Hard-hat lunch

Henri does Village People for a trip to Checkers in Oroville

CHEFS IN TRAINING <br>Student food-service workers Danial Rogers and Bandi McCarty make last-minute preparations for the Checkers lunch crowd.

Student food-service workers Danial Rogers and Bandi McCarty make last-minute preparations for the Checkers lunch crowd.

Photo By Tom Angel

All about Checkers: Address: 109 Table Mountain Blvd. Lunch (cash only) Mon.-Fri., 11:30-1:30; dinner (credit cards OK) Fri. & Sat. 5:30-9:00 p.m. For reservations, phone 538-2007 or go online at www.ncen.org/checkers.

My Official Village People Fan Club hard hat—one of the few things I absolutely had to take with me when I left New York—came in handy last week. I’d heard Checkers, in Oroville, served a good, reasonably priced Italian lunch, but I’d never even been to Oroville and had no idea what to wear. I knew it was the county seat and had heard it was a bit, well, less sophisticated than Chico, and so I figured the blue-collar, working-class look was the way to go.

David was always my favorite Village Person. I loved the half-laced boots, the faded Levis, the work gloves, the plaid pastel shirt with the sleeves torn off. Especially the hard hat tipped down over his sunglasses so you really couldn’t see his eyes. Très mistàrieux. You always wondered what he was looking at—and thinking. I was thrilled to learn that he loved to read and had a soft spot in his heart for stray animals. Though I pray Miss Marilyn never meets that fate, it’s nice to know there are people out there who care so much.

On the way out of town, I stopped at Mervyn’s and picked up a pair of work boots and then ventured into Home Depot—terrifying!—where I wandered nervously and hopelessly lost for about a half-hour before finally finding a pair of lovely doeskin gloves.

I pulled into the Checkers parking lot, which thankfully was fairly empty—my little Renault makes for a rather awkward dressing room—and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I unlaced my boots, tore the sleeves off my shirt and adjusted my hard hat. Miss Marilyn appeared very self-conscious and was obviously happy to wait in the car.

Located in the old Table Mountain Tavern at the corner of Grant and Table Mountain Boulevard, Checkers isn’t much to look at from the outside. In fact, the steel security bars over the doors and windows reminded me of parts of cities to which I’d just as soon not return. But inside it’s warm, comfortable and “old-worldy,” with high ceilings, a huge stone fireplace, lots of dark, polished wood, and frescoes—depicting the Italian countryside—painted on the walls.

Checkers is a “training restaurant.” Under the auspices of the Butte County Employment Development Department, Checkers trains youth—who qualify by income—to work in all areas of food service. Overseen by former Feather Falls Casino Chef Tim Yarbrough, they host, wait tables and cook. Pastas are all handmade, and all produce is organic and locally grown. The restaurant is also very good and very inexpensive—lunch entràes are $3.50, salads and sandwiches $3. I had a Caesar salad and a delicious mushroom ragu served over polenta.

Full marks to my waitress-in-training, who ignored my hard hat, even though it kept sliding down over my eyes while I was trying to read the menu and who gently suggested I’d drop my fork less frequently if I took off my gloves.

Checkers serves candlelight Italian dinners Friday and Saturday nights only. The menu includes bruschetta ($3.95) and spinach salad ($4.95) and several different pasta dishes ($6.95-$7.95) and entràes, including sautàed chicken, filet mignon and grilled salmon ($13.95-$17.95). All entràes and pastas include an antipasto plate, fresh bread and a house salad.

My lunch was so good that I went back that Saturday night for dinner, this time realizing that I didn’t need to dress like David Hodo. In fact, Checkers’ main clientele seems to be retirees—a disproportionate number of walkers and oxygen tanks on wheels—and, at lunch, county employees from the government compound just up the road. My gray Dockers (yes, with the elastic waistband, if you must know) and Gianfranco Ferre linen shirt were fine. My only regret was that Checkers does not serve wine or beer—a glass of chardonnay would have complemented my scampi and linguini ($16.95) perfectly.

When I got home, I put my hard hat back in the closet—a moi, un salle très familier—and told Miss Marilyn that I’d never again make her wear that little pair of chaps.