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.
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.