Food critic: Twenty restaurant pet peeves
Twenty grievances about the restaurant experience When it comes to the world’s dream jobs, for many, restaurant reviewer tops the list. Getting paid to eat in top restaurants? Awesome! No doubt, we critics have it good, proof being that a “problem” for us is the interminable tasting menu, an overly friendly waiter or — God forbid — we have to pour our own wine. Yet having spent more than 15 years analyzing the restaurant experience, I have noticed certain patterns emerge, certain annoyances deepen, aspects of the experience that over the years have begun to engrave themselves into my subconscious like nails scratching on a blackboard. I wouldn’t go so far as to say such things drive me bananas but, more constructively thinking, have taught me the difference between a mediocre restaurant, a good restaurant and a great restaurant. The better the restaurant, the fewer the faux pas. In late August in London’s The Guardian newspaper, restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, wrote a story titled: “Restaurant pet hates: 11 ways to ruin my appetite.” I read through her list, nodding my head. From excessive tipping practices and awful restaurant websites to the ridiculous high-concept dining, O’Loughlin nailed so many of those restaurant “pet hates,” as she refers to them, that rattle us all. But by the time I finished the story all I could think was, “That’s it?” That’s all that riles her up? Only 11? I have so many more! Though the London dining pet peeves aren’t all relative to our scene (for instance, she complains of chefs who come out too often to speak with customers whereas Montreal chefs tend to cower in the kitchen), I share three categories with O’Loughlin (see Nos. 3, 6 and 14 below). However, the 17 others are absolutely made in Quebec. I’ve decided to omit the obvious faux pas — like rude waiters, cold food, dishes arriving at different times, dirty bathrooms and the coat check girl manhandling your $400 Burberry trench. Instead, I’ve focused on the problems that really get my goat, and I’m sure get your goat, too. And on the subject, why not more goat meat on menus? Here we go: 1 Low-tech table booking systems: “Yes, it’s about that message I left on your answering machine at 11 a.m. this morning concerning a reservation for tonight. I’m worried because it’s now 5 p.m. and you haven’t called me back and I have a dinner to plan and friends who want to know when and where we are going to meet. I understand that you can’t have someone working the phones 24/7, but I think you should get back to me within a reasonable amount of time to know whether or not I have a table because if I only find out by late afternoon that I don’t have a table at your place, my chances of getting a table at another good restaurant are about as high as me ever fitting into my skinny jeans again.” Word of advice to restaurants: drop the answering machine option for booking tables and sign on to an online table reservation site like Open Table. 2 Rude hostesses: Three fabulous greetings for a hostess at the door that are preferable to being faced with someone who doesn’t smile, who cannot be bothered to look up from the reservation book for a good three minutes after I’ve entered, or who acts like showing me to my table is a hassle. I’ve experienced all three, all too often. 3 I seem to have a bad case of Siberia table: I enter your restaurant early after having showered, blow-dried my hair, and chosen my best outfit from Winners. I’m feeling good about myself. Yet in this empty restaurant, you’re sticking me at the table in the corner, with a view of the dish pit, next to the kitchen, beside the bathroom door or in a section of the room obviously reserved for the less comely diners? Not cool. And when I ask to change my table and you pretend that all the better ones around me are already booked, all I want to do is walk right out the door. We don’t go to restaurants to sit in a corner. Restaurant owners, do us customers a favour and lose the crummy tables. And why is it that I always get a better table when I dine with a man than when I dine with another woman, especially an older woman? Hmm… 4 Pricey water: Why is a waiter’s first priority always to know whether I want sparkling or regular bottled water? Because at close to $7 a bottle, it’s an easy way to jack up the bill. And why is it that when I request regular water it is so often room temperature and tastes like chlorine. Ugh. Nora Ephron wrote a great short story on how New York waiters tend to push the San Pellegrino water, serve it in tall glasses, top it up often and go so far as to offer you a second bottle before you’ve even had a sip. I loved that story because it happens all the time. 5 Shoddy wine service: Where do I begin? How about the wine lists that feature bottles marked up over three times retail? Or the ones that favour private imports in order to boost prices without the customer being aware that their $75 Canadian pinot gris is actually worth $19? What about those times when I’m in a restaurant and the person serving me can’t tell me much more about that $60 wine I’m considering than, “I like it”? And how about those servers who top up my glass so often that after that mysteriously long wait for the main courses, there’s not much left in my glass? But perhaps the most egregious example of poor wine service is the glass of wine that is simply plunked on the table without anyone showing me the bottle, and especially the label. It’s a service you are providing to the wine maker to show me the label because if I like it (and it’s not a private import!), I just might pick up a bottle at a later date. And if you don’t show me the bottle and pour it at the table, how do I know that what you poured me is actually the wine listed? 6 Stinginess: Once upon a time in restaurants, diners were offered little extras called amuse-bouches (bite-sized nibbles served before the meal) and mignardises (bite-sized nibbles post dessert). Haven’t seen those in ages … or even an olive, a cheese straw or a handful of candies with the bill. Save for the bread basket, freebies in restaurants are dead in the water. And yet the one act of cheapness that gets me most remains the parsimonious wine pour. A large glass is placed on the table and the server pours in the wine until it reaches either a line on the glass or hits the top (or bottom) of the restaurant logo emblazoned on the glass. I always watch the precision displayed by waiters, one going so far as to actually bend down right to the level of the glass, trying desperately to hit that mark to the exact millimetre. Would it really kill you to give me a few drops more? C’mon! What a sharp contrast to restaurants where the servers offer generous pours, some going so far as to leave the bottle on the table. Class. 7 The VIP foot massage: Here I am at my table, eating an expensive dinner trying my best to have a good time. But there you are Mr. Restaurant Owner at the table next to mine, doing cartwheels to insure that that group of VIPs next to me is having the time of their lives. You pull out their table so they can sit down comfortably, smile ear to ear, offer them a spoonful of that pricey balsamico on their risotto, pour them Cognacs on the house after their coffees. How great to have faithful customers and big wigs at your restaurants! But the contrast between their service and my service is a bummer. 8 Pulling a fast one: No, Mr. Chef who comes to my table to boast his way through his menu description, I don’t believe you for a second when you say you make your chocolate in-house (close to impossible), and, no, I don’t buy your claim that the pheasant you serve hails from the same supplier who sells to the Troisgros restaurant in France (illegal without a pricey permit). I know that you don’t buy Gaspor pork or Boileau deer, even though it’s listed on your menu (maybe you did once, but I know you don’t anymore because the producer told me). I’m not sure if you noticed, but the bottle you served me is a lesser vintage that the great one you have listed on your wine list. So, really, none of those “homemade” desserts are actually made on-site? And as for those two coffees listed on my bill, funny, but I don’t recall ever drinking any coffee. 9 Sticky waiters and show-offy sommeliers: “How’s it going?” and “How’s everything here?” are two questions I relish hearing during dinner. Once is good, twice is fine. But recently I was asked 12 times how my dinner was over the course of the evening by about five employees. Really? Also, was it so important to know how my meal was going to interrupt my conversation to ask? And as much as I love sommeliers and enjoy a few details about the wine, I don’t need a masters thesis on oenology. Yes, it’s interesting to know whether that Bordeaux I’m drinking is from a Left or Right Bank winemaker, but I don’t need to know that it has partially undergone malolactic fermentation and is made in a château with a 20-metre-long sorting table. Malolactic what? 10 The loooonng wait: You know what I’m talking about. Waits between dishes can be a little lengthy at times, but then there’s that long wait, that 45-minute wait that transforms a night out with, say, the elderly parents into an antsy situation. Conversation is flowing nicely at the table, but once we’ve solved all the world’s problems and there’s no bread left in the bread basket and the food still hasn’t arrived, it all gets more than a little tense. Worse yet, the couple at the neighbouring table who arrived after we did just paid their bill and we haven’t even got our main course. And speaking of waits, what’s with the 20-minute wait for dessert. At the end of the meal, no one wants to wait an extra 20 minutes for a tart Tatin. Either find a way to make it quickly or drop it from the menu. 11 The big ambience switcheroo: It’s a great meal, the room is hopping, and the background music is just that, in the background — and pretty enjoyable I might add. But then suddenly at, say, 9:30 p.m., the lights drop and the music is kicked up about 10 notches. Why the sudden supper club vibe? 12 And on the topic of music … : Many complain about music, but when done just right, background music in a restaurant is a feature I love. And though at times it can be too loud, my beef is more along the lines of the choice of music than the volume. I don’t need Swan Lake, but please, do we have to tolerate the old disco tunes, entire David Bowie canon and the worst of the ’80s? I’d take the Gypsy Kings or the Diva soundtrack over Bananarama any day. 13 Boo hoo, I didn’t like it and you couldn’t care less: I’m in an expensive restaurant and I’m served an expensive dish. Sadly, I don’t like it, which means, I don’t eat it. When you clear the dish, it might be nice to ask me why. Servers who ask show concern, and I appreciate the fact that they care that I walked away with a good impression of my dinner. As for servers who don’t ask, I figure they don’t care, or are more wrapped up with the hockey game playing on the TV at the bar. 14 Do you really need that table in 2 hours?: In order to make money on busy night, restaurant owners turn tables, which means tables occupied at 6 p.m. are often liberated at about 8 p.m. They will often tell you just that when you book the table. Often the transition goes smoothly, but nothing is more annoying than being reminded time and time again how much time is left before you gotta split. Oh wait, here’s something more annoying, when you’ve been pushed out of your table, you linger and realize there is no one there to occupy the table for a good 25 minutes. Not cool. 15 We only have two portions left of the sea bass: At 7 p.m.?! 16 SALT!: There is an expression in French that goes, “if the food is salty, the chef must be in love.” Nice one, yet I’d say if the chef is putting too much salt in the food, he or she isn’t paying attention. The level of salt making its way into Montreal restaurant meals has never seemed as high. An over-salted dish is a ruined dish and worth sending back to the kitchen. 17 Really?: Sometimes when I eat a dish, I wonder whether the chef has, too. Has he or she noticed that the flavours clash, that the dish is impossibly rich or, on the flip side, that it lacks substance. Are there too many repeats from the starters to main courses? Or does the style of the appetizers not flow with the main courses? And I often wonder if he or she can come close to finishing the amount of food on this plate, because I sure can’t. 18 Stupidities: You state that you specialize in local ingredients and yet there’s Mediterranean octopus on the list and asparagus in August? Far worse: you still feature unsustainable fish like Chilean sea bass on your menu. And, really, with spellcheck at everyone’s fingertips, mistake-free menus are a no-brainer. Strangely enough, there are a lot of menus with typos. 19 No respect for the sweets: You wowed me with the appetizers, you knocked me out with the main courses, but you put me to sleep with the dessert. Too many Montreal restaurants throw their hands up with the dessert course, with several chefs giving lame excuses as to why. It doesn’t have to be complicated, yet it should be a step up from the now tired crème brûlée and molten chocolate cake. If chefs made half the effort on dessert that they do on main courses, they’d be making a few extra bucks on the dessert course instead of giving us all too good a reason to pass on the calories. 20 Merci!: I’ve just paid my $300 bill, I’ve had a stupendous meal and I sure like your restaurant. On my way out, it would be nice to hear a, “Thank you for coming,” and maybe a “Come again.” To me there is nothing worse than exiting a restaurant without that final word of thanks. It’s plain courtesy, not to mention, good business. I just parted with a mortgage payment, why not show me a little love? Read More...
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