The toughest critic in my family isn't me. It's my husband. And while the guy always says, "I'd rather be home sitting on the couch in my shorts with a six-pack and a Tombstone pizza" than out on a review with his wife, the restaurant critic, he's lying.
Pizza-lover though he may be, he's also an accomplished cook and no stranger to the joys of fine dining. But there's one thing he cannot tolerate — at restaurants funky or fine — and that's bad service.
The way I see it, when service isn't what it should be, I'm inclined to give a place the benefit of the doubt. The way he sees it, he'd "rather throw the money in the street" than return to a place where he's encountered bad service. And therein lies the difference between a paid critic (me), and a restaurant-critical patron (him): My job description requires that I give the place another chance, visiting three, sometimes four times before making a final assessment. His — and presumably yours — does not.
When I was a punk kid sautéing shrimp with Campbell's soup, he was making wine in the bathtub and preparing five-course meals for his parents. Don't believe me? I have the typed menus to prove it, complete with quotes from "The Chef HIM-self." ("Our fish are caught daily and they are never fishy or staile.") While my earliest memories of dining out involve sharing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, his entail wearing short pants and white gloves and eating duck à l'orange at Jacques, a classic French restaurant in Chicago.
There he became the favored patron of Vincent, the loyal waiter who made my in-laws feel like family and my husband like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Vincent regularly took him by the hand and into the kitchen to watch the chefs at work.
And as a result of his longstanding connection with "the world's best waiter," when it comes to service issues, you-know-who does not suffer fools gladly. Worse, when we're out and service goes south, well, then I'm the one who wishes I were home on the couch with a six-pack and a pizza.
Which brings me to a tale of two restaurant visits.
Visit No. 1
It's Saturday night, the parking gods are with us and we're 10 minutes early for a 7 p.m. reservation at 1200 Bistro & Lounge. After making our way through a crowded bar and a portal that opens onto a near-empty dining room, we're greeted by a young fellow acting as host.
"Hello," says my husband, offering the name in which we'd reserved, adding in a jovial voice: "Though it looks like we didn't really need a reservation." Rolling his eyes and no doubt thinking, "This buffoon has obviously never worked in a restaurant," our host pointed to his reservation book and announces in his most-annoyed voice, "Take a look at the book. You'll see that we'll be full very shortly." Uh-oh, I think. Here we go.
With only two occupied tables in the 45-seat dining room, I politely asked if we might sit at the cozy vacant table by the window. "That has already been reserved, but you can reserve it the next time," I'm told as he scans the horizon to find an appropriate spot for us, briefly conferring with one of the servers before seating us at the worst table in the house.
That claustrophobic deuce, located on the opposite side of the reception-desk, put my husband eye-to-eye with the dreaded reservation book and its keeper, in breathing distance of smoke wafting from the bar and, needless to say, in a very foul mood. "There's nothing I hate more," he whispered (as if this was news to me), "than an officious, self-important little (blank-blank) who doesn't know how to treat a paying customer!" "May I bring you something to drink?" asks our chic waitress, arriving just in time. "I'll say," I answer. "And make it a double."
When she left us to ponder our menus and wait for our beverages, I did some silent calculations: baby-sitter at home (check!), four other restaurants on my review-list located within a short drive of this place (check!), cellphone and Zagat guide in the car (check!). Hmmm. "What do you say we go somewhere else?" I ask my husband as the waitress returns with drinks in hand. "Check!" he replied.
Visit No. 2
It's Tuesday night and we have no reservations, but a friend and I are happy to take our chances at 1200 Bistro & Lounge, where business at the bar is again booming. Stepping from the lounge into the adjoining bistro, we note that several parties are already enjoying themselves in the seductively lit sanctum.
Standing at the reception desk, behind which sits the worst table in the house, we're approached by a young man in a tie and long apron. "Take a seat wherever you'd like," he says with a smile, and we make ourselves comfortable at a spacious four-top.
Moments later, a waiter arrives to offer cocktails and introduce us to the evening's specials. He describes a deconstructed seafood chowderlike appetizer that sounds too good to be true — and, as we'd later find out, tasted even better than that. This was the kind of server my husband loves: smart, humorous, friendly but not overly so, able to turn an evening out into a joyous event by reading his patrons well.
Our waiter spoke with authority about the menu and the wine list, finding the perfect complement to my grilled pork, an astounding chop served with a rustic rendition of black-eyed peas, cabbage and bacon, sweetened with late-summer peaches. One bite of that chop and my husband would have swooned. Unfortunately, I'll never get him to return to try it — though I certainly respect his reasons for writing the place off.
As for me, I'm so very glad I came back. On second inspection the service was not only exemplary but exceptional, and the food bordered on divine.
So I was wondering: What do you do in similar circumstances? When restaurant service is bad, do you stay or do you go? And if you stay, do you go back? Are you apt to give a place the benefit of the doubt, or is it "Strike one and yer out!"? Drop me a line. I'm betting your feedback will make for an interesting follow-up column.