By Carolyn Manning
When is “Bad Service” bad enough to keep you from going back to a restaurant? What will we forgive and why will we forgive it?
Answering the third question first, we might forgive bad service if the food is really good, or if the restaurant is one where you would not expect world-class service (think roadside taco trailer), or if previous experience with the restaurant provides a kinder, gentler memory of good service.
With any of those variables in place, I’ll put up with a cranky waitress, a surly waiter, an inexperienced server or a clumsy busboy. I’ll forgive forgetfulness, inattention, and even outright rudeness … to a degree.
Here in Portland, we have some very skilled Professional Waitpersons. It is pretty standard to be acknowledged within two minutes upon entering a restaurant, be it frantically busy or dead as a doornail. It is common to be seated in turn, and treated with kindness and respect. It is usual to be greeted by your waitperson within moments of being seated, and it is rare to have to wait for the staff to pick up your bill once you’ve place the cash or card down on the table.
Yes, we are pretty spoiled here in Portland.
That is why, when we do not get good service here in Portland, it is a standout, and can quite negatively affect the meal … more so than in, say, Roseburg, where my husband, Marshall, and I were trapped one evening, driving in endless circles in search of some place to eat. We ended up at Denny’s … I still remember the nicely medium-rare slice of Prime Rib they served me … doused, unfortunately, with reconstituted French’s A’Jus mix, and served with what I am sure were instant mashed potatoes. Ick. But it didn’t kill us. And that was the point after all that cruising around in Roseburg and sticking our heads into a number of deathtraps along the way before settling on Denny’s.
But I digress.
I tend to be more forgiving of inexperience, forgetfulness or clumsiness, and far less forgiving of rudeness. It is quite clearly the easiest service issue to remedy, and by far the most inexcusable.
Rudeness is the offspring of an overdeveloped sense of superiority. A server will only behave rudely toward people they believe to be inferior … inferior to themselves or to their other guests.
Now, Marshall and I drive older cars … not “cool antiques” or “classics” but just plain old cars (1993s). Neither of us has a profession that requires suits, ties or impressive business attire. Everyday is basically “casual Friday” for us. We don’t buy expensive shoes, wear designer label clothes, and we don’t live high in the West Hills. And the main reason we live the lifestyle we live is to have more money to eat out at good or great restaurants and drink good wine. My life insurance is in the cellar at home with a multitude of corks in it. We don’t have the “look of money”, let’s just say. And I believe the lack of bling-bling and “fashion flash” have had negative consequences for us in the past.
We have experienced a combination of rude and inattentive service at Blue Hour’s bar, and will not be back unless someone else is paying or a visiting friend begs us to take them. Our service experience: Snotty and condescending …a bad combo in one so young … combined with inattention as she scanned the rest of the tables for customers who might be spending more … she had no clue.
We have been snubbed at the Lucy’s Table happy hour … a crowded, but usually tasty happy hour, with the famous Goat Cheese Raviolis being the star. The snub occurred right after the new owners took over, and if the food was as bad as the service, it is surely not worth a trip back. I’d love to get someone’s opinion that has been there recently. It would be a very sad thing, indeed, if the Goat Cheese Ravioli recipe had changed or if they’d taken it off the menu. Seriously … one of the most perfect things I’ve ever eaten.
But the worst treatment we’ve received in Portland came at Le Bouchon about 7 years ago. We have never eaten there, and we never will. It makes a good story now, but it was quite upsetting at the time.
Here’s what happened:
I’d been sick for quite some time with a nasty flu. On the first day I began to feel normal again, Marshall wanted to take me out to dinner. He’d heard some good things about Le’ Bouchon, a newer restaurant at the time, and made 7:15 reservations for us. Of course, he asked about corkage: $20. In Portland, a $20 corkage usually means, “We have an extensive and reasonably priced wine list. Leave your treasures at home.” So off we went without a wine in tow. (For those of you who read Marshall’s posts, you know this is unusual.)
It is a Thursday night, and as we pull our 1993 Mazda Protégé ($10K new off the lot, and not new anymore by this time) into the tiny parking lot next to the restaurant and emerge wearing dressy-casual clothes, we are eyed by the bored waiter standing out in front of the restaurant. Upon seeing us, he becomes animated and effusive:
“Bon SWA! I have a ta-bel for Ewe!”
I’m thinking, “I hope so … we have reservations.”
His accent is very thick. The restaurant is almost empty.
Moments after being seated, another couple whom we recognize from the Friday night wine tastings around town but to whom we have never formally been introduced, is seated a couple of empty tables away from us.
As we peruse the menus, the waiter appears and begins pushing specific items on the menu. He is annoying and we politely request more time to make up our minds. He bows and leaves.
As I check the menu, my eyes fall on the item “Bread with Butter: $2.50.” Excuse me?? PAY for a basket of bread to be brought to the table? This is Portland! I look up to express my astonishment to Marshall and am caught speechless. I have never seen my husband that shade of red.
Marshall is reading the wine menu. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“These prices … they’re triple retail! Not triple wholesale … triple retail! I can’t pay this!” He is speaking softly but is visibly irritated … almost betrayed. How could a restaurant charging $20 corkage be so unfair in the bottle pricing?
This is supposed to be a celebration of my recovery (he hates it when I’m sick), so I try to soothe him with this: “It’s ok … we won’t get a bottle. Let’s just have a glass of white with our appetizer and a glass of red with dinner. It will be ok.”
The waiter has approached again, and I ask him what wines they have by the glass.
“We hev ay KaberNAY, ay Pee-no NWAR, ay ShardoNAY and ay Pee-no GREE.”
So, after glancing sideways at the other wine-geek couple in the restaurant, I ask him politely if he could be more specific … at which point he gets more general.
“Wha yes … zee KaberNAY eez ay more FOOL bodied red, zee Pee-no NWAR eez ay more LAHT bodied red …”
I cut him off … “No, I mean MORE specific, like vintage, producer, country of origin, region … anything?”
At that point he actually snorted at me, he raised his nose, the better to look down it at me and said, “Eet eez not aineething EWE wood have haird ov. Eet eez not sumthing ewe wood FAND een yore LOCAL GROSARRIE STOAR.”
Now I was the one turning a funny color. My eyes narrowed. “Try us.” My voice was flat, a dare.
He quit speaking English as he rattled off the full contents of the label from memory. His look became a dare.
I turned to Marshall. “Do you know this wine?” I asked. He nodded slowly. I looked and the waiter and said quietly, “We’re going to need a moment, please.”
“THAN AH SHALL WAIT!! THAT EEZ WATT WAITAIRS DEW!!” He was hollering now, loud enough to shut down all the conversations happening at the other 4 tables with guests. He turned sharply on his heels and headed for the kitchen.
By now, I was beyond embarrassed: I was mad.
Marshall said it was a mass-produced Languedoc jug wine now being brought into the Portland market, and despite the waiter’s condescending claim to the contrary, it was indeed a wine we would soon be finding in our local grocery stores. “It’s going to sell for about $5 a bottle … I just can’t bear the idea of paying $6 a glass for it!”
“Are you picking up a little ‘tude from the Frog?” I asked him quietly. He nodded. “Then,” I said, “Let’s get out of here and go somewhere else. We work too hard for our money to be treated this way.”
“But it’s 7:30,” said Marshall, trying not to sound worried and not succeeding. “Were are we going to find an opening?”
“Sweetheart, it’s 7:30 on a Thursday night in Portland. We can go anywhere we like! Let’s get out of here. What was your second choice for tonight?” I asked him as we got up from the table and headed for the door.
THAT is when the waiter spotted us from across the restaurant. What did he do? Got a huge smile on his face, waved exaggeratedly at us and yelled across the restaurant, “AWF WAH!! AWF WAH!!” as if we were happy customers leaving the restaurant.
Like I said: We have never eaten a meal there and we never will.
THAT was inexcusable, unforgivable, and frankly, unforgettable.
We ended up that evening at Café Des Amis … a Portland tradition for 25 years, which has sadly closed its doors. There were birthdays, anniversaries and what appeared to be a rehearsal dinner going on all around us. It was a happy, special place to be, and our dinners were outstanding. And the waiter?? Even though Marshall had no tie on and I was not dressed in velvet and heels, he treated us as if it were our 50th wedding anniversary. We received the same attention and consideration as all the other celebrants.
When it came time to order dessert, I told the waiter that this was the second restaurant we’d been to that night. “My!” he responded with a twinkle in his eye. “You must have been very hungry!”
“Oh, we didn’t eat at the other place,” I said and recounted our experience for him. He laughed so hard he could hardly breathe. “I’ve got to get the owner. He’ll love this …”
And so I found myself retelling the story a second time that evening. “Where does that guy think his restaurant is??” the owner exclaimed in disbelief, “New York City?? You just can’t treat people like that here in Portland! Dessert is on the house!”
Amazing what a little kindness and respect can do for a tip! Just ask the waiter at Café Des Amis.