Saturday, January 27, 2007

Not even Average...

One point of this blog, and the reason I gave it this name, The Critical Palate, was to discuss the extremely high number of bad dining experiences, from cheap places, to “high-end”. I make no secret to my disdain for restaurants. They expect us to come and freely spend money, but most couldn’t care less about the service, or quality of their food. I cannot comprehend the current reality of pre-fabricated food merely reheated on site, whether it’s boil-in-bag soup or “fresh” cut vegetables. It’s something disguised as food, but missing some essence of freshness. Friends of mine and I have begun referring to this phenomenon as “Stepford Food.”

What really kills me is restaurants that continue to recycle essentially the same concepts and essentially the same food. How many times do I need to read about a new bagel shop opening with an owner whose cutting edge concept is “bagel sandwiches using really fresh ingredients and high quality deli”? Oooh…I’ve gotta rush right over because that’s a concept I’ve never heard of before. When you live in area as I do, where there are several national chain restaurants, and a few local chains too, everything starts to look the same after a while. However, one local chain experience stands out as one of the all time worst.

This particular place opened about 6 years ago. It chose to use the phrase “not your average…” in their name; the inference you are supposed to draw is that they above the average on everything. The reality, to me, is that they are tremendously below average, if even that high, on every count. And so, without further ado…my tale of woe.

About a month after this place opened, we decided to go for a late lunch. I should note that I would never have chosen to go there, given its location. On a major road, but sort of removed from the beaten path and away from most of the commercial areas. My mother was with us, and we decided to give the new place a try, since we happened to be passing by. We pulled in at about 3:15pm on a quiet Sunday, unprepared for the experience.

We were a party of four (my mother, me, my wife, and four year old son). We were greeted by a hostess, who led us to a table near an open kitchen area, where they apparently prepare soups, salads and brick-oven pizza. There were very few people there at the time, given the off-hour, but the hostess handed us menus and told us that the lunch menu was still available until 4:00pm. We perused the menus, and perused, and perused some more. No service staff came by, at all. At one point, I wondered if I was going to need a shave before our server would come around. Finally, at 3:45pm, almost a half hour after we got there, I got up and found someone to bring us water; she went and found our waitress. I broke out my shaving kit—this was going to be a long meal.

The waitress came over, welcomed us, and took our drink order. When she came back, we gave her our lunch order. I should note that although they had kids’ meals, they did not have a separate menu; the kids’ meals were listed on the menu. While I don’t expect them to entertain my children, I would think someplace billing itself as a family restaurant would have a kid’s menu, and maybe a few crayons. Since they did not, we tried to keep him occupied, but he was very entertained by the Chef’n Ball pepper mill on the table. We got a lot of value out of that pepper ball, and the fresh ground pepper that had been in it.

Once that waitress took our order, I think someone pulled up behind the place, grabbed her and tossed her in the trunk of the car, and took her out to the desert to meet Joe Pesci, a-la “Casino.” She was never seen, nor heard from, again, during our meal. So, since she’s gone, literally, I took on the role of refilling our drinks, getting us water, and basically creating a fire to make a smoke signal for some new staff member to come and help us.

When a new server brought our food, everything seemed fine. I had the meat loaf, and it was passable. My son had a grilled cheese sandwich ($4.99, no drink) that came with fries that were inedible. Salt, pepper, spices…for a four year old, his mouth was on fire; even I could barely eat them. So now, we have a $4.99 grilled cheese and nothing else. When we mentioned this to the new server, who just got released from the methadone clinic, he scoffed at us and said “that’s how we make them.” Well, Mr. Courteous, how about we try to get some that are edible…?

While the meal was bad enough, the worst was yet to come.

So, we had to hunt down the server to get the check (I was hopeful that since I had worked so hard, it would be free), and it came to about $70.00. This was lunch for 4 people, one of whom was a kid!!! It turns out, they charged us dinner prices for all our meals. When I pointed out to the server that we ordered off the lunch menu, he said “well, you got 3 pieces of meatloaf, and that’s the dinner portion.” OK, buddy, but one piece was left on my plate, so I really only ate the lunch portion. WTH??? Now the manager had to come over to explain that the computers convert automatically at 4:00pm to the dinner prices. He still didn’t offer to adjust our bill, but I just stuck to my story, and finally he adjusted it to about $50.00. My mother paid with a $100.00 bill. The server had the audacity to ask if we needed change! We waited for him to come back with it. And waited, and waited. I think Joe Pesci came back for a second time…

While we were waiting, it really got interesting. As I said earlier, we were seated near that open kitchen area. Most of the kitchen was in back, but they had this small, limited open kitchen area where a couple of cooks were preparing small plates. So, we’re sitting there, waiting for them to print our change, and a guy wearing a chef’s coat that said “Executive Chef” on it comes out into the open kitchen, from the back. He comes out, apparently pissed about something. He walks up to a cook, grabs a ladle and starts spooning soup into a bowl. While he’s doing this, he says to the cook “Uno, Dos, Tres, CUARTRO”!!! (I’m assuming this is how you spell “four” in Spanish.) By the time he gets to “cuartro”, he is screaming at the guy, and everyone in the dining room is staring (it was now early dinner). The “Executive” chef then throws down the soup bowl, splashing everywhere, and yells “if you can’t count, or speak English, you’re not working here. Now clean that up!!!” and storms back into the kitchen. Apparently we get a floorshow with this awful meal. The manager comes back with the change, and we begin walking out the exit, when our original server suddenly reappears, hands us a comment card, and says “I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Please feel free to fill this out and send it back.” Oh yeah…that’s a great idea.

That comment card had an email address on it and I wrote detailing our experience. I do give the parent company some credit. The owner called me at work, and invited me to lunch with him to discuss things. He also called the restaurant and verified what I told him actually did happen. He also sent me some gift certificates to use in the future (like I really want these). I did take him up on his offer to come and meet him for lunch, and give him my feedback. He explained how service (with bad attitude and a scowl) is what differentiates his place from all the others (how many times have you heard that before?) and how ashamed he was of the experience (and well he should be). I ordered a hamburger for lunch that day, medium rare, and it came totally well done. I didn’t want to embarrass the owner by returning it because they were trying so hard. Later that day, I got an email follow-up from the owner, and he said that he was sorry my burger didn’t come out to my liking, and he appreciated my comments. He did incorporate my best idea-give the kids a drink or an activity sheet with crayons for that price. He acknowledged that they have a long way to go to get things right…I guess they never did—the place closed within 2 years of opening.

I have so many more…this is just the beginning.

How about you people?

No comments: