A recent Statesman restaurant review of the Owyhee Tavern noted that it lacked “campy remnants” of the Gamekeeper, the restaurant that previously occupied its space.
Campy as it may have been by today’s standards, the Gamekeeper occupied a space in the hearts of countless Boiseans. For more than half a century, it epitomized fine dining in Boise. It was also the setting for one of my earliest jobs and most memorable blunders.
Like the Owyhee Tavern, the Gamekeeper was upscale for its time. But how the times have changed! The Owyhee Tavern bears virtually no resemblance to its storied predecessor. It’s muted grays and browns, open and airy. The Gamekeeper was dark wood and red accents, dimly lit. Its heyday, as the reviewer noted, was “during a time when flaming cherries jubilee and lobster Thermidor were in vogue.”
My second job was working as a busboy there. My first job was on the end of a shovel, working for my father’s and uncle’s lawn-sprinkler company. I thought busing tables at a fancy restaurant would be a cinch compared to digging ditches in the hot sun. But I was 15 and knew diddly about the restaurant business.
First, a bit more about the Gamekeeper itself. It was the sort of place you went with your date to the senior prom or your parents toasted you for your college graduation or you celebrated paying off the mortgage. It was one of the most if not the most expensive restaurant in town, the sort of place most people went for a rare splurge.
And the sort of place where the wealthy and powerful dined as a matter of course. The lunch crowd typically included a millionaire or two, city council members, state legislators, corporate executives, an occasional governor or U.S. senator … these were the folks whose tables I’d be busing.
The first clue that the job might not be as easy as expected had nothing to do with the clientele. My shift started early in the morning. By 10 a.m. or so, my feet were starting to hurt. By the time the lunch crowd was filtering in, they were killing me. This had never happened on the ditch-digging gig.
“Hold your foot up so I can look at your shoes,” one of the waitresses said.
I obliged, giving her a closer look at the stylish-but-cheap shoes purchased to create a proper impression in my opulent new surroundings.
“No wonder!” she said. “There’s no support in those things. You need better shoes.”
She was right. My ditch-digging boots would have been more comfortable, if less appropriate.
Our boss was an imposing gentleman named Andy Horton. I was never sure of his title, either head waiter or maitre d’. Whatever his title, he was not a man to be trifled with, at least not if you were a lowly busboy. He wore an air of authority that had little to do with his neatly pressed black slacks, immaculate white dress shirts or elegant waist coats, of the sort favored by generals for formal dinners. As far as I was concerned, he may as well have been a general. I don’t recall ever speaking to him. Concerns that merited his attention were relayed through the chain of command, meaning the waitresses.
The waitresses were themselves a fairly formidable lot. You didn’t get a job waiting tables at the Gamekeeper fresh out of high school. Its wait staff consisted of veterans who had proven themselves at lesser restaurants and were hired for their efficiency and table-side manner. They were pleasant enough, but they had little patience with busboys who broke the rules, meaning me.
My first shift ended with a mixture of agony and elation. Never in my life had my feet hurt so much. But compared with digging ditches, the money was great.
The waitresses, on the other hand, were something less than elated.
“I’ve never seen such a cheap crowd,” one of them said.
“Me, neither,” another replied. “I didn’t get a single tip. Not even from my regulars.”
“You’re kidding!” I told them. “I did great!”
To prove it, I pulled a fat roll of bills from my pocket.
Imagine a pack of hungry wolves closing in on a strutting peacock and you’ll have an idea of the scene that followed. The only thing that saved me from annihilation or, worse, having to answer to Horton, was my total ignorance of the rules. The waitresses wasted no time informing me that the bills I’d happily pocketed were their tips, not mine, and that my cut was 10 percent. The only things that saved me were my youth and innocence. If they’d thought for a second that I knew better and was stealing from them, the result would have made me long for the relative bliss of digging ditches.
Later in life, I came to know the Gamekeeper as an occasional customer on special occasions. Horton and the waitresses I’d known were long gone, but there was a plaque in the lobby honoring his many years of service and his status as a Boise institution.
To its credit, the Owyhee Tavern is giving a nod to local history by featuring photos of old Boise street scenes as part of its decor. If one exists, it would be a nice addition to include a photo of the Gamekeeper in its prime. It had a place in our hearts, it was part of our history and it deserves to be remembered …
Almost as much as some of its former waitresses would like to forget a certain busboy.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org