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Monday, August 20, 2012

What’s Wrong with Restaurants

From the Vault Dept.: Although this piece dates back nine years, the problems examined therein never grow stale. As a former server, my years of dealing with drunk and/or insane customers throws my default sympathy with the floor staff, but the wretches too often don't get the training (or freedom) to deal with the teeming, hungry horde.


Drawing by Baron C. De Grimm
MY FATHER APPROACHES restaurant meals as a challenge. I won’t say he goes in with a chip on his shoulder, because he enjoys the ceremony of dining out, but it’s his wont to prepare early for the Two Major Sins. First: Receiving a salad with leaves so large he has to take a knife to it. Second and most dreaded: Waiting overlong for the check.

As a teenager, I took this to be more evidence of grown-up fussiness; now I share this fussiness. I haven’t had to wrestle a salad in recent memory, but if I could recover all the time I’ve spent waiting for a check to be delivered, it probably could be counted in weeks.

Whenever I reveal my line of work, I’m asked to identify my favorite restaurant. Then I’m usually regaled with some tale of horror enacted during a recent evening out. So, when I asked a few weeks ago what your particular peeves were, I expected a deluge of responses.

This wasn’t the case. What I did get, both as e-mail and in person, was a fairly consistent cross-section. Nobody is out there complaining about food, which is fascinating. I would think the sins of the many kitchens out there would attract criticism, but it’s the service that ticks you off the most.

One problem close to my heart was well stated by a correspondent, who dislikes “servers who insist on giving you back dirty flatware, usually forks. Implicit message: We're too damn lazy (or cheap) to get you a new one.” Should you get a new fork with each course? With the possible exception of diners, I think so. It looks good, food is more appetizing that way and it gives the server a chance to pay a little extra attention to your table.

Making it less tempting for servers to hang out with one another. As another reader griped, “I don't want my waiter to be devoting his energy to trying to impress/pick up the waitresses at the expense of doing his job. If I am trying to get a waiter's attention and I see him flirting in another area of the room and not doing his job, I have a fit! And rightfully so!”

Slow service probably was the most oft-repeated complaint. It’s so bad at one area restaurant, writes J.F., that “it's almost as if they purposely ignore you there. Getting a glass of water (or the beverage you ordered from the menu) is often a challenge. You can expect your appetizer to arrive after your main course. Your bill generally arrives 45 minutes after you finish eating.”

A litany of service-related problems was spelled out in S.K.’s letter, who griped about “Salads and appetizers that take too long to arrive. Then the main course gets piled on top. ... A salad should appear within five minutes, an app should take 10-15 mins. Soup should come right away.” I think he speaks for us all in lamenting “Wait persons who don't check back after serving the main course to see if all is OK. If something isn't right, you want to get it back to the kitchen quickly.”

And he added one I can’t recall experiencing: “Not being told about the specials. Halfway through a meal, I will hear a wait person reciting specials at the table next to me that I never heard about. This infuriates me.”

Then there are busboy problems, as M.K. notes with obvious passion: “Keep my damn water glass full! Sometimes it is not refilled for the entire meal; this is just negligent!” He’s also exercised about “Rolls and bread that are served at room temperature or colder. Butter that is served very cold or frozen and is virtually unusable! I can eat at home and get that by opening the refrigerator; give me a reason to want to come back!”

Let me add my own gripe about wrapped butter patties. They’re inconvenient to use and a waste of packaging. The better alternatives require a little work, but will save money in the long run.

J.T. noted an instance of what he termed bait and switch at a local place that promised (through dining room table tents) a happy hour special price on wine. After enjoying a few glasses of same, he was dismayed to get a bill for much more than he expected to spend. The discount, the waitress said, was only for the bar area. “They begrudgingly gave it to us at the discounted price, but why put it on the tables if it doesn't count there?”

Physical comfort is an issue. I fielded complaints about restaurants that are over-chilled. “Not only am I uncomfortable, but food gets cold quicker,” notes one.

Nobody seconded my mighty peeve about restaurants that dispatch servers to clean tabletops with chemical-laden cleaners, the mists of which always seem to gather between my food and my mouth so I get a little ammonia with my meal.

Cigarette smoke came under the gun, with accompanying cheers for the new smoke-free restaurants law.

But the all-time top complaint, expressed eloquently by M.B., was about server introductions. “I don’t need to know my server’s name. And when you get that, ‘Hi, my name is So-and-So and I’ll be your waiter,’ the subtext is, ‘You clearly don’t know how to dine out in a restaurant, so I’ll tell you.’”

The message to restaurateurs may be simply this: You can serve us anything, so long as you serve it attentively and without pretense. But I’ll open the discussion up to the foodservice professionals. If you’d like to weigh in on the customers, send me an e-mail.

[Note from 2012: Nobody did.]

Metroland Magazine, June 26, 2003

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