Have you ever had to break up with a restaurant you loved? What would drive you to never return again? As I worked on my recent essay "Breaking up with a Restaurant," I found myself asking friends and family these two questions. I wanted to commisserate, yes, but I also wanted to know how tolerant different people were of lousy service, especially people who love food as much as I do.
It seemed like the perfect question to kick off the Seattle Weekly Food Panel, a new regular feature where local folks with a passion for food tell us what they think. Though most of our panelists don't directly work in the food industry, many have previously, and several are still involved in the culinary world in their spare time. All of them follow food trends, restaurant openings and closings, and like to cook. You can read extended bios of each here and their answer to my burning questions below, after you read my original essay, of course. And stay tuned for more monthly panel discussions on food trends (good and bad), Seattle's culinary scene, and other gastronomic miscellany.
Macaroon Lover, Keeper of Chickens
I’ve had one major break up with a restaurant; having been a waitress all through college, I’m definitely prone to sympathy more than anger when something isn’t up to par at a restaurant. Slow service or even a poor quality meal aren’t enough to keep me from ending a relationship. But, once you question my integrity, we're over. That happened when my family was in town and I was inspired a visit a new restaurant I’d heard about. The scallops I ordered just weren’t good; the sauce was runny and they weren’t cooked properly. I apologized, explained the situation and asked if I could order something else off the menu. The server agreed and brought me a new dish. However, I was surprised to find the scallops on the bill. I asked to speak with a manager about it. This is where the guilt comes in. She frowned, sighed, paused, and finally said that they don’t normally do this, but she’d make an exception. Her tone of voice and facial expression reminded me of a high school principal. Keep in mind, I’d eaten one scallop. The way it was handled made me feel like I was being dishonest or trying to pull a fast one by ordering twice. By graciously comping that meal, I would have not only come back, but spread the word on my positive experience. But, given what happened, I won’t be returning. No one likes to feel like they’re in trouble with the principal, especially when dining out.
Writer, The Hungry Traveler
I have broken up with restaurants--usually over a period of decline in food quality and/or service. I've never done so over a single bad incident at a regular restaurant. My thinking is on any given night, a server/chef/manager/owner can lose their cool and say something they probably regretted later. I usually return, and luckily, find that the poor experience was not a pattern, but just a bad night.
Home Cook, Former Board Member of Slow Food Seattle
For me, great service can go a long way towards encouraging me to return to a restaurant, even if the food is nondescript. Conversely, I don't have much patience for poor service (I'm talking willfully poor, not the result of a harried or overwhelmed server) or food that is just indifferently prepared. There are too many fantastic restaurants in Seattle to return to a spot where I've had a legitimately bad experience. That being said, I can think of only two places in town where I've drawn the line at going back. Both are established, well-regarded fine dining spots known for the type of cuisine they specialize in. At the first, the server was so uninterested in serving us on our first visit that I'll never go back, even though the food was actually fairly good. At the second, a spot I've eaten at multiple times over the years with generally good service and totally acceptable/tasty food, two dinners in a row where the food seemed uncared for in preparation, sloppily plated, and clumsily served got it 86'd from my return list.
Board Member of the Market Foundation
I have definitely sworn off a restaurant because I didn’t like the food, but I’ve always been willing to give a restaurant a second (or even a third chance) on that front. I have a great deal of appreciation for the difficulty in preparing delicious food and am willing to give a restaurant the benefit of the doubt that it was just an off night. However, I don’t just go to restaurants for the food. I go for the experience. Service, ambiance, and price are big factors in the overall experience (along with the food). It’s more likely that I swear off a restaurant on those factors than on food. For example, there is a “top” restaurant less than three blocks from my house that I’ve been to exactly one time in three years because the whole experience was terrible. I’m told the food is delicious, but it all tasted bitter to me because of the terrible service, high price, and condescending atmosphere.
Co-Founder and CEO of Foodista.com
I've been fortunate to have not experienced service so egregious that I won't return. However, one thing that will absolutely make me break up with a restaurant is out and out lying about an ingredient. I've experienced two unfortunate incidents at upscale restaurants in Seattle and have forever sworn them off. Last spring during salmon season, I ordered wild salmon, but what I got was clearly farmed. There's no fooling someone who has grown up in the Pacific Northwest! I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't say anything but more ashamed that a known seafood establishment would assume their guests wouldn't know the difference. Then, last winter, I ordered what was sure to be a comforting cassoulet. The beans were cooked to tender perfection, the sausage was lovely, the overall flavor was just what I'd been craving. Then I saw a little drumstick (no thigh attached as a full leg should be in a confit) and said to my husband, "Hmm, this is chicken." I tasted it. He tasted it. Chicken. I was not going to sit quietly by this time and pay $25 for chicken that was supposed to be duck. The waitress said she'd ask the chef and she came back saying, "He said it was indeed duck." I would still bet 2-months salary that it was chicken. I've cooked enough of both birds to know the difference. Sadly, they lost me. Forever.
If you would like to become a member of the Food Panel, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me why we should care what you think. Or you can join the conversation via the Disqus comment section below. I'd love to hear what you have to say too! And feel free to suggest a topic you think bears talking about and we'll consider it for a future panel.