Working Too Hard

Recently I was on the road and arrived at my hotel at about 8 p.m.  I hadn’t eaten, so after dropping off my bag in my room I visited the hotel restaurant, had a cheeseburger for dinner, and then was tempted by an apple crumble for dessert.  I asked if I could get it with ice cream, and the waiter said that would be fine.  The combination above is what arrived.

In case you’re wondering, on the plate that’s closest to the camera, that’s a kind of crumble pie, with no apple pieces, at the far left, two little green apple spheres with faux stems in the middle, and an apple slice dipped in dark chocolate in a mold made out of a cheesecake-like substance on the right, all set against the backdrop of Aztec-like lines inscribed in dark chocolate that was hardened on the plate.  The bowl at the far side of the plate contains my scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I’m sure I was supposed to admire the artistry of the presentation of the dessert, and the delicate nature of the plating. Mostly, though, I wondered how I was supposed to eat the various elements. I spooned the scoop of ice cream onto the crumble pie to let it melt, grabbed one of the little green apples by its faux stem and ate it, and then was stumped.  Was the molded cheesecake-chocolate option on one side of the plate supposed to be eaten in conjunction with the crumble pie at the other end?  If so, how?  And what was I expected to do with the chocolate markings –scrape them off and chow them down with the crumble pie, or the apples, or the cheesecake chocolate mold, or all three?  I ended up alternating between bites of the crumble pie and the molded object, ate the second little green apple at some point in between, and left the dark chocolate stripes alone.  It was fine,  I guess, but it would have been even better if I’d just gotten what I expected in the first place — a single dish that contained warm spiced apple slices, crumble, and ice cream on top that you could eat in the normal way.

I admire haute cuisine, and the efforts of chefs to bring creativity to the art of cooking and to reimagine some time-honored dishes.  But there’s a time and a place for it — and a late dinner at a hotel restaurant isn’t it.  It was clear that the kitchen had worked hard on the dish, but it really was making me work too hard in order to enjoy it.  Call me a philistine if you will, but I wasn’t ordering dessert to get a work of art.  I just wanted a traditional fruit dessert served in the traditional way.  Maybe the artistry can be reserved for the souffle.

Bad Waiting

Yesterday Kish and I went out for lunch.  When we were getting ready to place our order, the waitress pulled out an order pad — and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Why?  Because lately I’ve been bedeviled by wait staff who don’t write down what I’ve requested, and my orders have inevitably been screwed up as a result.

It’s kind of maddening, really.  The waiters stand there, listen as I tell them, for example, that I want only a slice of onion on my cheeseburger and specifically say that I don’t want lettuce or tomato or pickles.  They nod reassuringly and then march off to the kitchen, and I groan inwardly, knowing that there is a better than a 50-50 chance that, when the order comes back, I’ll be scraping tomato and lettuce and pickle debris from my cheeseburger bun.  But what’s a patron supposed to do?  Hand the waiter a pen and piece of paper and plead with them to please, please, write down the order so there’s hope it will be correctly prepared and delivered . . . and thereby look like a jerk?  Or wait until the order comes back and pleasantly point out that it’s wrong, so that the waiter has to trot back to the kitchen and bring out a new, correct order — and thereby further delay the meal?  Or just accept that the order is wrong, eat it anyway so you’re not waiting even longer, and grumble at the injustice of it all?

Why, exactly, has it the no-write-down approach swept through the waiting world like a cold winter wind?  Do waiters think that not writing down the order reflects their professionalism, or that we’ll be impressed at their memory capabilities and give them a bigger tip?  Don’t they realize that, when most patrons see that the waiter or waitress isn’t writing down the order, their hopes for a pleasant meal take a tumble?

The waiting world works for tips, so here’s one:  write it down, already!

 

Grace Periods

Last night Kish and I went to a new restaurant for dinner.  The food was exceptionally good — I had a duck entree that was as succulent as any duck I’ve ever had — but the service was definitely wanting.

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After taking our order, our waitperson pretty much ignored us.  Other tables in the restaurant got bread; we didn’t.  When we asked a busser to let our waitperson know that we wanted refills on our glasses of wine, she scurried off and . . . nothing happened.  We were never offered a chance to order dessert.  Different people kept appearing at the table and apologizing for the delays.  Finally we just decided to chalk up the service issues to a new restaurant that is still working out the kinks, so we got our check — which also took longer than it should have, frankly, and prompted another apology from the restaurant staff — and then we hit the road.

Fine service obviously is a key part of fine dining.  Anyone who has received good service and bad service knows how important the service element can be.  As Kish pointed out after we left, bad service leaves you feeling both unappreciated and tense — which isn’t exactly conducive to a stellar food experience.  You end up anxiously searching for your waitperson and trying to signal them rather than focusing on good food and good company, which is what should be happening.

I can understand how it might take a while before a restaurant gets its sea legs on service, and I’m willing to give any restaurant that serves such good food a second chance, and probably a third chance, too.  Maybe we just went on a bad night, or drew a waitperson who is inexperienced.  But how long does a grace period reasonably last?  If you believe that service is important, shouldn’t that be something that is a point of emphasis from the very first days of training and through the dry runs and soft openings?

Plus-Sizing America

People come in all sizes, large and small.  And in these days of increasing obesity among Americans, the range seems to be shifting toward the “plus-sized” end of the spectrum.

So, what’s a business that deals with seating any customers who might walk in — like a restaurant — to do to account for that fact?

merlin_151790223_3ada2026-fba6-48d7-9782-0ac8b26447bf-articlelargeThis year the New York Times ran an interesting article about the challenges that “plus-sized” diners face when they go out to eat.  They not only feel judged by restaurant staff and other patrons about what they are ordering in view of their weight, they also struggle to find places where they can comfortably sit for a meal.  Depending upon a diner’s size, booths may be impossible for them to squeeze into, and bar stools may be too narrow and shallow to provide a viable seating option.  And places where the tables are positioned closely together may put larger diners in the position of intruding into the personal space of a neighboring table.

Those of us who aren’t in the plus-sized category don’t pay attention to such issues, because standard seating options are perfectly suitable for us.  But for the large people among us, such options may be so painfully confining that they interfere with the enjoyment of the meal — and some options may be physically impossible to use, period.

It’s an example of the challenges that are arising from the plus-sizing of a significant chunk of America’s population.  People who are XXXLers are going to want to go out to eat like everybody else, and they are going to want to find places that can appropriately seat diners their size.  If restaurants want their paying business, they are going to need to come up with ways to comfortably accommodate such patrons — without calling undue attention to the effort.

A Test Run Would Be Nice

Recently we went out for brunch at a nice restaurant in the Short North.  Our meal was perfectly enjoyable, but my dish was a bit messier than a mere napkin could manage, so I went to the restroom to wash my hands.

The restroom is one of those with a rectangular paper towel dispenser — the kind where you are to remove the paper towels from a slot in the bottom that is supposed to allow the towels to be taken out one at a time.  I washed my hands and went to get a towel, but found that the dispenser had been left so crammed with paper towels that it was impossible to remove one.  Due to the sheer weight of the towels that had been packed into the dispensing space, I couldn’t get my hands into the slot. My efforts to extract a towel had me desperately clawing away at the towel opening, trying to remove a whole towel, but the cheap paper towels were immediately ripped to shreds.  I never did obtain a complete towel, and had to make do with tiny towel fragments instead.  The whole experience left me a frustrated, wet-handed patron who was cursing the paper towel manufacturers of the world — and whoever decided to overfill the towel dispenser.  It didn’t exactly give me warm and fuzzy feelings about the restaurant, either.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me lately; overfilled towel dispensers have unfortunately become commonplace.  I suppose the bathroom attendants of America figure that if they overfill the towel dispenser, they’ll have to fill it less often.  But bathroom attendants, hear me!  Have pity on the hand-washers!  Doesn’t anybody do a test run anymore, to see if a device is actually working as intended?  Is it too much to ask that an establishment have a towel dispenser that actually allows a patron to wash their hands — and then properly dry them?

 

Suffering Seriously Slow Service

Yesterday our lunch group picked a restaurant that was about a block from the firm because it was too cold for a long hike.  It’s a place that specializes in sandwiches and hamburgers.  When we arrived at about 12:10, there was — literally — not a single patron in the place, and the wait staff near the front door were glad to see us.  We were seated promptly and given menus and water.

lsAfter a few minutes, our waitress came by to take our order.  We ordered three burgers and a sandwich, then began talking about the issues of the day.  Another table of patrons came into the restaurant, and shortly thereafter another group arrived.  The waitress came and gave us water refills, and our pleasant lunchtime conversation continued.

After about 20 minutes of chatting, however, we started to get antsy because the food hadn’t arrived.  When we hit the half-hour mark, we asked the waitress where the food was.  She was a friendly young woman who apologized for the delay and said they were working on it.  More minutes went by, and . . . no food.  We’d reached the point of inexplicable ridiculousness — after all, we’re talking basic food orders here — and our comments to the waitress became more pointed.  JV noted that we had been waiting a long time, and the Unkempt Guy reminded the waitress that we all needed to get back to work.  Of course, the delay wasn’t her fault, but we had to voice our exasperation to someone, and she was the only option.

At that point, the direction of our conversation began to focus exclusively on the delay.  We noted that there were only three tables occupied in the restaurant, so the long wait couldn’t be due to a busy, backlogged kitchen.  The two of us who were seated facing the kitchen kept an eye on the kitchen door, and we began speculating about what had happened.  Was our order not begun promptly for some reason?  Did somebody just drop the ball, or was there some other issue?  The next time the waitress stopped by, she swore that she had seen our orders being prepared and it wouldn’t be much longer.

Sometime between 45 minutes and an hour after we had placed our order, the waitress brought out the side salads the Bus Riding Conservative and the Unkempt Guy had ordered, and a few minutes later two of our burgers and the sandwich arrived.  JV, alas, was left waiting for about another 10 minutes for his burger.  In the interim, the waitress — knowing we needed to get back to work — asked if we wanted to get our checks, and I think JV actually got his check before he got his food, which has to be be a first.  We wondered how in the world our three orders were finished so long before his, but at that point we weren’t capable of being surprised by anything.  The waitress finally brought his order, and then took the checks, apologized again, and said we were being comped.  No one ever explained why it took such a ludicrously long time to serve us with our orders.

We finished our food — which was fine, by the way — and left cash tips for the waitress, and talked about whether we would ever come back to the restaurant.  JV took the position that the comping was an effective cure for the bad experience, and the UG noted that in prior visits to the place he’d been served promptly.  As for me, I don’t think I’ll be going back.  The waitress was put in an unenviable position, but she clearly was not telling us the truth in giving us initial assurances that our food was on the way.  And I think if you make people wait for such a long time you owe them more than a comped meal, you owe them an explanation.  Somebody — the manager, or the chef — should have come to our table and told us what happened and assured us it won’t happen again.  As of now, if I went back to the place and had a similar experience, I’d have only myself to blame.

By the way, by the time we left the other two tables hadn’t been served yet.