Every Day at Los Faroles was a delightful Molitov Cocktail
MARBELLA - Spain -- I arrived at Los Faroles, an Andulucian restaurant on Spain’s Costa del Sol in January, 1976, 18 months late.
My cousin, Los Faroles’s owner, Laurice Michel, whom I had never met, was short during our introduction. The conversation went something like this.
Laurice: Your Aunt Claire told me you were coming 1 ½ years ago. What happened?
Me: Long story. But I’ve just hitchhiked most of the way from Damascus to get here.
Laurice: Good. Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
Laurice: Good. Our waiter, Paco, quit this morning and you can fill in for a few days until we find someone.
A few days turned into - well, what’s another six months when you’ve been on the road one-and-a-half years?
Made for TV
Had the networks been looking in Spain, they would have found the perfect situation comedy script at Los Faroles. There was Miguel, the nervous houseboy and gardener; Angelita, the volatile but immensely-talented chef; me, the American cousin who mixed up spoons and forks and spilled gazpacho on the customers; and Laurice’s husband, Jose de Moya the musical talent who handled the bar.
Without question, Laurice was the star.
She greeted all her customers as if they were old friends and many of them, of every nationality, became exactly that. She made them feel as if they were guests in her home, which, in a sense, they were. She always dressed beautifully. Blessed with enormous charisma, Laurice loved to move from table to table where she’d reel off one joke after another, some of them delightfully off-color. And when she smiled, her wonderful, dimpled, 1,000-watt smile and let go with her trademark deep, throaty laugh, she endeared herself to just about anyone who met her.
Often, her customers, who loved the food and cozy atmosphere, would stay well past closing. If he was in the mood, Jose would pour himself a rum and cola, pick up his guitar and start crooning ballads and tell a joke or two, which meant his Spanish-accented English was funnier than the story. By the time he got to “Viva la Espana!”, everyone was on their feet.
Laurice would chime in with the occasional joke herself and the evening would go far into the night with no one wanting to be the first to leave.
Meeting in Montreal
Laurice, recently divorced, had met Jose in the early 1960s in her native Montreal at a well-known super club called Ruby Foo's. He had performed in the house band for eight years. She matched him joke-for-joke and handled his Latino machismo with ease. He called her Mee-chel because he couldn’t pronounce Laurice. When Jose, fed up with the cold Canadian winters, asked her to join him in his native Spain, Laurice, an adventurous spirit, said yes.
They bought some land on the Costa del Sol highway between two elite destinations. Four miles to the east was Marbella, a retreat for the rich and famous. Less than a mile to the west was Puerto Banus the swankiest port in all of the Mediterranean.
Jose, a man of many talents, designed the white stucco house to which they attached a bar. Eventually, in the early 70s, they added the restaurant, which flourished as the Costa del Sol became a go-to destination for Europeans.
Laurice planned the menu. She made the grocery list for Jose each day to buy the food Angelita would cook that night. She also baked apple pies that not only were prized at Los Faroles but at other restaurants up and down the coast.
Like many of the women on that side of the family, Laurice was a perfectionist. No detail was too small to be over-looked. I remember a number of occasions when Laurice chewed me out for setting a table wrong.
Los Faroles was fun, but it was a lot of work, too – like all restaurants. The long tourist season, during which they opened six nights a week, always took its toll on Laurice and Jose.
Beyond Los Faroles
Laurice and Jose had plenty of interests outside of Los Faroles. After arriving in Spain, Laurice quickly became fluent in Spanish, having already mastered Arabic and French in Montreal. [Her parents were immigrants from Syria.] A few years later she began teaching Spanish to foreign residents and visitors. Laurice was an excellent teacher.
Jose had a workshop where he made wooden planes. He also was a fine painter, producing landscapes and local scenes, and a sculptor as well, working with clay.
His favorite pastime was traveling by motorcycle into the mountains above Los Faroles. There he’d find a bar in a small village and spend his afternoons drinking red wine, eating tapas and conversing with the locals.
I joined him on a number of occasions, riding on back. Every time, it was a magical experience.
“Jorge,” Jose would say as we headed home, “For me dese is de best. I love being with dese simple beople.”
I lived in a small guest bungalow behind the house, off a courtyard rimmed with a flowering garden expertly manicured by Miguel. The Mediterranean was two blocks away. Each night I was rocked to sleep by the sound of lapping waves. My meals, cooked by Angelita and Laurice were, well, I’ve yet to taste fried chicken and garlic or gazpacho as good as theirs. For a 26-year-old bachelor, my life was a 10.
Laurice and I shared a love of books, writing and good food. I dove into her extensive literary collection – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Maugham and numerous books on Spain – books we discussed at length. She served as my mentor and first real editor as I pecked out stories on my portable Hermes typewriter. When Los Faroles closed on Mondays, Laurice and I often dined out, scouting our competition.
Laurice loved to throw a good party. Several times a year she would open her home to her many friends. Laurice would serve Syrian appetizers. Jose would make his famous paella, and everyone would go home happy.
Not All Roses
Life wasn’t always a party at Los Faroles. Anytime you mix a strong- minded Latino with an equally emotional Syrian there’s bound to be fireworks. I taught them backgammon, which they played each evening before the restaurant opened. The sound of Jose and Laurice screaming at one another over one or the other’s luck with a particular roll of the dice somehow drowned out the noise of the traffic whizzing by on the busy highway.
In the kitchen, which was ruled by the mostly sweet Angelita, Laurice would occasionally criticize one of her dishes. Suddenly, Angelita was no longer sweet and a cat fight ensued followed, eventually, by hugs and kisses.
Jose had the hot-and-cold temperament of an artist. When he was behind the bar on a night he was “off,” he filled the drink orders, watched his beloved Kojak on TV and ignored customer requests for “Guantanamera.” There would be no “coochie-coochie” – his favorite expression – on those nights.
Laurice had issues of her own. When she moved to Spain, she did so without her family’s approval. Left behind were a daughter and granddaughter who lived on the west coast, and four siblings, all in Montreal. Over the years, she had little contact with most of them. That caused her grief, which she mostly kept hidden.
In retrospect, the imperfections of the cast made my stay at Los Farloes more realistic. And, best of all, the occasional lows made the frequent highs all the more memorable.
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Postscript: I returned to Los Faroles in 1979 while on a reporting trip that took me overland from Amsterdam to Damascus and back. Not much had changed. The cast, minus me, had remained intact.
I returned again in 1987. By then, Jose and Laurice had sold Los Faroles for a nice profit – as they aged the restaurant had become too difficult to operate – and moved to a lovely home in the mountains. From their balcony on a clear day, you could see Gibraltar and the Moroccan coast.
Jose had slowed some but still enjoyed his woodworking, painting and motorcycle rides, though they were less frequent. Laurice was her vibrant self. We had a ball telling stories about the Los Faroles years, eating fine meals prepared by Laurice and drinking red wine well into the night.
My bond with them was such that Jose tried to talk me into buying land nearby so we could be neighbors. I did fantasize about it on occasion because I loved Andalusia so much. But the reality of time and place in my life turned the idea into a fantasy, albeit a pleasant one.
The following year, Jose had a heart attack. Quadruple bypass surgery followed. No more smoking, no more drinking, his doctor told him.
“You mean, no more living," Jose said.
He lasted five years, dying at 69 in early 1993. By coincidence, I was on another reporting trip, this time driving from Alabama to Panama. I received the news as I approached the Mexican border, thinking Jose would have loved to join me on this trip.
I called Laurice. We shared tears.
"It's so strange not having him around here anymore,” she said, “but it was best that he went. At the end, he was an old, old man. He was no longer Jose."
With Jose gone, Laurice re-connected with her family. She visited Montreal and her family travelled to Spain. That made her happy.
Sadly, a cheap electric cord got in her way one day, sending her crashing to the floor and, eventually, away from her beloved Spain for good. The cancer that came later and lingered for several years only made matters more challenging. When we spoke, she rarely complained. Laurice was a tough dame, as her generation would say.
She died in Montreal in late summer, 2002, with her family nearby.
Five years later, I married a woman whose family emigrated from Syria. Just like my cousin.