My restaurant rant

Karl Wells
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Here are 20 pet peeves about dining out

Last week I was surfing the Internet and saw that a few prominent restaurant critics recently published columns featuring their 10, and in one case, 20 pet peeves about restaurant service.

Twenty peeves about service alone seemed like an overload of criticism to me. If I were a server I’d feel my comrades and I had been set upon. Service is only one aspect of restaurant dining — a very important aspect, but just one.

We all have our pet peeves about restaurants, as with much in life. I’d reckon your list would talk about more than service. I’ve visited a lot of restaurants in Newfoundland and Labrador and many outside of this province. After some reflection, I have drawn up my own list of 20 pet peeves.

 

1. The indifferent or cold welcome

If an individual, couple or group has selected one out of dozens of restaurants in which to spend their time and money, a smiling face with a warm, friendly greeting is not too much to expect upon arrival. The last thing you want in these first minutes is an indifferent or grumpy host mumbling nothing more than, “Do you have a reservation?”

 

2. Pretentiousness

Restaurants that put on airs may be fun for some people, but not me. For example, why do some servers act like they are either a) the owner or b) the chef? When a server says something like, “This evening I have some beautiful lamb shank that I’m braising; and I’m doing that with a very creamy risotto,” it sounds insincere. We know who will really be doing the braising. I applaud servers who know such details but, please, don’t go over the top.

 

3. Dark as pitch restaurants

I’ve dined with friends who have 20/20 vision and even they could not read the menu in some restaurants because it was too dark. The problem is compounded when the print is too small or faded. I’m all for creating mood with low lighting, but the tables themselves need enough lighting to ensure patrons can read.

 

4. War and Peace specials

Many restaurants make servers memorize and then recite a list of specials that seems as long as a novel by Tolstoy. It’s simply impossible to recall everything described. Why do this? If the specials go beyond a few choices, they should be written down on paper and handed to diners.

 

5. Menu mistakes

Apart from words being misspelled, sometimes menus contain inaccurate descriptions of dishes. Don’t say the half duck has wild rice stuffing if there’s no wild rice in the stuffing. Don’t say the vegetables and fruit are fresh and then serve processed or frozen produce.

 

6. Menu ignorance

Sometimes when a menu does not contain a lot of detail about a dish, a customer will ask the server to fill in the blanks. I once asked a server about a seafood dish and received the following reply: “I hate fish, so I don’t know.” Servers should be able to answer most menu queries without bothering the kitchen.

 

7. Excellent choice!

When a customer says, “I’ll have the steak and frites,” or whatever, why do so many servers respond with, “Excellent choice!” Whether a server thinks a dish is excellent or not is irrelevant, and unless he or she says it to everyone at the table, the impression left is that the other diners made a feeble choice.

 

8. Stagnant menus

Have you noticed that some restaurants have not changed the menu in many years? A restaurant that sticks with the same menu for more than two or three years risks chefs becoming bored and cooking by rote. Eventually the customer will also become bored, or notice the food doesn’t taste as good anymore, and leave.

 

9. Sloppy mise en place

Mise en place is a term chefs use to describe all of the cleaning, peeling, cutting and measuring that must be done before the actual cooking begins. If vegetables are to be sautéed and served in a timely manner, they must be ready for the pan. Once I was served a dish of peppers with a piece of green pepper still bearing a sales sticker. That’s unacceptable. I often see vegetables cut without uniformity, and have been served produce that appeared not to have been properly washed.

 

10. Cold plates

When a hot meal is ordered it should arrive at the table hot. This is only possible when the food is served on a plate that has been warmed through. When hot food is served on a cold plate, the plate draws the heat from the food. Unless he or she isn’t shy about complaining, the customer must then settle for tepid carrots as opposed to hot.

 

11. Overcooking

Seafood and meat being overcooked seems to be a perennial problem. I know it’s seen as accommodating the Newfoundland palate. (God forbid there should be any juice running out of it.) Or is that just an excuse for bad cooking? At any rate, it’s time chefs realized that undercooked food can be put back in the oven while overcooked food is simply ruined.

 

12. Chefs with attitude

If a customer wants a cut of meat or a vegetable cooked to a certain doneness, and can be accommodated without too much trouble, then chefs should fulfil the request. Recently I was served potato in a high end U.S. restaurant that was so undercooked I could hardly get my knife through it. I complained to the server who informed the maître d’. I was told the chef serves his potato “al dente.” I said that in my opinion the potato was raw. They took it back to the kitchen and ages later my potato returned, still raw. Clearly the chef was sending a message. Put up or shut up. I’m not inclined to return to that restaurant.

 

13. Mishandled complaints

I was once served a dish with shellfish that had gone off badly. It smelled rotten. When I wanted to send it back the server said, “Well, I could take it back but you should know that our chef likes to use lots of spices. Perhaps it’s just that you are not familiar with these spices.” I was flabbergasted. When a customer makes a complaint about being served rotting food, it’s wise to take it away immediately. Don’t add insult to injury by suggesting he or she may have an uneducated palate.

 

14. Poorly tended restrooms

For the most part, I’ve found restaurant washrooms to be either meticulously maintained or utterly disgusting. In the middle of a meal, there is nothing more off putting than to walk into a restroom with, well, I don’t need to paint you a picture. Shame on restaurants that neglect washroom cleanliness.

 

15. Removing dishes too soon

A restaurant dinner service is like putting on a play. It’s theatre. Preparation, teamwork and timing are everything. Maintaining the right pace when working a table is important. Picking the perfect moment to serve or remove a plate maintains the equilibrium of the table. The best service is seamless service, where the diner hardly notices the movement of wait staff. Too often I see servers whipping away plates from under people’s noses as soon as they are chewing the last morsel from the plate. No consideration is given to the people at the table who may still be eating. Customers should not be made to feel they are being rushed, period.

 

16. Commercially made desserts

Way too many restaurants have abandoned homemade desserts. I’m sick of frozen molten chocolate lava cake, frozen cheesecake, carrot cake and all the other mass produced desserts being presented in restaurants these days. I’d settle for just one honestly made lemon meringue pie. All chefs can make some kind of dessert, even if they have not specialized in pastry. Surely, having one homemade dessert available is not asking for too much.

 

17. No decaf coffee

I prefer to drink decaf coffee in the evening these days. When I’m at a restaurant for dinner, getting decaf is anything but a sure thing. Servers often say, “I can put a pot on for you but it will take 10 minutes.” Fine, no problem there. It’s when they say, “Sorry we don’t serve decaf,” that I shake my head in disbelief. With so many people drinking decaf coffee these days, not providing it makes no sense. (I believe this is more of a problem in Newfoundland than elsewhere.)

 

18. Poorly made tea

Finding a good cup of tea in a restaurant is almost impossible. A bag is often dropped in a cup or stainless pot that’s then filled with hot water from a coffee machine. Unless the water is actually boiling, and the cup or pot has been warmed, the tea will taste like warm dishwater. Yuck. Additionally, if the tea bag is put in a cup, too often nothing is provided in which to place the bag after the tea has steeped.  

 

19. Chefs visiting the table

I’ve never liked the practice of the “chef” visiting tables at the end of service. It’s an awkward business, even when the chef is a good conversationalist or a friend. Invariably they ask, “How was the meal?” And invariably I tell them that it was great. That’s because they don’t want to hear criticism in a restaurant filled with customers. They want praise, only praise. It’s an uncomfortable little dance in which I’d rather not participate.

 

20. Cash only restaurants

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve steered clear of restaurants that don’t accept credit or debit cards. I never carry much cash and the inconvenience of finding a bank machine at the last minute makes the choice to go to another restaurant very easy. The reality today is that most people use cards and, while I understand the reasons for “cash only,” I still think it’s bad for business. One more thing: if you only accept cash, please make sure your customers know the deal before they order. If they are unaware at settling up time, and become embarrassed, they will never be back.

                               • • •

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene, please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells

 

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, U.S.

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