Dont Rescue Me

Photo by Jeanne RiceWhile other people her age are lobbying for better bingo prizes at their local senior center, octogenarian Crystal Burns is working six four-hour shifts per week waiting tables at the Raft.

Sandwiched next to a Newport Beach shipyard, the Raft occupies a tiny parcel of brick patio on the waterfront. A mass of green-canvas parasols, flower-filled pots, a whitewashed picket gate and a rickety pier give way to pure water and sky, boats bobbing in their slips and an occasional dinghy floating by.

It's well past the lunch hour. A cell phone rings at a nearby table, bringing a group of women back to reality. Someone in the party inquires about their check. “You want to leave?” asks a waitress.

“NO!” they lament in unison.

No one wants to leave the Raft. Especially not Burns, who has been working there for the past 15 years. When owner Robert Redmond bought the Raft six years ago, Burns had already been there for more than seven. “He couldn't get rid of me,” says Burns, who calls her boss “a dear.”

Redmond describes Burns as a positive, loyal person who never complains. He tells a story of a Sunday when Burns arrived uncharacteristically late for work. She seemed flustered, so he asked her what happened. She told him she had missed the bus, so she walked to work from Newport Shores, which is a couple of miles away. But that's like her. From teaching school during the Depression in a North Dakota schoolroom heated only by burning cow chips to running her own sports-fishing business from a 36-foot cabin cruiser on Mission Bay, she has always had an ironclad work ethic.

Small and simple, the Raft's menu lends itself to patio eating. I like the juicy oven-roasted turkey sandwich, which is served on a baguette with cranberry-orange relish and field greens. The soup of the day recently was a remarkably fresh cream of asparagus.

Frittata al maccherone is a congealed pasta quiche I can do without. The specials, like smoked albacore fish tacos with Caribbean rice and beans, are getting better all the time.

My man introduced me to the Raft years ago, pulling his Whaler up to the tiny pier. But with his Type-A personality and the leisurely pace of the service, he limits his lunches at the Raft to days when he doesn't work. He's still a semiregular customer who swears by the chicken sandwich with melted mozzarella and sun-dried-tomato pesto and the vegetarian sandwich made with artichoke hearts.

On my way out one day, I asked Burns what the desserts were. “Oh, honey, there's one slice of a blackberry tart left that looks just delicious,” she said. And it was. This lady knows what she's doing. And she loves doing it: she has no plans to retire. “I just enjoy one day at a time,” she says. She has another ritual she's not sure is fit for print: each day after her shift, she goes to the Alley on PCH for an Irish coffee before heading home.

The Raft, located at 2816 LaFayette, Newport Beach, is open daily, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. (Dinner service available starting June 17 through September.) (949) 673-0793. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, $14, food only. Cash only.

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