“My chicken tastes weird,” my wife said.
“Could it be the marinade?” I asked.
“No. Taste it and see.” So, I did. The chicken was bad.
Sighing, I looked for waitress, but she was nowhere to be found. Another waitress happened to be walking down the aisle but, when I motioned her over, she gave me a tight smile and sailed on by.
“Hang on honey,” I said. “We’ll get this sorted out.”
We had eaten at this restaurant over a dozen times but, during the past year, I’d noticed a decline in the level of service. I figured the labor shortage afflicting all restaurants was the culprit so, being a former waiter, I’d accepted these shortfalls with karmic preserving beatific patience. The last time I was here, my server screwed up my order – giving me shrimp tacos instead of the “street tacos” I asked for – but I didn’t get aggravated and politely asked for the mistake to be rectified. The server’s response was to being over the menu and point dumbfoundedly at the shrimp tacos on the menu. I accepted this faux pas as a simple miscommunication between people with different native languages and waited patiently for the meal I ordered to arrive – after my wife and daughter has finished their entrees I might add. I left a twenty percent tip because Lord knows I made plenty of mistakes as a waiter.
This night, however, went badly from the get-go. Though the restaurant was half full it took a while for someone to seat us, the chips for the salsa were stale, their replacements just as stale, and my bottle of semi-cold beer, when it finally arrived, was plunked down on my table by a bus person who egressed the area so fast that I didn’t have time to ask for a glass. Again, with beatific patience, I went to the bar and asked for a glass, noticing my waitress was mixing drinks with a slight look of panic on his face.
When our waitress finally made her back way to our table, I told her something was wrong with my wife’s chicken and the expression on her face made me think she regarded us as difficult customers. Then the owner came over. “What’s wrong folks?” he asked.
“My wife’s chicken is bad.”
“I never argue with customers regarding matters of taste,” he said. “Other people have had no problem with the chicken.”
“It’s not just the chicken, sir,” I said. “The chips were also stale.’
“That can’t be. We get all our deliveries today. It’s fresh.”
I sighed. The worst mistake a server or owner can make is to get defensive when a customer cites a problem with the food. I know this because made the same mistake early in my career as a waiter – only to learn, after bitter experience, to apologize and fix the problem without protest. Tossing an order in the trash is a financial loss for any restaurant – but not as great as the customer never coming back and then explaining to all his or her friends why. But this guy had been in the business for years and should have known that too.
“I’d appreciate if you remade my wife’s salad,” I said, feeling my beatific mien slipping.
“I don’t want the chicken,” my wife said. “Just the salad please.”
“Yes miss,” the owner said. “And I’ll taste the chicken myself when I get in the kitchen.”
My wife’s salad quickly reappeared, making me suspect it has been merely “refreshed” though I can’t prove that. The owner also never came back with a verdict on the chicken; nor was there any proffer of a free drink or dessert. And, when the bill came, nothing was comped. We paid full freight for a grilled chicken salad with no chicken. When I was a waiter, I learned to smooth over such problems by giving away free shit. In the final analysis, keeping customers coming back and paying up was always worth the small loss of an overpriced drink or dessert to keep them mollified. That this owner got all cheap told me he was in either in financial trouble, burned out, or both. I’d seen the signs of a restaurant in distress before. Aggravated, I paid the bill, left a very uncustomary fifteen percent tip and walked out the door.
“Well,” I said to my wife, “We’ll ever come here again.”
“What a shame,” she replied. “This place used to be good.”
“If they don’t clean up their act,” I said. “This place will be out of business soon.”
I did not go home and post some diatribe on Yelp – but I did mention the fiasco the next day to some colleagues who worked in the Health Department next door. “Might want to swing by there,” I said.
“Oh!” one of them said. “I’m going for drinks there on Thursday.”
“They passed all their inspections,” another said.
“If the chips were bad, that could mean the oil they were using was old.”
Sure, it was probably dicky telling health inspectors of my bad meal, but it should serve as a warning to owners as well – you can never know who’s eating in your restaurant. It might be a tired guy just looking for a late night meal with his family, the food critic for the New York Times, your competitor, the mayor, a town councilman, jihadist food blogger, a health inspector – or someone who knows one. Now, this restaurant, which I’d never name publicly, probably isn’t guilty of committing any major infractions, but I don’t care. With prices going up and up, I don’t want to patronize restaurants that put out a substandard product and then dismiss complaints as a “matter of taste”
This may sound hypocritical coming from a guy who made his bones dishing on entitled yuppie restaurant patrons but, like the fictional serial killer in Dexter, all my victims’ kind of deserved it. Truth be told, most of my customers were nice people who never gave me an ounce of trouble and got excellent service – but good news never makes the papers. But restaurants are just as guilty of pulling shit; like passing off Costco desserts as homemade, telling servers to hustle the fish because “it’s gonna go bad,” improperly storing food, not keeping up to date with the exterminator, stealing tips from the waitstaff, refilling top shelf bottles with swill, shamelessly overbooking, or treating every customer who complains like a con artist trying to score a free meal. These restaurants are far from hospitable places and, no surprise here, they tend to attract inhospitable patrons. A restaurant gets the customers it deserves.
The next week, my wife and I went for the first time to restaurant featuring the same cuisine as the disastrous one from before. The chips were fresh, the food superior, the beer cold, the service friendly and, on my way out, the owner thanked us for our patronage. Although it’s a bit of a drive to get there, we’ll return – because I’d rather spend my money at a restaurant that deserves to have this cynical ex-waiter as a customer.
It’s not a matter of taste.