As the Sinatra of Sorella Italian Restaurant, Mark Downing is more than happy to sing for your supper -- after he's steered you toward the nightly special, uncorked the wine and sold you on the dessert you weren't sure you had room for.
But that's all in a night's work for this one-man cabaret with exceptional salesmanship skills.
"I don't dread coming to work because it feels like I'm out to dinner with a bunch of people," said Downing, 49, who has worked at the family-owned southwest Bakersfield restaurant for 15 years. "I bring people food and they give me money -- it's like, wow, I could do this every night."
And with the exception of Wednesdays, his only day off, serving and singing are precisely what Downing does every night. He takes to the mic at about 7:30 or 8, whenever the demand in his section dies down -- or when he and owner Nancy Cristallo think the intimate setting could use a dose of amore , stat.
"I'll sing for about an hour. My boss speaks fluent Italian, so she'll write down the words (in Italian) and I'll sing it. She lets me know what I'm saying.
"I have a big song list -- if they want a Sinatra song."
This guy isn't kidding about Sinatra. Though he preferred country in his early 20s ("It took a teacher two years to get the twang out of my voice"), Downing was turned on to the iconic crooner years ago by his former boss.
"He used to play it in the office, and I hated it. But he said 'This is my office and I'll play what I want.' After three weeks, I loved it. Then he educated me on Sinatra and brought a video down, and I thought, he's just talking. I can do that."
And in all the years spent performing his hero's standards, Downing has learned a little something about delivering a great tribute: It's about nuance, not note-for-note mimickry.
"I don't try to sound like him, but I try to emulate him."
The singing waiter went so far in his fandom that he booked studio time at the legendary Capitol Records building in Hollywood, where Sinatra cut some of his biggest classics. He was even fortunate enough to record with an engineer Ol' Blue Eyes himself used.
"I just recorded a bunch of Sinatra songs. Just allowing me to come in there is amazing."
But Downing's love for Italian singers doesn't end with the Chairman of the Board. While living in Hollywood many years ago, he discovered a spot frequented by Sinatra's fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin.
"I hung out there maybe 20 times when he was there and I talked to him."
But after being mugged, Downing was eager to return to Bakersfield and put in a call to Joseph's Italian Restaurant for a job. The owner recommended he contact her sister, who was opening Sorella.
But that tip led to more than a job for Downing: He's become an honorary family member of his boss and her sisters, all Italian immigrants, who obviously have a love for the food business. In addition to Sorella, owned by youngest sister, Nancy, there's Joseph's in Westchester, owned by Mary DiTomaso and her family, and northeast mainstay Rosa's, owned and operated by Rose and Frank Coughlin.
The family of eldest sister Ida, who died several years ago, owns Rosa's in Pismo Beach. Downing has joined the family for several holiday meals at the coastal restaurant, though he tries to reciprocate their generosity when he can.
"I remember one time Rose called and said, 'I like-a Nancy's website. How much,'" said Downing, in a dead-on Italian accent, referring to his side business as a web designer.
"I did it for free because I liked the way she asked."
Downing's guiding philosophy is that if you do something unselfishly for someone else, it'll all come back to you. And that goes double when you're a waiter. Call it karma tipping.
For instance, when the tables are turned and Downing is the customer, he always rewards the server, no matter what kind of service he gets. And that generosity never fails to balance the books in the big tip jar in the sky.
"If I get stiffed, I don't worry about it. I have a guy who comes in every month and leaves me $100, sometimes $150. I have no problem taking money. I'm a waiter, you know, so the bigger the tip, the better."
But even the strict 15-percenters get the same song-dance-and-service from Downing.
"I really like taking care of people on special occasions, even if they're young kids. A lot of times they're passed over, but some kids will give me great tips and I think it's because they like being treated properly. I treat everyone the same."