When a server spills wine on a guest, botches the pronunciation of bouillabaisse, and leaves dishes languishing in the kitchen window, that's unarguably bad service. But what of the tiny annoyances that grate at frequent restaurant-goers? There's nothing classifiably wrong with a server asking "Have you dined with us before?" or a restaurant failing to install purse hooks beneath its bar, but--for guests who care--such bugbears are impossible to ignore.
These peeves have absolutely nothing to do with how well the restaurant operates: That's why complaints pertaining to hygiene, negligent hostessing, and malfunctioning websites belong in a different category. These problems are petty trifles, at best. And yet.
Here, a list of my most vexing Princess and the Pea situations:
Three rolls in the basket
Eleanor Estes, a children's librarian who became the Laura Ingalls Wilder of WASPs, wrote four books about a family in Cranbury, Conn. My favorite title--The Middle Moffat, published in 1942--includes a chapter devoted to Janey's dinner visit to her best friend's Nancy's house. Janey has been warned by her mother never to eat the last lamb chop, since that's meant for the maid. But when the serving dish reaches Janey, there's only one chop remaining.
Olga stood beside Janey with the big platter, all empty now except for one big juicy lamb chop.
For her? Or for Olga?
Olga stood there. Janey glued her eyes on the chop. For her? Or for Olga?
I typically eat out with one other person, which means every three-roll basket poses an Olga conundrum. To cite another classic of children's literature: Please, we want one more.
Sloppy sugar stocking
Having worked as a waitress, I deeply appreciate the spectrum of sweetener preferences. I understand there are diners who swear by Sweet'N Low and diners who won't taint their coffee with anything but Equal. But the rainbow of sweetener packets that restaurants present should always, always include granulated white sugar.
Scented hand soap
Emily Post might not approve, but food lovers have an understandable tendency to eat with their hands. While utensils are terrifically helpful for soup and spaghetti, there's a long list of foods which offer tactile pleasures. Oysters, for example, are far better slurped from the shell than daintily extracted with a diminutive oyster fork.
But aromatic hand soap in a restaurant's bathroom can seriously interfere with the olfactory joys of eating. It's disconcerting to raise a trout rib or chicharron to one's mouth and be overwhelmed by the aggressive odor of honeysuckle. And unlike the annoyances listed above, this issue can't be fixed by asking the waitress.
Cramped waiting areas
Restaurants aren't train stations, but it's aggravating when a restaurant which doesn't take reservations doesn't provide ample space for guests awaiting tables. Bars often fill quickly, and nasty weather is apt to prohibit biding the time with a neighborhood stroll. The worst layouts force guests to stand between the host stand and the door, blocking guests' exit and leaving newcomers stranded at the back of a non-moving line.
Embarrassingly, I could go on. But I'd rather hear from you: Which restaurant practices do you find irrationally irksome?