When a man called the Sweet Life CafÃ© to make a reservation for six people, explaining he was proposing to his girlfriend and both his and her parents would be there so he requested the back room, owner Susan Guerin knew something was up.
“It seemed to be a little odd for a proposal, but things do happen,” Mrs. Guerin said at her Oak Bluffs restaurant earlier this week. Mrs. Guerin and her husband, Pierre, have hosted President and Mrs. Obama twice before at their restaurant, and they had their fingers crossed for a third time. “You’re never given any forewarning. We kind of had our feelers up that he’s on Island and we’re very hopeful, but we don’t expect anything. We don’t know if we’re going to get lucky again.”
Last year the Obamas hid their reservation as a birthday party for 10 people, and so when the oddly planned engagement reservation came up, it sent up a flare. But Monday brought gusting winds and rains, causing Oak Bluffs to lose power for hours, and Mrs. Guerin said they were unsure if they would even be able to be open for dinner.
“The electricity went out at 4:15 Monday afternoon and didn’t come back until quarter of six, and I didn’t know when it was going to come back on,” Mrs. Guerin explained. “I was ready to close down the restaurant for the night. We can’t cook food in the dark or without electricity. I thought, that’s it.”
But when the electricity came back on Mrs. Guerin and her staff were back into restaurant mode. “A gentleman came in and asked to use the restroom. I asked if he had a reservation. He said, ‘I’m with the President.’”
Within the hour, more Secret Service agents began to show up, followed by the bomb-sniffing dog 15 minutes before the President and First Lady’s arrival. “And then at 7:30 p.m. as planned, [President] Obama, Michelle and their friends, Eric and Cheryl Whitaker and Valerie Jarrett, came in.”
Mr. Obama had a pasta and lobster dish to start, followed by what he had last year — steak and braised short ribs. Mrs. Obama started with a local greens salad and had the same entrÃ©e as her husband but asked to substitute lobster instead of the short ribs.
“We accommodated that without a problem,” Mrs. Guerin said.
“The waiter came back and said, ‘There’s all these changes on the menu,’” chef Scott Ehrlich recalled. “I said, ‘What table is this?’ ‘Oh it’s the President.’ You just can’t let anyone change everything, but I guess for Michelle, if she wants lobster on the plate we’ll do it,” he said jokingly.
Once Mrs. Guerin came back to the kitchen and gave Mr. Ehrlich the nod, it was go time. Even with three Secret Servicemen watching his preparations, Mr. Ehrlich kept his cool for the most part. “I did get a little nervous, I dropped a few things,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Mrs. Guerin joked.
“I try not to think about it too much. If you get nervous then that could be bad . . . I tried to keep my calm; I already know all these dishes, it’s not like I’m creating a new menu for them,” Mr. Ehrlich said, adding:
“It was fun, it’s exciting. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Especially with the weather the Vineyard saw this week, Sweet Life really didn’t know what was going to happen. But in the end, the rain worked in their favor. Because there were fewer reservations, the Sweet Life staff welcomed a slow night for once.
“It was a perfect night. We didn’t take a lot of reservations and it was raining and I think he had a really mellow, great time here,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “We had time to make it nice and relaxed. It was enjoyable.”
The Obamas and friends sat in the back room, where Mrs. GuÃ©rin eventually closed the doors to respect their privacy. They had one server and one busser, and three Secret Servicemen sat outside of the doors at the central table, something Mrs. Guerin thinks quieted the buzz a bit.
“They’re nice and normal, you just want them to be your best friend,” Mrs. Guerin said. “This year I gave them a hug and a kiss on the way out, and last year I almost did. They’re so warm and friendly, and that’s my nature. It’s year three but it’s still exciting. I was almost in tears; I had to compose myself.
“When they left, it was like, Oh they came and they left,” she added. “There wasn’t quite as much fanfare, and maybe it was the weather that kept everybody at bay.”
Mrs. Guerin said although people offered to pay for their meals on Monday night, last year’s scene was a little bit more chaotic, with people running in after last year’s dinner to view where the first couple had sat. “People wanted to take the glass he drank from, it was crazy,” she said. “This year there was none of that.
“Everyone who comes to the Sweet Life Cafe is a VIP, but that was just a little notch above,” she said, smiling. “Three’s a charm, but as we say in French there’s never two without three.”
The Obamas took the time to shake guests’ hands on their way out of Sweet Life and did so again the next night at State Road restaurant in West Tisbury. The Obamas and friends Vernon Jordan, Ann Jordan, Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker and Ms. Jarrett dined at Mary and Jackson Kenworth’s restaurant for nearly three hours Tuesday night, ordering a special lobster tempura for the table to start.
“It went great,” Mrs. Kenworth said the morning after their special guests had dined on the porch section of her restaurant. “From all reports and everything, it seemed like they really enjoyed themselves.”
Mrs. Kenworth greeted the Obamas in the front entryway before they sat down for dinner and ordered a variety of food to split between friends. Although Mrs. Kenworth said she could not share with the Gazette what Mr. and Mrs. Obama had for dinner, the specials that night were striped bass with creamed leeks and a port wine reduction sauce and the tempura.
“It was like a real mix of buzz and vibrance and excitement that you could feel,” she described. “It was really calm and smooth and respectful at the same time. People were happy that they happened to be here at the same time. They respected their privacy but there was definitely a buzz in the restaurant.”
In the time that the Gazette pulled Mrs. Kenworth away from her manager duties that morning, one thing was clear: “They were remarkable.
“They were extremely generous on the way out; they stopped and said hi to all the staff and the restaurant customers that were in the front area,” she said. “They shook everyone’s hand, they had something to say to everyone. They were extremely lovely.”
Although Mr. Kenworth has cooked for the Clintons on the Vineyard in the past, the Obamas were a first for the longtime chef. “They went out to have a nice dinner and they let us do what we do and they had a good time,” Mrs. Kenworth said. “It was really great.”
The kitchen was thrilled to cook for commander in chief and company. “They were excited. Sure we were nervous, but more excited than nervous,” she said. “It’s a big shot of adrenaline at the end of a long summer.”