Restaurant Row stretched away before me, quaint and upscale, into the evening darkness. I was reminded irresistably of the neighborhood where first I met Sunset and her remarkable friends. The resemblance was more a matter of character than appearance, but if places as well as persons had counterparts on both sides of the portal, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this street, and the district in which it lay, was one of them.
I trotted briskly along the busy sidewalk under the gas-jet street lamps, nodding politely to all and sundry as I went. Locals and visitors alike mingled in a delightfully random mix; I never knew who or indeed what I would lay eyes on next. The cold seemed no barrier to haughty nobles or humble working-class tourists or even the hardworking teams pulling delivery vans—though I noted a distinct absence of rowdy behavior along the lines of the impromptu carolers earlier in the day and a good league or more away.
Signboards vied to entice diners through the doors under them. The workmanship and artistry, including gilt lettering accompanying the fine illustrations, was a far cry from the simple banner-boards of Peak Place. Many also still featured the trio of shoeprints I’d heard about, though it amused me to see notably fewer than I understood to be the case not long ago. A culinary revolt of sorts was under way, it would seem.
At last I drew abreast of a broad but short alley, almost a small square, interrupting the jumble of buildings old and new lining the street; the modest façade at its back was bright even for this color-saturated land. Aromas of spice, herb, and oil, concentrated by the barriers on three sides, beckoned with delectable promises of exotic dishes from distant marches. And unlike any of the previous stops on the day’s itinerary, I had discovered this little gem all by myself.
Last summer Princess Twilight had hit upon an ingenious way to ameliorate the expatriate Sunset’s occasional bouts of homesickness—sending weekly packages of newspapers and magazines from home. In the autumn Her Highness had added a second set of subscriptions specifically for me, to be picked up at the same time and handed over whenever Sunset was able to meet up with me in person. Once I had absorbed every bit of information from the inky pages my brain and my notebook computer could soak up, I sent the whole kit and caboodle off to a very discreet archive in a very discreet government building serving, among other agencies, the Foreign Service.
I’d found the recent saga centering on the obscure family-owned restaurant to be entertaining out of all proportion to its minor importance in the grand scheme of things. Determining the actual course of events had required piecing together disparate bits from a variety of publications, not to mention a good deal of reading between the lines. I’d gotten quite a lot of practice at that sort of thing while investigating Sunset’s background, though, and the reward in hilarity and schadenfreude over the outcome was worth the effort.
New-looking wall signs had been posted on both sides of the alley’s mouth, listing not only my destination but a smattering of other businesses no doubt inhabiting the buildings facing the alley’s sides. I was gratified to see a decent amount of foot traffic in the tiny plaza, not all of it bound to or from the restaurant. I suspected the latter had boosted the commercial value of the adjoining properties. I grinned and beelined for the ogee-arched doorway at the top of the small stoop.
“Welcome to the Tasty Treat,” a chirpy unicorn filly greeted me from behind a lectern. I guessed her to be in her mid-teens, as shiny-new an addition to the cozy dining hall as her hostess station. “Just one for dinner?”
I nodded. “Yes indeed.”
“Do you mind sharing a table?” she asked with a trace of trepidation.
I looked around to see that every one of the half-dozen or so tables, each a pony-length in diameter, hosted at least one occupant. I turned back with a reassuring smile. “That would be fine, Miss.”
She blew out a relieved breath she no doubt fondly imagined to be surreptitious. After levitating a menu from the stack in front of her, she led me to a table at which sat a pair of mares. The older of the two was a tall, rangy unicorn with luxuriant gold and orange tresses over pale blue coat. Her petite earth-pony companion, by odd coincidence, was her visual inverse—aqua page-boy mane topping a pale yellow body. Their animated chatter over the appetizers broke off as we popped up on the far side of the table from them.
My guide cleared her throat nervously and asked, “Would it be all right if this gentlestallion joined you at the table?”
“Perfectly!” the unicorn mare, whom I guessed to be in her thirties, assured her in a strong, confident voice with a wave of a perfectly pedicured forehoof. The young earth mare seemed less certain, but nodded quietly.
The process of settling me at the table became a bit perfunctory as the doorjamb bell chimed with yet another arrival. The filly scurried back to deal with the newcomers, leaving me to catch the menu in mid-air and levitate it to a soft landing on the table in front of me. I looked down in some bemusement at the simple foldover of heavy yellow-ochre card stock printed with red ink.
“Silk and satin, I remember my first boutique job.” The same amused voice brought my head up again. “I wasn’t any older than that filly, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to keep everything straight.”
The other mare giggled softly, then replied, “You’re doing fine now.”
A snort answered this sally. “I almost didn’t, you know. But we shouldn’t be rude to our company.” The handsome, fine-featured blue face swiveled back. “I’m Sassy Saddles and my friend here is Coco Pommel.”
“Hello to both of you.” I considered them for a moment before adding, “Call me Cook.”
At Coco’s soft-voiced suggestion, Sassy restrained herself long enough for me to concentrate on the menu. By the time a solidly built unicorn levitating an order pad paused by our table a few minutes later, I was able to rattle off a coherent list of selections.
“A fine choice!” Coriander Cumin commended me in a hearty voice. The middle-aged brown-on-gold stallion sported the bushiest eyebrows and mustache I could remember seeing on any pony; all three tufts of curly hair waggled on his mobile face as he spoke.
“I’ll bet you say that to all the customers,” I told him dryly.
He guffawed, but shook his head. “Not at all. To those who make poor choices I say nothing. On their own heads be it; perhaps they will learn from their experiences. If they do not, well—no words of mine will enlighten them, I fear.”
The mares tittered in what appeared to be genuine amusement, and I had to agree with him. All too often the very individuals who most need help or advice are first and fiercest to reject it.
In a lower tone, and with only a glimmer of his previous humor, he added, “You seem acquainted with our cuisine, good sir. So few in Canterlot are, for all their cosmopolitan boasts! It is refreshing to find such a discriminating and knowledgeable palate in this city.”
I pulled a half-smile at the question buried in his little speech. “I have encountered something very like it before. Besides, dinner at this fine establishment always was a part of my agenda for today.” Like art, cuisine is a small but important part of a diplomat’s education—and, like many other elements of each world, it often was echoed on the other side of the portal, if not always identical.
After another few moments of small talk he bustled off to another table and the evening’s newest patrons. I did not fail to note his considerate detour afterward to make sure his newly hired young assistant posted by the front door was not in need of rescuing or bolstering. When he disappeared through the bead-curtained archway at the back of the room, I returned my attention to my tablemates, courteously talking in undertones, and smiled winningly. Theirs were names I’d glimpsed once or twice in print, but I had only the vaguest notions of the personalities behind those names. This was a golden opportunity to rectify that lack.
Sassy was aptly named, as were so many ponies. But then, according to Sunset, in a nation where institutional recordkeeping still was less all-pervasive than it had become in a digital age, changing one’s name was a less . . . bureaucratic affair. Coco, though not so effusive, was adorably sweet and kind.
The chatty unicorn informed me her companion had traveled across the country from Manehattan to see the capital and not incidentally visit with her and her boss Rarity, on whose recommendation they’d decided to try out the Tasty Treat. I heard quite a bit about the up-and-coming fashion designer who, along with her more famous heroics beside the rest of Princess Twilight’s friends, had changed both present mares’ lives. It was a fascinating glimpse into a personality from third-party perspectives, and I couldn’t help comparing the head start the unicorn had over her counterpart despite their similar ages.
Equestria had begun the transition from apprenticeships and one-room schoolhouses to a fully industrialized society’s highly structured mass educational system, but that transformation wouldn’t be complete for many decades. In the mean time, teens still—mostly—retained their status as junior adults able to work, not the economically dependent senior children they would become. I’d heard an earful on that particular disparity from all the Rainbooms, especially Rainbow Dash. Sunset generally bore it with good grace, but even she occasionally grumbled about being treated as if she were twelve and not seventeen. Given that she grew up in a society still clinging to the traditional view of adolescence, it was hard to blame her.
“Why, if it weren’t for her I might still be working for that—that—” Words failed the gentle Coco, but her scrunched muzzle said it all. I blinked and came out of my brown study to attend.
“Slaving, you mean,” Sassy amended acerbically. “Fashion is full of ponies like that, I’m afraid. But you’re well rid of her, dear.”
Coco nodded emphatically. “And it’s all thanks to Rarity—well, and her friends, of course. She even got me the big break I needed to get into the theater business!”
The elder mare grinned. “How many productions has it been now?”
Coco giggled. “I’d have to think about it and count them all. Especially if you include the Midsummer Theater Revival!”
Sassy laughed and shook her head. “You’re well on your way, then.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned to give me a speculative eye. “And what’s your business, Mister Cook? You know all about ours by now, I’m sure.”
“Not nearly as colorful as yours, I daresay,” I told her drolly. “Negotiations, meetings, and reports, mostly. Even more boring to talk about than to experience firsthand, alas.”
A baffled expression crossed Coco’s face. “But—”
“I’m sure,” Sassy interrupted smoothly. “Oh, and here’s dinner!”
I turned my head to see Coriander Cumin working his way to our table, orders held overhead in the purplish glow of his levitation. Under cover of the arriving dishes, all of which looked and smelled heavenly, Sassy shot me a knowing look, to which I returned my best innocent expression.
One of my university instructors once mentioned that excellence was more important than perfection. At the time it seemed an obscure comment of the sort beloved of self-important intellectuals, but the banquet that ensued demonstrated to me the essential truth of the statement. Coriander Cumin and his daughter Saffron Masala understood it deeply.
Dishes were quirky, odd, by turns traditional or experimental. Some were simple staples. Others were fancy celebration foods, as most restaurant fare tends to be. Recipes were played straight or combined fearlessly with other cuisines for unexpected fusions. There was an air of abandon to the cooking and preparation that gave no thought to perfection, instead taking astonishing chances in pursuit of excellence. More often than not, they found it.
I might not be much of an art aficionado, but I have a reasonably educated palate. Apparently it showed, at least to my tablemates; it wasn’t long before all three of us were sampling not only our own dinners but each others’ as well, passing bites back and forth. Interestingly, while Coco clearly enjoyed herself, Sassy seemed to have a better grasp of the subtleties involved. By the time we sat back, replete and almost somnolent, the wreckage lay strewn across the whole table.
“It has been a pleasure to serve you, honored guests.” Coriander Cumen’s voice was jovial, but with a serious undercurrent. I opened my eyes to look up, then straightened in my seat, as did both my companions. Beside the stout stallion stood a pretty young mare of similar coloration, who beamed happily at us.
“Ms. Saffron Masala, I presume.” I half-bowed to her from my seat. “You have done your family and your establishment proud. That was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had.” Sassy and Coco nodded enthusiastically and murmured heartfelt endorsements of my sentiments.
Saffron’s magenta eyes sparkled. “Thank you so much. Canterlot was not the most welcoming of cities when we first came, but it has become a wonderful place for us. Ms. Rarity and Ms. Pie helped us so much, and it is an honor to serve those who call them friends.”
Her smile quirked for a moment as her gaze met mine briefly; my brows rose. “I . . . see. I thank you in return, Ms. Masala. If I have any choice in the matter, rest assured I shall return when I may.”
“That is all we can ask,” she replied graciously. After blasting all of us with a last blinding smile she returned to her kitchen, leaving her father to present the bill.
I chatted and laughed for a few minutes with Sassy and Coco on the tiny square outside the restaurant, rather like my farewells to General Spitfire and her mother after the concert. By this time most of the alley’s other businesses were closed, so we weren’t blocking traffic, but at last the cold started gnawing at us, and we all had places to be. We wished each other a happy Hearth’s-Warming and parted ways, hoofprints in the snows falling lightly on the streets.