If you've been reading along for a bit you've already figured out that the Cafe Alcazar is sort of the spiritual living room of the MadriGalz. It's a fine match of philosophies. Our simple a capella arrangements of Christmas carols reflect several centuries. The Cafe is nestled inside a lovely turn-of-the-century hotel which is now home to both the offices of the City of St. Augustine and the breathtaking collection of the Lightner Museum, where simple, beautiful food is served and after lunch people are happier than they expected to be. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the Cafe itself is in the deep end of antique (and now completely dry) swimming pool. The Cafe is centered in an assortment of shops featuring art and antiques, where the theme of straddling centuries is perfectly reflected.
There are two stories here, really: the story of the Cafe, and the story of How The MadriGalz and The Cafe Make Christmas Magic. They're as entwined as Barbry Allen and Sweet William, so you may have to hack through the briars with me a bit. The best way to share a restaurant experience, of course, is to take you there, and since I can't do that I have to use words. So it'll take a bit longer. Be patient if you can, my dears.
The Cafe part of it began for me with an incidental visit. Someone said, "Let's have lunch at the Alcazar" and I found myself sitting over a plate of something called "Artichokes Giovanni" which was more or less artichokes and mushrooms served over pasta, with a delicate topping of beautifully browned bread crumbs and a hint of lemon. It was preceded by a green salad with a tahini dressing from which I've never quite recovered, to this day. And though it's all a bit foggy, that first visit of mine, I think it may have been someone's birthday or some other celebratory occasion, for there was coffee and a memorable oatmeal cookie pie with ice cream (this still brings a tear to the eye of those who've tasted it). The food was good. In fact, the food was VERY good. But there was something else happening, too, something that happens at the most special of restaurants, something I wish I could better put into words: everyone felt right at home. I don't mean "at home" in the sense that you could take off your shoes or do anything rude at the table without reproach. I mean that there was a feeling of connection. You nodded at people seated at neighboring tables, because you had the feeling they might be distant cousins you'd forgotten. There was sense all around the room that you'd finally found a seat at a table where they remembered you, where they brought out the best wine for you, where you could rest, and eat, where the music suited you as perfectly as the wine and where you almost thought you might have invited all these (strangers) people to eat lunch with you. Upon reflection I realized that I'd had the feeling of stepping past a long line of people who had reservations or were trying to get a table, being recognized by the maitre'd and immediately seated at my favorite table and served something special that wasn't on the menu. And that's what it was, and is, to have lunch at the Cafe Alcazar.
Lorie sold the restaurant a year or so ago, but I asked her about its history because I had no memory of its evolution. She worked at Cafe Alcazar for nearly 20 years and owned it for almost 12. When asked about the menu, she gives all the credit to its previous owner, Maureen, claiming that she herself isn't much of a cook, but Maureen's innovations ("She is incredibly talented with food," Lorie says) needed no refinement. Remember the Curried Chicken Salad recipe I gave you? That must have been Maureen's creation, originally, perhaps including its setting in the elegant menu offering "East Meets West", where Curried Chicken Salad sets off green garden salad and fresh fruit to perfect advantage. And the Greek salad? The crepes, filled with something fresh and delightful du jour? All Maureen, or maybe one of a succession of chefs who worked in the kitchen over the years, each touch changing and refining the result. But the sense in the place that you're one of the insiders, that the maitre'd seated you at your favorite table, without you asking or even offering a tip? That's all Lorie.
And here the two stories begin their intersection. There had been a madrigal singing group in St. Augustine for some years under the direction of Sister Patricia Eileen (SPE), based at the Cathedral. (In fairness I should say that as in many small towns the best musical talent tends to find its way to the local churches; St. Augustine is no exception. There is today a fine group called Vivace and there are probably others doing period music. Religious feeling has less to do with it than you might think. I promise a story about this some of these days, my dears, to do with pipe organs and dreams and people who are part of both.) Both Miss Judy and I had been members and when it faded away, we continued to sing madrigals in different vocal configurations when we could. We worked as a trio for a time with our soprano friend Tracy until she moved away and the singing of Christmas madrigals was set aside. We would get the odd request every year, but close harmonies don't work with two voices unless the arrangements are very carefully constructed. And so we left it.
One year we got a couple of requests at about the same time. One was to do something purely for the sake of entertainment, and one was to provide the music for a holiday church service, but we had no soprano. Oh, I shouldn't say that: we had Miss Judy and she is an amazing soprano, actually, but she's too strong a weapon to post at that station. With her vocal range and ability to sight-read and sing different parts, she always served as our utility player. With my own limitations, this meant we needed someone with a clear, blend-able upper range, who could sing the melody in most cases, so that I could sing the lower harmony and Miss Judy could do whatever the hell magical thing is it that she does. And suddenly, I thought of Lis. I'd been listening to her sing for more years than I cared to count, but had recently come into closer orbit with her, gotten to know her, and dared to ask. And she said yes! Imagine. This amazing voice, this astonishing person, deigned to sing with me and Miss Judy, and there we were, unexpectedly: The MadriGalz.
So there, my loves, are the two winding stories. You already know that The MadriGalz try to sing at the Cafe Alcazar every Christmas, and that this year we were invited to sing at Creekside Dinery and Saltwater Cowboy's. You know we have a CD and you know how much we love singing together, and you know our hiberation is underway and will end when the days begin to grow shorter once again.