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The Last Supper Club–prologue

it’s an hoUr Before oUr last service Begins, and Jorge is leaning against the balcony rail above the beer garden below, and he’s poised like a small god, reminding me suddenly of Kurtz as he surveys his strange and fragile empire just before it—and he—is consumed by the wilderness. Jorge is bald but has a grizzled black and gray beard that gives him an air of power, wisdom, and time having been served in one institution or another. Maybe prison, maybe professional cage fight- ing, or maybe just lots and lots of time in restaurants. Hundreds of peo- ple loiter below, some waiting in line for beer, some playing a game with beanbags called cornhole, others just eating and drinking with their friends, family, kids, and dogs. Hundreds of them and it’s just the mid- dle of the afternoon—usually any restaurant’s deadest time of day—but this place is as busy as a hub airport at peak rush hour. Jorge is the ex- ecutive chef of both the beer hall and garden below and our restaurant onthissecondfloor,TheBrewer’sTable.He’sstandingofftothesideof the balcony, away from the last family meal he just made for us all. It’s his favorite dish, frijoles con puerco, the one he used to beg his Yucate- can grandmother to make.

“It’s super simple,” he said when he served us. He was choking up, but he muscled through as he rubbed the big rooster tattoo on his fore- arm. “But it’s so delicious. I can’t talk about it or I’m going to fucking cry. And the mojo rojo is super spicy. Seriously. Don’t fuck around with it or it’ll burn your face off. Enjoy.”

We put seven tables together on the balcony so that we could, for one last time, all eat together. We didn’t always have time for family



meal, but when we did, it invariably made the night better. Often the chefs would have only ten minutes or so before service was to begin to cook for themselves and the front-of-house staff, and they’d whip up stir-fries or fish tacos or these crazy casseroles and line them up in hotel pans or on sheet trays right on the pass for everybody who’s got time to dig in and chow down, all while belting out one Whitney Hous- ton or Nine Inch Nails song after another. And while we often ate at the same time, until tonight, at this big, long plank of a table, we have never eaten, all of us, together.

Today, everybody piles up their frijoles, grabs some warm tortillas, limes, a squirt of chipotle crema, a couple of drops of Jorge’s mojo, and finds a seat at the long table. We eat and chat and try to laugh at Pleezer, the Weezer cover band playing below, because the only other option is to openly weep, and there will be time enough for that later.

“So if this is the last supper,” Baby Steps says, “who’s Jesus and who’s Judas?”

Baby Steps is one of our slow but methodical bartenders. He doesn’t drink anymore, and as he floats his question he’s gifting each of us rare bottles of beer and wine that he has stockpiled over the years. He’s try- ing to be funny with his question, I think, to undermine how sweet his gesture is, but it’s a big question and a big, sweet gesture. As he comes around, he hands me an ale brewed in Belgium by Trappist monks that’s sold only at their monastery. One eleven-ounce bottle is proba- bly worth a hundred bucks—if you could even find one on this conti- nent. They don’t even bother putting labels on their bottles.

Everybody laughs at Baby Steps’s joke-question, but nobody really replies. We all know Jorge is Jesus and Omar—the founder and owner of the Surly Brewing Company and this whole destination brewery and pair of restaurants—no question, Omar is Judas.

After a two-and-a-half-year run that included a Cochon 555 victory, two James Beard nominations as well as a finalist nod for Best Chef in the Midwest, and even a coveted place on Food & Wine magazine’s very short list of the best restaurants in America, Omar is shutting us down.

The party line he gave us a few months ago at an all-staff meeting on a chilly day in May felt like a bunch of corporate-speak horseshit. “The Surly Brewing Company, you know,” he said, his eyes darting once around the room and then settling on the tops of his shoes. “Well, we’ve



always been at the forefront of innovation, and, having accomplished the goals we set out for ourselves, we’ve decided to challenge ourselves with something new . . .”

He left the meeting quickly without shaking anybody’s hand.

Most guessed it came down to a pissing contest between Omar and Jorge. Profit margins, of course, were likely also a big part of the de- cision. It might just be the new corporate manager from the Granite City conglomeration who took over the beer hall recently. Nobody I ever talked to actually knew the real reason or if they did wouldn’t say much about it.

All any of us really know is that today is it. The end.

Before we clean up from our meal and get ready for our last service, the whole front- and back-of-house staff gathers for one last picture together.

“All right,” Emily, our manager, says, framing us all on the screen of her phone. The hum of the crowd below begins to grow as Pleezer nears the chorus of “The Sweater Song.”

“On three,” Emily says. “One, two, three!”
“Queso!” we all say, and every one of us gives Omar the finger.

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