for her as well, though we are old and finicky and eat inexpensively. She doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Things change; so do restaurants. But while the Palomar remains and Hydra lives, it is for us that phenomenon well known to social anthropologists of the modern age: the part of your home that’s not in your house. It makes life a little more bearable for two aging wage slaves; and I hope that wherever you are, if you need her, you have a Hydra of your own.

6 thoughts on “A Waitress Named Hydra

  1. azure

    A wonderful interior (& exterior) even if it is Hollywood Chinese. Is the outdoor courtyard glimpsed in one photo part of the restaurant’s seating?

    Don’t think there’s anything like that in the tourist town I live in, although quite a few people go to one restaurant after Sunday church for breakfast, that place may be as close as the town gets to the kind of restaurant you’ve got.

    1. admin Post author

      Yes, azure, that’s the bar/lounge, though you can eat lunch and dinner there even with your children, and many do. It’s a later addition: not strictly “outside,” though it has a translucent roof that lets the sun in. The bar’s noisier, with wide-screen TVs and less atmosphere, though still nice.

      The Palomar Hotel was originally built as a luxury hotel for the high-end tourist trade. Santa Cruz used to be where California politicians held their conventions, where Miss California was elected, and similar things. But the convention business had faded by the ’50s, and a big flood finished it off. Most of our tourism today is of the day-trip variety; and our modern restaurants and motels are more of the utilitarian style. They’re what we can support.

      Occasionally some local booster says that the Palomar building should be redeveloped back into a luxury hotel; and the building owner always counters by talking about his fixed-income tenants on the upper floors and says, Yeah, so where are _they_ going to live if I do that? Bless him.

  2. Mert

    Wow, what a lovely restaurant. I’m lucky to live in small city with pretty many small, independently owned places that I can walk to. It’s not great for my waist or my wallet! I followed you here from Calculated Risk. Miss you there; I really like your writing.

    1. admin Post author

      Good to hear from you, Mert. Back when I had my old blog, which ran on a different publishing platform, the stats/hits tool told me that I had a frequent visitor from F and M; I don’t get that level of information from WordPress, so I’m pleased to know you found me.

      1. MG

        I also found you on Calculated Risk. After five years of commenting and visiting CR daily I rarely do either these days. Can I ask why you don’t either?

        1. admin Post author

          MG, good to hear from you. As for CR: the level of discourse deteriorated over time as a few prolific posters with personality issues came to dominate the forum by sheer volume. Provocation replaced conversation. Most of the people who had something something to contribute, left. Eventually, I followed.

          There are still some nice people there, but dang if I know why.


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