Quibbles About Dining Out? Don't Get Our Critic Started

My name is Nancy, and I'll be your restaurant critic today. Can I bring you guys a drink while you're looking over my column? A margarita? Great idea! Would you like to try our special house margarita with a float of Grand Marnier? How about starting off with one of our terrific appetizers? The grilled portobello mushrooms are my favorite. Excuse me? What did you say? Ohhhh, the music's too loud and you'd like it turned down? Umm, I'm not sure we can do that. Let me check with my manager. I'll be right back.

Dining-out pet peeves. We've all got them. But when a reader asked me to share mine, how could I resist? From overzealous servers intent on up-selling (that's restaurant parlance for those price-added "suggestions" regarding the margarita and the appetizer), to the ubiquitous grilled portobellos on menus everywhere (enough already!), to music so obtrusive I long for yet another quiet loop of "The Girl from Ipanema," the petty-annoyance factor can add up to a bummer of a restaurant experience awfully quick.

Pet peeves are, by definition, personal and subjective, but service peeves tend to lead everyone's list. Three years after the fact, my husband is still complaining about a waiter who insisted on calling him "friend" (he wasn't). That didn't bother me at all - "you guys" is the one that does me in.

You may shrug, unaffected, but I can't stand it when a server arrives, plates in hand, asking, "Who gets the chicken?" Seats should be mapped with corresponding numbers - a simple method practiced in many better restaurants - to do away with the who-gets-what problem. Speaking of seats, I can assure you that there's plenty of padding on mine, but what's up with the uncomfortable wooden banquettes? What ever happened to upholstery?

I don't know too many diners who appreciate showing up on time for a reservation - only to wait 45 minutes for a table. Few of us like to order - and only then find out that what we wanted is unavailable. And who wants to be asked - again and again through the course of a meal - "How are you doing?" or "Is everything OK?" Not me.

First impressions are important, and that extends to making reservations. Imagine the state of my jaw when I (anonymously) called one of the city's finer restaurants only to have the chef/owner (I recognized his accent) ask me to hold, please, while he mopped up his bloody nose. When I offered to call back, I was told not to worry since "it happens all the time." I wish I was making that story up, just as I wish I had only dreamed about the restaurateur who regaled me with the tale of her unusual lactation problems. In situations like that, need I say that familiarity breeds something worse than contempt?

When I arrive at a restaurant I expect to be greeted promptly at the door and made to feel welcome, not left cooling my heels wondering if I should seat myself (or get out while the getting is good). Is it terribly busy? I can wait. Just be sure to acknowledge my presence in a friendly fashion. By the way: Once seated, a glass of water and a basket of bread buy a harried staff a lot of time. Just make sure the bread's worth eating: there's no excuse for a lousy loaf in this town.

I know people who throw hissy-fits when their steak is overcooked or their salad course forgotten, but I'm not one of them. What aggravates me is when errors are handled with little or no aplomb. Apologize (but please don't go overboard) and try to make things right. Ask me how best to do that. In my case that would be cooking another steak ASAP, or serving the salad after the main course. A complimentary glass of wine or a free dessert is an inexpensive (and much-appreciated) gesture of good will when things go awry.

Other peeves? Menus with spelling errors; wine lists without vintage dates; owners who schmooze their customers and overstay their welcome; wan tomatoes - why bother?; a staff that doesn't work together for the benefit of the whole.

No doubt you have a list of dining-out peeves that may never have occurred to me. Care to share them? Or dare I even ask?

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: taste@seattletimes.com.