Behind the Plate: Newport waiter 'Santi' Islas gives service a simple name

Editor's note: This is the first installment of Behind the Plate, a series of articles about longtime local restaurant workers.

Editor's note: This is the first installment of Behind the Plate, a series of articles about longtime local restaurant workers.

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On a recent Friday evening, business is booming at A Restaurant.

Patrons descend on the West Coast Highway institution, whose roots in Newport Beach date to 1926. The customers envelop the bar three deep and fill the tables and booths while others wait outside to gain entrance.

The music is loud but not overbearing, the conversations engaging but not to the point of yelling. The fireplace glows, giving A Restaurant a warm, inviting aura.

Hustling within the bustling scene is Primitivo Islas, a member of the restaurant's wait staff for 36 years, starting when it was called the Arches. His attire is company standard: black slacks and white dress shirt neatly pressed, A Restaurant lapel pin attached to the shirt collar.

"You have to be clean and ready to go," he says.

If you ask for or about Primitivo, you'll likely get blank stares. The 54-year-old is better known by his nickname, Santiago, usually shortened to Santi.

Islas' legend at A Restaurant, buttressed by his long tenure there and at its predecessor, began soon after his first day, which he can easily recall: Jan. 6, 1980. The story goes that within a week of starting his job at the Arches, a regular patron asked him his name. "Primitivo," the trainee replied.

"From now on, your name is going to be Santiago," the man said, apparently picking it because it was easy for him to remember. The regular lived on Santiago Drive, about two miles from the restaurant.

The name endured to the extent that some employees don't know him by any other. That was a problem once when school officials called the restaurant asking for Primitivo because his daughter was sick. The hostess said no one by that name worked there.

Now, Islas says, the host team knows his real name, just in case.

On this Friday evening, like any other, most patrons are locals out for a night near the harbor. Retired Angels pitcher Chuck Finley sits at the bar with friends.

"I used to serve him at lunch," Islas says while scooting by on his way to a table.

A Restaurant operating partner Jordan Otterbein, a Newport Beach native, scans the room. He recognizes almost everyone.

That's part of what sets A Restaurant apart, he says. Many other Newport locales teem with conventioneers and tourists. No one knows the others' names or the names of the operators and employees.

"Not at A," Otterbein says.

A Restaurant has little turnover, he says — many employees are full time and stay for years.

Among the servers, Islas is a kind of father figure. "He's the ultimate professional," Otterbein says.

Islas lives in Garden Grove, where he bought a home. He's the father of two grown daughters and a 9-year-old son. He has their pictures taped inside his black waiter's notebook.

"I always carry them here," he says with a smile. "I'm a family man."

Copyright © 2016, Daily Pilot

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Article Behind the Plate: Newport waiter 'Santi' Islas gives service a simple name compiled by www.latimes.com

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