Chips and dip by the sidewalk
As someone who critiques a fair number of restaurant (I was co-editor and co-author of the Fearless Critic Seattle Restaurant Guide, for example), I'm often asked about objectivity as a non-anonymous reviewer.
Chips and dip by the sidewalk
To give Japanese restaurant examples, a ramen chef won't suddenly whip me up a better bowl of broth. A sushi chef might give me a slightly nicer cut of fish for my order of nigiri, but he (or she) would also do that for a regular. And a good sushi chef, or any chef, will treat me the same as anyone else, as any diner can be a potential reviewer or future regular. (Given the wide number of restaurants I visit, I'm really not a regular anywhere, anyway.)
Here's an even better example...
Last month, I flew to Florida to visit my father in Boca Raton, which afforded me the chance to eat one meal in Miami. I get this opportunity about once per year, so I research obsessively, selecting my restaurant like I'm choosing a life partner. Past choices have included Naoe for one of the best sushi meals of my life, and Yardbird for a southern-style meal unlike anything I can find in Seattle.
At last year's Feast Portland festival, I was wowed by Hedy Goldsmith's desserts, so my recent Miami pick was Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, where she's the pastry chef. I gave Hedy a heads-up that I would be coming for dinner. Unfortunately, she was scheduled to be at the restaurant's Cayman Islands location, but she agreed to set up a reservation for me, although I'd be paying my own way. I carefully calculated my flight arrival and car pick-up and travel times, and looked forward to my reservation for two to sit at the chef's counter at 8:30 p.m.
We arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes early and I checked see if seating was possible, as we were hungry and tired from flying. The hostess advised that both parties at the counter were likely running just a little late, still working on entrees. We turned down the offer for another table (wanting to enjoy the kitchen action from the counter seats) and the referral to the bar (it was crowded and noisy, and we weren't planning to drink alcohol after the long flights), so we left to take a short walk.
We returned at 8:45 p.m. The two couples were still at the counter, one apparently now ordering a second round of desserts. We stood, reading the menu and chatting. At 9:15 p.m., a manager finally came over to offer complimentary drinks, which we declined. She then invited us to sit on a ledge close to the street, where she'd bring us water and bar snacks (chicken liver on crostini, and potato chips with onion dip) to sate our thirst and appetite a bit. A smoke-filled scenario, but we got something in our stomachs. She provided updates and about 9:30--one hour late--told us our seats were finally ready.
(The couples at the counter stayed three hours and longer. Should a restaurant give them a heads-up that there are others with reservations for those seats?)
A more senior manager came over to apologize and offered complimentary wine. We repeated that we weren't drinking, so she instead offered us additional bar snacks or small plates, recommending the roasted farm egg, which we accepted, thinking it was on the house for the inconvenience. This item would later appear on our bill.
At the chef's counter, at last
Service was scattered. Our waiter never refilled our water, only once checked in on how our food was, and was otherwise hard to find in the dining room. First dishes came quickly, but the next came far too slowly. I watched as our Brussels sprouts sat, fired too early, while the two meat dishes took too long to catch up. Maybe sitting at the counter is giving me too much information, I thought, as I ate lukewarm, soggy sprouts.
Meanwhile, menu items were getting 86ed. When we went to place our initial order, for example, the romanesco we craved was suddenly sold out. And we almost missed the last serving of a desired dessert when it took almost fifteen minutes from getting dessert menus to placing an order.
Our dinner took over two hours, but could have been considerably shorter with more efficient service. Maybe this is why the parties at the counter stayed so long?
Normally, I'd have commented about things like the Brussels sprouts and the billing issue on the spot, but the evening had already started with such frustration, annoyance, and disappointment that I wanted to try to have as positive experience as possible, without further heavy discussions. Sadly, the anticipation of landing in Miami and having a great meal at a carefully picked restaurant turned into extremely delayed seating, slack service, and a far-too-late finish after a long day.
All of this to a person labeled as a VIP in the reservation book.
I sent much of this report to Hedy (who this week landed on the semifinalist list for a James Beard Foundation pastry chef award); she felt terribly embarrassed and apologized, forwarding my message to management. I soon heard from the director of operations for the Genuine Hospitality Group, who sent "profuse apologies" and asked for "another opportunity to show the true 'genuine' hospitality that we are known for," offering: "If you will please contact me on your next visit to Miami I will be more than happy to make dinner or lunch arrangements for you."
I appreciated the response, but since I'm not often in Miami, I'm not likely to take up the offer of a do-over. I'd rather return to restaurants where I've had better food, or continue to explore new places.
In addition to reinforcing my beliefs about the value of non-anonymous reviewing, this whole experience has given me further appreciation of Seattle's own Tom Douglas. Shortly after my arrival to Seattle in 1999, well before I was food writing, I had an unsatisfactory meal at the Dahlia Lounge. I wrote to "Dahlia" about the experience (mostly poor food quality), and exactly two days later (which meant that Douglas had received my mail and sent a return the same day--I'm talking old-fashioned snail mail here!), Douglas expressed his deep disappointment at my treatment as a guest. He mentioned staff and menu changes, and said that feedback like mine was valuable for fine-tuning.
Tom Douglas at Dahlia Lounge
Enclosing a check for $100 to cover the cost of my meal, plus a gift certificate for $150 to spend on my next meal, he requested that "you send me your review of your next experience at Dahlia Lounge." That next meal was much better, and I've held Douglas in high regard for his integrity since the incident. Anyone who's heard the story has called him a "true professional." Douglas did the right thing, standing fully behind his name, which is part of what makes him a genuine Seattle treasure.