I travel often as a food and wine writer, eating in high-end restaurants wherever I can find them. I also read my colleague’s writings to understand what they experience. Based on my own experiences and my colleagues, here are some common restaurant fails that are easy to avoid.
The most common fail is hiding the label while pouring. The label should be visible to the one being served. Yes, this is difficult with a wine chilled in melted ice, but that is what the towel is for – to dry the bottle – not to be wrapped over the label. (And why is the ice never refreshed?)
After that, a big fail is serving the wrong wine. Case in point – at a recent dinner specifically to taste local products, the wine was from a different DOC a continent away. Being familiar with the local wines, I pointed this out to my host, the top tourism official in the region, who had specifically ordered a meal of local flavors for us to savor. She asked for the wine to be replaced. The restaurant owner, acting as a sommelier, grumpily removed the perfectly good non-local wine and replaced it with the lowest grade local wine, a wine with a barnyard bouquet so vile I at first suspected him of doctoring my glass. Both he and the table waited for me to taste it. Once past the nose, the taste was ok, just not up to the quality of the food being served.
My comment: I know why you served the first wine. It went perfectly with your excellent food. This, however, is a local product that we are here to taste. Having tasted it, surely you have a better-quality local wine that goes as well with your food as the first did. That seemed to smooth his ruffled feathers, even put a smile on his face, and he brought a good local wine to the table.
When a server goes off menu to list the specials, why don’t they also tell you the price? If the menu has prices listed, then the price of the specials should also be given. No one wants to be put in the situation of having to ask how much a dish costs.
Everyone seems to be hanging their hat on farm-to-table in one form or another. When that is heavily touted on the menu it had better be true. Three examples:
In a widely circulated expose, a journalist called each farm identified in the Farm-To-Table restaurant’s menu and asked what the restaurant purchased from them. Some farms said the restaurant had never ordered from them, and some were familiar with the restaurant but said they hadn’t ordered in some time. I mean, if you are going to lie, cover your a**. The restaurant lamely admitted that some of the data in their menu might be outdated.
A newly opened restaurant in upstate New York advertised all local, farm-to-table fresh meat and produce. Then they served me asparagus in late August, not as a special, but as a regular on their new menu. Asparagus? In late August? Not in my locale.
At a local-product farm-to-table meal in a restaurant on Florida’s panhandle, I asked where the “local” produce came from because it was perfect and delicious. The server said Ohio. Technically, “local” doesn’t mean Ohio when you are in Florida, but the produce was flown in fresh from Farmer Lee Jones’ farm every other day. It doesn’t get any better than that. The first two examples were fails. This one was just disingenuous. (NOTE: I’ve since met Farmer Lee Jones at a Bocuse d’Or and have the utmost respect for his produce. He’s a nice guy, too.)
I frequently have dinner in restaurants that are not open on the day I’m in town. Tourism wants to show off the best they have to offer and schedules are often so tight there is no other choice. This can play havoc with the service, but I can’t stress this enough: even if you have a Michelin star or recommendation hanging on your wall, your staff must always act as highly trained professionals when working on their normal day off.
Recently, there were eight of us for dinner at a restaurant open only for us. Our table was so close to the wall that the server couldn’t get behind me to properly serve. Now there was plenty of room to move the table out, they just didn’t bother. That meant I was served from whatever side the female server got to first, sometimes much too close for comfort as she did. Other times I was reduced to passing my dishes down to the end of the table. The food was top quality, inventive, and creatively plated, but dinner was ruined for me by the inept service. When you have VIPs in the house, seat them so you can show off your best.
We were a bilingual table of English speakers at a very posh castle in France when the two servers started to berate us in French. They railed about how sloppy, dirty, and ill-mannered we were, not realizing we understood everything they said. I thought it was funny, but finally, our tourism host dressed them down in loud and demeaning French the whole restaurant could hear. They were escorted away by management with the explanation: “If they are indeed French, it is first generation and no reflection on our country. Please accept our apology.” And yet, management had hired them to serve us.
At a restaurant famous for being impossible to get reservations, we got one for lunch. An hour and a half after our reservation time we were seated with me at the head of the table. At the foot was a small window looking out at the old calf corral of the stone mansion, now a lovely courtyard. The menu was chef’s choice, prix fix, so the waiter simply asked if there was something we didn’t eat. My companions listed the things they didn’t eat. I eat everything, but I asked the waiter to put a menu or vase of flowers in the window because the sun was shining in and blinding me. The waiter served us course after course, each one containing something my companions said they didn’t eat. He also told me the owner said that the sun would move and be out of my eyes eventually, so there was no need to block the window. I still don’t know why they gave us a reservation, and why, with attitudes like that, there was such a long waiting list for them.
If, upon reading the above, it all just sounds like me being fussy, let me assure you I’m not. When local, regional, and/or state and national tourism offices engage me to help promote their regions, even going so far as to have restaurants open on normally closed days, the restaurateurs should do everything to ensure the experience is the best they can make it. Why else go to all that trouble?
A pep talk to the staff, an inspection of the serving area, a final menu review, all go a long way towards a great meal and a pleasurable evening – one that benefits everyone – which is what the hospitality business should be all about. And really, aside from the few “fails” above, I’ve had far, far more great dinners, enough to make my job a delight. To the people responsible for them I say: Thank you!