Vive La France

It’s Saturday evening and my friend Lana and I are tooling around the Lower East Side looking for a place to eat. Since it’s eight o’clock on the busiest restaurant night of the week we know we have a snowball’s chance in hell getting a table anywhere soon.

“How about ’inoteca?” Lana asks. I’ve eaten there several times. The food’s very good.

“I’m game.”

But when we get to ‘inoteca the line’s out the door and the place is packed to the rafters. So we go in and ask the hostess the wait time for a table.

“About an hour,” the hostess replies winsomely.

Lana and I look at each other. “That’s a long time,” I say. “That French restaurant we passed looked nice. Why don’t check it out?”

So Lana and I walk over to Epicerie Cafe Charbon on Orchard Street. After figuring out where the front door’s located we walk inside. Just like ‘inoteca the restaurant’s crowded, very noisy and there’s no room at the bar to enjoy a leisurely drink. The waiters also look completely stressed out.

“Is this place too loud for you?” Lana asks. She knows I have trouble hearing in nosiy environments. I don’t know what the condition’s called, but when I’m in a room full of people talking loudly I have to strain to listen to the person sitting opposite me but can hear a conversation on the other side of the room with perfect clarity. I should have been a spy.

“I’ll manage,” I say. “Why don’t you ask what the wait time is?” Call me a piggy but I’ve found it’s always better to let the pretty girl talk to the hostess.

Lana walks over to a thin waiter clad in black and starts talking to him. I can’t hear what they’re saying but the look on the server’s face is diffident and arrogant.

Now most people can’t tell when Lana’s aggravated. As a trained analyst she’s pretty good at maintaining a therapeutic poker face. But since I’ve known her for ten years I can pick up on the subtle signs that she’s pissed.

“What an asshole,” Lana says when she comes back to me. “He said, ‘What?’ and looked at me like I was stupid.”

Now Lana and I are both veterans of the restaurant industry. We know the deal. Unlike so many pushy Yuppies who “want what they want and want it now” we understand we’ll have to wait and the waiters are stressed. But I’m angered that this server was rude to my date. Now you might think I’m being a hypocrite here but I was almost never mean to a customer that didn’t deserve it. Lana didn’t deserve it.

“I’m going to ask another server what’s up,” Lana says. “I’ll be back.”

While Lana’s searching for a more accommodating server I edge closer to the waiter who was nasty to her. He’s a handsome fellow with thick black hair and an arrogant mien. Since I’m taller and outweigh him by fifty pounds I idly think about stuffing him into a wastepaper basket. But with my luck he’d be a black belt in Savate and I’d end up spending the night cooling my heels in The Tombs.

Frenchie’s talking in his native tongue to another server. I don’t speak French but I can pick up on the tone – exasperated, angry and haughty. I like French people as a rule. Their language is lovely, their women are beautiful and their food’s outstanding. But this guy pissed me off. I play with the idea of telling him the only reason his restaurant’s not serving sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel is because the good ‘ol USA bailed out his country not once but twice. But that’d be mean and sort of untrue. The Resistance fought valiantly.

“Oh my God,” Lana says, sidling up to me. “I talked to another server and the manager. They we’re both assholes.”

“Did they tell you how long the wait was?”

“They wouldn’t even give me the time of day.”

“Let’s get out of here,” I say, feeling my temper rise. “Fuck this place.”

Lana and walk back to ‘inoteca and put our name on the list. “Check back with us in half an hour,” the hostess says. “We might have something open by then.”

I look at the clamorous dining room and ask the hostess if it’s possible to get a table downstairs where it’s quieter. She doesn’t promise anything but she says she’ll try.

“That’s okay,” I say. “We’ll take a table anywhere. We’ll be back in half an hour.”

When we get outside Lana says, “My sugar levels are crashing. Let’s find a place where we can get a drink and something to nibble on.” So we walk into Paladar on Ludlow, score two seats at the bar and order margaritas and guacamole.

“Man,” Lana says. “After that place I need a drink.”

“Amen to that.”

“Those waiters at that café were so rude,” Lana says angrily. “I can’t believe they were such tools.”

“Whatcha gonna do?” I ask. “They were probably operating on their last nerve.”

I was once a waiter and now I’m a customer. I go out to eat a lot and both Lana and I have boatloads of sympathy for servers and tip generously. But the reason the staff at Epicerie Cafe Charbon pissed us off was because we acted like perfectly reasonable customers and they still treated us like shit. If we had been demanding and pushy I could understand, but we weren’t. My diagnosis is that the restaurant was understaffed, the waiters were stressed and the manager was an amateur. Oh well.

“Hey, look at the time,” I say, looking at my watch. “We’ve got to go.’’

Lana and I down our drinks, pay the tab and walk back to ‘inoteca. When we get there the hostess takes us downstairs and gives us a quiet table next to the bathroom. Now some people would be aggravated getting seated next to the can but not us.

“This is much better,” I say, looking at the menu. “Now I can actually hear what you’re saying.”

When our waiter comes to the table he’s pleasant and enthusiastic about the menu. Since ‘inoteca’s a “small plate” kind of place we follow the server’s recommendations and order the market winter lettuce with crispy capers dressed with an anchovy herb vinaigrette, the verdure misti, polpette, a prosciutto, marzolino, rucola and lemon oil panini and two glasses of wine. The food and service is excellent. After experiencing the dysfunction at Epicerie Cafe Charbon it’s nice to be in a restaurant where they know what they’re doing. The difference is like night and day.

After we finish Lana and I walk back into the cold night air. The streets are still filled with snow and the party girls in their high heels and miniskirts are out in full force.

“Is it just me,” I say, looking at a leggy blonde walking ahead of us. “But is her ass hanging out?”

“It sure is,” Lana says. “She must be freezing.”

As we walk up Orchard Street we pass by Epicerie Cafe Charbon again. As I look through the window I can see the restaurant’s still packed and Frenchie’s walking around like he’s the male version of the Marianne. But I know he’s not representative of all French people. I once met a rough, tough French solider who could turn that waiter into scrambled oeufs . France is the land of poetry, Catherine Deneuve, great food and kick ass action flicks. Vive la France.

“You think we should give Epicerie another try?” Lana asks. “Maybe we caught them on a bad night.”

Having been a server I believe in giving restaurants a second chance. Every waiter, including myself, has had his or her bad days. But I can’t get Frenchie’s smug face out of my head.

“Probably not,” I say.

40 thoughts on “Vive La France”

  1. mur says:

    Nicely told. Like you, I’d never go back to Epicerie. There are far too many other choices to waste your time, money, and mental energy in place like that.

  2. Greg in New Orleans says:

    Maybe I don’t have an accurate picture of the place in my head, but was there no hostess. I hope I wouldn’t be rude, but I might have a wtf look on my face if someone asked me on a busy night how long the wait was. I generally have no way of knowing unless it’s mentioned in passing. I would hopefully recover quickly and direct you to the hostess, assuming the wait means I don’t have time to find out for you.

  3. admin says:

    If there was a host/hostess we indeed would have talked to him or her. None to be found.

  4. P-Chop says:

    I feel bad for the waiters at the French restaurant. I’m in the industry, and if I’ve been pushed to the limit I might not be the nicest person.

  5. Noto says:

    Top post Steve, Great to see your view of an industry moment from a differnt perspective,

  6. Desert Shark says:

    I’m a give a second chance kind of person, but if I had to deal with a waiter like that that would be it for me. I’ve had stressful days at work with customers but I would never let it get to me.

  7. blueoreogn says:

    Hey Waiter- Sorry to be off topic but, the French bailed out our asses during the revolutionary war with Britain. just sayin’. I think everyone who works restaurants become more sensitive to noise. louc kitchens, loud bars, loud dinning rooms. over the years it gets to ya. Good to see you’re going out again.

  8. Jimmy Rogers says:

    Man I TOO have that “can’t hear when there’s ‘din’ everywhere.” It must be something neurological…a sound processing problem :/

  9. admin says:

    Very true, blueoregon. Very true. Vive la France!

  10. Joan of Argghh! says:

    It’s stressful finding a place to eat, too, as Waiter has successfully communicated. Dinner out at some places can be the equivalent of a day’s work, and at the least, half a day’s work. That’s a luxury for me, anyway.

    That’s why the normal customer needs a little grace extended if they’re a bit fussy or distraught during the get-acquainted moments. There’s nothing worse than just wanting good food and proper service without a lot of drama, but instead getting a bust in the chops if you have inadvertently crossed the rather broad path of some waiter’s disdain.

    It’s give and take, sure, but the tie goes to the paying customer. Or they don’t come back.

  11. VP says:

    Your story reminds me of Paris

  12. cloudia says:

    Yeah, be (don’t just act) nice. Give servers the benefit of the doubt always. But why be a glutton for punishment?

    I can smell the downtown winter in your words, all the way out here in post-tsunami Waikiki! Just glad my ass is no longer hanging out in that weather. LOL!


  13. dane says:

    here’s another off-topic: the french also had plans to invade us at new orleans. they were staging at haiti when the haitian slaves decided they were tired of taking crap from the french(maybe it was the attitude?) and revolted. the fight with the haitians and the yellow fever decimated the french and they finally just packed it in and went home. so maybe we owe the haitians?

    outside of that, i’m pretty sure i prefer french cooking to haitian cooking, but that is just conjecture. i don’t believe i’ve ever had haitian cooking. but maybe their waitstaff is more pleasant?

  14. Lori says:

    You write with such skill that I can picture the sidewalk, the girls in their heels, the feel and smell and colors of the restaurants. A pleasure to read you!

  15. XGamer says:

    Waiter, its OEUFS not “ouefs”….

    Next time tell him: Nique ta Mere

    phonetics would be:

    nick thaw mayor

    You have to say it very quickly so it sounds like it should in french.

    (translation: go f*** your mom)…lol…they should love this 🙂

  16. ha says:

    lana is anal spelled backwards…

  17. Bec says:

    Great to see some classic waiter writing again…it’s wonderful stuff!

  18. meghan says:

    I’ve ate at Cafe Charbon many times when I lived around the corner… never had a bad experience. Although it’s possible that things have changed since I was last there, is it really fair of you to call them out by name?

  19. Pamela says:

    Just discovered your blog and it’s great! Love your writing style. And about the hearing problem, I have the exact same thing. Saw an audiologist and she said it’s a problem with clarification. You can hear a pin drop across the room but conversation in a loud room sounds garbled. It’s frustrating because people think you’re not paying attention when you’re concentrating so hard it’s exhausting.

  20. admin says:


    You can insult me but not my friends. So yeah, I called them out by name. Expect to see more of that on my blog. The gloves are coming off.

  21. jimster says:

    it’s good to see that the gloves are, in fact, coming off. i was always impressed at your discretion when mentioning a specific customer or eatery when you were still “in the business”, however now, i see no logical reason for you not to tell us what you really see and feel, or where you go.
    your writing style is so cleverly descriptive that we actually can stand next to you on the sidewalk, feel the crisp night air and giggle at the cuties.
    …and hey, great tips do not always require the use of cash, i would always prefer to know about the ‘bad’ places, so that when i’m in a mood to try something new… i won’t start off with two strikes against me.

    a little off topic, but when are you coming down to cabo for a “real” margarita?

    mine is not the original, but it sure is good!

  22. bit says:

    My guess is that if you talked to three staff members and got the same attitude across the board, then a second visit would be no different. And really, WHY waste time, money and energy on that?

  23. Janet Ward says:

    That waiter was clearly a Parisian. A recent French poll found that even the French think Parisians are rude and haughty.

    However, go south where it’s warm and the pace is slower. The French there are friendly and charming. Anyone coming into a public room, such as a shop or post office or waiting room, says “Bonjour” or “M’sieur-dame” to whoever’s there. Go for a walk by the sea and the same thing comes from other walkers. Bump into someone and they say “Pardon”.

    Parisians think they are God’s gift.

  24. Andrew says:

    Typical, you have bad service at the place, and the first you do is blame the manager. Have you forgotten that sometimes, waiters are just jerks?

  25. Kelli says:

    @Andrew #24:

    It’s true that sometimes wait staff are jerks on their own accord. But if they’re like that and management isn’t, then usually they don’t last long in the job. So, more often in service jobs of any sort, if the staff are nasty, it’s because management is too and so no one breaks the logjam and customers get the short end of the stick.

  26. Jasmine says:

    Central Auditory Processing disorder – it’s when you can’t prioritize sounds so everything is indistinguishable when you’re in a crowded room. Two of my siblings have this.

  27. Cindy says:

    Hmm… I think you’re not as in love with French people and culture as you claim to be. Try substituting another ethnic or religious group and stereotype in for all the references to French people in your post and see how it feels: “I like African-Americans; they gave us jazz, after all — but THESE black waiters didn’t show enough respect,” or “I like Jews, but THESE Jews charged too much for their food,” etc. Feels a little bit wrong, doesn’t it? I’m not defending the restaurant in question or the waiters; never been there myself so can’t speak about them. But the point of your story is either “FRENCH waiters sucked, so stereotype validated,” or “WAITERS AT THIS RESTAURANT sucked,” in which case why make such a point of them being French?

  28. LL says:

    Cindy, Steve isn’t talking about an ethnicity, religious group, sexual orientation, etc.

    He’s talking about a place of origin. “I like the Russians; they gave us vodka and costumed bears, after all — but THESE Russian waiters didn’t show enough respect,” sounds less poisonous.

    He also never says a certain group doesn’t “show enough respect”. He seems to have had a bad experience that aligned with stereotypes from a certain geographical region.

    If I walked into an Italian restaurant and the owner was loud and gregarious- that’s a stereotype. And stereotypes exist because enough people have the same experience to create a label.

    Right or wrong, they exist.

    And right or wrong, the French stereotype of being haughty and rude exists.

    These dudes sounded rude.

    I felt the love for France. I felt the frustration with the rude waiters and with the stereotype proving itself to be, in that case, frustratingly true

    Just sayin’

  29. ame i. says:

    I also believe in second chances but if any staff memember is a downright arrogant ass the first time, I will not ever trouble them by asking them to take my 50% + tip. I don’t want to put anyone out, ya know?

  30. Anonymous says:

    Hey Cindy,

    How did you know that waiter wasn’t black, jewish or a black jew? I know lots of French who are black, Arabic, or Jewish. Kinda racist of you to assume all French are white, isn’t it?

  31. Kris says:

    …the verdure misti, polpette, a prosciutto, marzolino, rucola and lemon oil panini…

    I had to look up almost all of the food/ingredients you listed in your dinner and it sounds fantastic! It’s days like this I really hate living in semi-rural suburbia with chain restaurants staring at me all day long. Give me the city any day.

  32. JS@NYC says:

    VOCABULARY POLICE:: The server’s face cannot be diffident AND arrogant at the same time. They represent two emotions coming from very different places. A diffident person is shy, hardly arrogant! I think you meant “indifferent”.

  33. Holly says:

    I find it funny how Americans are always so quick to bring up how they “bailed out” the French during WW2, but then seem to forget that they lost the war of 1812.

  34. admin says:

    Uh, actually it was a stalemate Holly. Neither side won or lost territory. And the British were a little busy with Napoleon and tired of fighting in the US. And while the Redcoats did burn Washington they were repulsed at the Battle of Plattsburgh and, after the peace treaty signed in Ghent, defeated at Battle of New Orleans. News didn’t travel fast in those days I guess. And even though our navy was quite small we won most ship to ship battles on the high seas – against the most powerful armada in the world. Never count us Americans out. Then or now.

    Now we’re all the best of buddies. Even with the Canadians. Now our wars are fought on the ice. And you guys won that one. Damn.

  35. Kevin says:

    They are always nice to me at Denny’s.

  36. Blue says:

    Truffle egg toast at inoteca… Best. Invention. Ever.

  37. BTHEWRITER says:

    Peace out

  38. lisa says:

    Actually, the war of 1812 ended in a stalemate:

    Erm, sounds like the French place’s food is not good anyway. 🙂

  39. ciocio says:

    “because the good ‘ol USA bailed out his country not once but twice. But that’d be mean and sort of untrue. The Resistance fought valiantly.”.. not to mention that the US came in late to WWII, when other countries had been fighting “valiantly” for more than 2 years!! can’t believe how all the americans forget that!

    and it wasn’t something they did out of bravery to help the invaded countries.. they waited until they were attacked before they would help.. ahem, ahem, Pearl Harbour.

  40. Erica says:

    You mention that you thought it was better for your friend to speak to the hostess, but in the next paragraph she is speaking with a waiter. Did she speak with the hostess? Was there no hostess, and that’s why she went to talk to a water?

    Not sure why the narrative jumps like that. It seems like something is left out.

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