Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lame waiter words enrage Frank Bruni

He hates
  • "Enjoy"
  • "Enjoying"
  • "Pardon my reach"
  • Talking to you in the first person (plural): "Do we have any food allergies ..."
  • Talking to you in the third person: "Would madam enjoy ..."
  • "Enjoy"
  • "Perfect."
  • "Excellent choice."
  • "Enjoy"
Not the freshest story idea, but we must read Bruni faithfully, because some day he is going to lose it, in a restaurant, with the violence, and it is going to be awesome.

NY Times: Tonight, Patronizing Language. Enjoy.

Previously: You May Kiss the Chef’s Napkin Ring

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mean words for Presidio Social Club

I can't help but point out a recurring theme in the reviews of Presidio Social Club: The service sort of really sucks!

And it sucks in the friendliest, nicest, most warm-spirited possible way, which goes a hell of a long way, as the consistently positive overall reviews of Presidio Social Club attest.

Listen to Josh Sens in San Francisco magazine:

Where the Social Club suffers is in its atrocious service, as bad as any I've encountered in a restaurant more ambitious than a Jack in the Box. To call the waiters AWOL would be too kind. On both occasions when I was at their mercy, they seemed to synchronize their passes by my table not to military time but to the travel patterns of rare comets. On their infrequent appearances, they were friendly but forgetful. Oh right, your cocktail. Ah yes, your sauteed spinach. Questions about the menu? The fish special, say, or the stock in the veal stew? Don't ask, because they won't tell.
That paragraph sure caught my attention, and stuck in my head even as Sens went on to give an overall "very good," two-of-four star review, apparently on the strength of the cocktails, desserts, and the staff's overall niceness.

So I decided to check around. Apparently Michael Bauer raised a similar, if more muted, critique of the service. He wrote that the staff were "seemingly inexperienced," failed to bring utensils and brought the wrong drinks.

But like Sens, Bauer was eventually won over by friendliness and desserts and cocktails, plus some fine (though uneven) entrees and apps.

Then there's KQED's food blog, where food writer Catherine Nash wrote, "Our waiter had the wink and swagger of a good ole boy, and I had to wonder if he was flirting or stealing nips from the bar since we rarely saw him." Bus boys and food runners were better than the waiter, plus desserts and cocktails were to die for -- you get the idea by now.

Not surprisingly, you can find similar critiques of the service at Presidio Social Club on the Web, if you look for them.

Funny me, but I can't imagine having worse-than-AWOL waiters on two different visits to the same restaurant, as Sens at SF magazine described, and then giving the place anything better than "good," at best. Especially if, like Sens, my review is published two and a half months after similar criticisms were aired in the Chronicle and a month after they were aired on the KQED food blog, giving the restaurant plenty of time to fix things, even taking into account long magazine lead times.

But then, I've never actually been to Presidio Social Club, which seems to have a Reality Distortion Field strong enough to impress Steve Jobs himself. As Nash put it, "the critic in me may have shrugged, but the rest of me had fallen in love."

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Daniel Patterson hates and detests visiting you; hired waiter with paranoid schizophrenia; has investors who are a little slow (if you catch my drift)

Daniel Patterson, a prolific magazine writer who apparently has his own restaurant, wrote today on Chez Pim about the burning shame of coming out of the kitchen to visit customer tables, where he feels like some kind of awkward mental case, which is not at all how any of us expect chefs to be, since they are known for their social graces.

Patterson much prefers the warm comfort of his kitchen, where a psychotic waiter almost killed everyone.

At least there he doesn't have to spend for-EVER at an investor's table and explain very slowly for the millionth time why the food keeps changing, as he did in his dining room on opening night.

The kitchen also keeps him away from what he calls his "bitchy neighbor," an architect who drives a baby blue BMW. (So best!)

Pim scored quite a coup by luring Patterson to her site. He normally writes for the New York Times' various magazines and glossy publications like San Francisco. When he wasn't writing articles or dodging Alice Waters' narco death squads he ran the restaurant Elisabeth Daniel (RIP) and the kitchen at Frisson.

Patterson says his opening day was "boring," but it's not so bad when you selectively quote his story out of context!!:
6:30 AM
Wake up. My blood has been siphoned off and replaced with barely molten lead.

The mechanical tech failed to start the [f--ing air conditioning]. This inspired me to leave a brief but colorful [explitive-laden and physically-threatening-to-the-point-of-illegality ] message with the contractor, encouraging them to pay a visit in the morning to finish the job [or, alternatively, take part in an impromptu seminar on what a well-sharpened chef's knife can do to human fingers]. There are excuses, which I break off [like so many sauteed contractor digits].

Our [a--hole neighbor] is a[n] architect of indeterminate ability [-- though his office is next to a strip club in a seedy part of town, if that tells you anything --] who owns a building in the back of the alley that abuts the restaurant. It'€™s a nice alley ... [considering the] two residential hotel buildings ... [and] Centerfolds[, which is exactly as classy as it sounds].

What is Mr. Architect most concerned about? [The strippers? The drug-addict-filled hovels next door?] Our garbage cans, which cannot remain outside during the day. It is a major obstacle in his grand scheme to turn the alley into the charming, tree-lined ... lane of someone'€s youth. [OK, of my youth. But you get the point.]

Our first sin had been ... forcing him to sit on many occasions for minutes at a time in his baby blue BMW M3 [(license plate: 'JERKOFF')], cartoon smoke rising from his ears, while a worker moved his truck.

9:30 AM
Having learned the painful way that an overly ambitious opening menu is the root of most quality and timing disasters, this time I'€™m playing it safe. This, as [so-called] friends noted rather sharply the previous evening, leaves the "€œinnovation" level a little light, but [they are jerks, and will not got invited to future preview dinners. I think I'll take that guy from Covers just to spite them].

I have ... voodoo ... we will ritually sacrifice innocent[s], ... invoking the devil. Of modernity, [but whatever.]

I stood on the top step of a ten foot ladder, reaching forward three feet while twisting to the left to apply another layer of matte medium to a corner pane. The fact that I have no health insurance is weighing heavily on my mind at this moment.

I make a horrible line cook ... pulled in a dozen directions, peripatetically moving around the kitchen in an attempt to see and taste everything. I would hate working with me.

One of the servers, who had never been involved in a restaurant opening before, and is used to more corporate environs, [thanks to the Department of Corrections' "work-release" program,] is becoming increasingly enraged by the chaos. He insists on keeping a list that he titles – I kid not – “Mental Notes,” of all of the things that are going wrong around him, everything from clutter in the service station to the other servers who jostle him as he works. Midway through the night there are two pages of increasingly scrawling and disjointed handwriting posted in the service station, which by the last line looks to be the work of either an anguished six year old or a long-term resident in a psychiatric ward. He decides to leave mid-service. With our blessing.

[Because having all our patrons physically murdered on opening night is not exactly good press. And the Chronicle automatically shaves half a star off the "ambiance" rating for each mass-murder killing spree in the dining room, as Chez Panisse learned the hard way.]

There’s a lull in the action, and I head into the dining room to say hi to our first guests, who are just finishing up their meal. I normally hate, hate, hate visiting the dining room, unless it’s someone that I know well. I feel nervous and out of place, standing awkwardly in front of the table muttering inanities. But it’s opening night and I feel obligated, so I trudge out.

Our first guests are from Sonoma, where I opened my first restaurant, Babette’s. I thank them for coming in, say hi to a few of my fiancées co-workers and head back to the kitchen.

A little longer of a visit at the investor’s table. He is surprised that the food is better than the pre-opening meal yesterday [, sort of like a small child is surprised by his own image in a mirror, or by the setting of the sun]. I explain, again, [, since my explanation to Smarty McMoneypants didn't seem to stick the first 10 times,] that it will keep improving at a rapid pace for months, and then slow to small incremental improvements – it will take at least a year until it achieves a level of performance I find remotely satisfactory.

Patterson's full articles at Chez Pim:
Opening Day, by Daniel Patterson
Opening Day (Part II)

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Monday, March 12, 2007

5% service charge topic of big restaurant meeting

Restaurateurs around the city are seriously considering adding a 5% service charge to cover minimum wage increases, I reported in Friday's Business Times (free link).

Dozens of owners, along with the head of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, are expected to meet this Thursday at Tres Agaves to talk about the issue and possibly coordinate a strategy. Either that or just drink some delicious margaritas at three in the afternoon, but far be it from anyone in the industry to consume alcohol during working hours.

This service charge idea is not new in San Francisco. It surfaced (free link) back in 2004, when the city's higher minimum wage first went into effect, but it turned out to be a false alarm.

But allegedly it's for real this time. Since going into effect in 2004, the minimum wage has since increased three times.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners said they can't hike menu prices any higher -- diners have started ordering cheaper items, cutting back how often they eat out and, horror of horrors, taken to drinking less.

So the restaurateurs have taken up what some of them concede is a bit of psychological trickery: a bill surcharge that could range from 3-18%, depending on the restaurant, but would probably end up being around 5% most of the time.

Technically this can be deducted from the tip. But Mark Pastore at Incanto, who imposed a 5 percent service charge back in 2004, told me that "people rarely do" deduct it from the
tip, even though his menu description of the fee as a "partial service charge" is designed to imply they may do so.

Someone asked me on email this weekend whether this could amount to collusion. In short, the restaurants don't think so. When I asked Kevin Westlye of the restaurant association about this in the course of reporting my story, he said the association attorney believes the meetings are fine because restaurants are not setting prices per se but instead discussing a percentage surcharge. In other words, they are not talking about setting the price of a steak or certain kind of wine, things that would continue to vary widely, but about a percentage on top of these prices.

Full story: 'Service charge' on the boil at S.F. restaurants (free link)

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Early returns on District: Horrible service, bad design, painful acoustics, rude overcharging, mixed food. But otherwise, uh, 'very good.'

Fatemeh at Gastronomie realizes District has only been open two weeks, and realizes that it's more of a bar than a restaurant. Nevertheless, she is pissed off.

I'm not sure what the trouble is.

Sure, her eardrums nearly exploded from the "acoustic nightmare."

Yes, the cramped design left her "bumped" every two minutes or so (paging Michael Bauer ...).

Oh, and maybe the bartender forgot her three-item order. Twice.

Granted, her Carpaccio was "swimming" in what appeared to be bottled Caesar-salad dressing.

But is this really such a big deal?

After all, to make up for all its mistakes, the bar-staurant generously berated her date for underpaying for a bottle wine, before grumpily admitting the humiliating incident had been their fault due to a misreading of the menu.

Such sweethearts!

Fatemeh worries:
Is it fair to judge a restaurant a mere two weeks after opening and post a negative review on a public blog? Probably not.
Actually, given that we're all adults and understand that the place may well improve in time, and given that it's open for business and accepting money, it's totally fair.

And given Fatemeh's review, it's totally awesome.

(I haven't found any other early reviews, except for a few written before District's opening. Including this one from the 7x7 blog that recommends District because it is owned by "these tall good-looking guys who could have stepped straight out of the cast of Melrose Place." Great. That really speaks to me!)

Full review:

Gastronomie: District Wine Bar. Just Another Pretty Face?

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

SF Magazine publisher to beat you with his cain

Scot Bondlow's Pubisher's Note in the March SF magazine is worth the price of the whole book.

The angry press baron is furious at baristas and waiters and various servant types for being insufficiently obsequious when they thank you back when you thank them. Or they actually don't thank you at all for saying "thank you," but instead say something vaguely neutral. In Scot's words:
A popular phrase ... has worked its way into the current vernacular of people of various ages and backgrounds. It shows up wherever I go. It's the reply "No problem."

Doesn't seem like much?

Here's my problem with "No problem": it has replaced a foundation of basic etiquette and common courtesy, the phrase "You're welcome."

Example: you're in a restaurant, and you've just paid the check and left a tip, and you say "Thank you."

To which the waiter replies, "No problem."

Really? That wasn't a problem?! For him to do his job?!

At the coffee shop. From your stockbroker. Your doctor even ... Please point this out to your family, employees and co-workers, and maybe even muster up the courage, as I have on a few occasions, to actually challenge the reply.
In the April Publisher's note, Bondlow is expected to issue an 8,000-word denunciation of people who think "gesundheit" is a suitable substitute for "God bless you."

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Crank. Eeee!

I hereby declare this crankypants Thursday. Maybe it's the VD hangovers?


The first thing that's pissing people off is small plates, and the fact that restaurants that sell food in the small plate format STILL think it's OK to bring a dozen small plates to the table at the same time, or in an otherwise unpredictable sequence, even though the small plate trend has been with us for some time now.

Close Michael Bauer readers know that this has become almost an old saw for him, and if you carefully read old mid-1990s reviews of places like Thirsty Bear and Cesar you can see that service was a very early thorn on the small-plates rose. Even Cesar's Chez Panisse service culture couldn't help but "border on rude," in Bauer's words.

Now, food writer Catherine Nash informs us that at least one small plates place still doesn't seem to get it -- Circa brought her 10 small plates within 5 minutes, earning a downgrade to "let down" from "loved it."

The things we have to put up with ... sheesh!


Speaking of the Chronicle, former Contra Costa Times food critic John Birdsall has declared a jihad against one of the Chron's food writers from his new qaeda at the East Bay Express.

Taking a break from writing like a crazy person and barking orders at the elected government of Berkeley, Birdsall put Valentine's Day to chillingly effective use, sending orders through the Internet to his agents in Bay Area food media that the Chron's Marlena Spieler is never to work in this town -- ever -- again.

Happy Valentine's Day, Marlena! John Birdsall thinks you're "probably a really nice person!" And he's declared a fatwa against you to prove how much he cares!

With a long bloody chef's knife possibly next to the keyboard as he typed, Birdsall explained that the fatwa is no big deal, just probably related to Spieler's horrifying, detached, painted face as depicted by Chronicle graphics fiends, and the human charcuterie the Chron recently attached to her severed head, plus perhaps the just slightly terrifying hellscape of acid-trip iconography inserted next to her copy to set the mood.

Plus, Birdsall knows a way better writer at his old newspaper, and this other one who has a buzz cut and everything, plus she's a chef and we all know good chefs automatically make great food writers! She's already won over the entire Express editorial staff (by giving interviews?) and they wholeheartedly endorse her, if only to get out of the broom closet where they ("we") are still cowering in mortal fear of Spieler's VDay visage!

(To be less unfair, this other writer actually has a blog you can go read and that at first blush appears half decent.)

Oh, and apparently scary Spieler lives in Australia or Newfoundland or something instead of the San Francisco Bay Area. Whatever -- hasn't Birdsall heard of the Chronicle Foreign Service? It's sort of like the BBC, but without the accents, and underwritten by Hearst instead of British taxpayers. Apparently Bronstein thought it up when he realized there was no other way to get international news in San Francisco.


Having had enough of all this crankiness, particularly of the "hit piece" sort by writers from a certain SmartMoney magazine, Michael Bauer defends his former dinner dates Tim and Nina Zagat against charges of grade inflation, saying that while Tim and Nina might awkwardly fight about the check in front of him, they put out an "influential, useful guide" that's no worse than Chowhound or eGullet. Even if 70 percent of Zagat Guide restaurants now get a once-coveted rating of 20 or better.


Covers, actually, isn't feeling particularly cranky. It's actually been fun summarizing all of this mud, plus I'm still glowing from a Valentine home dinner of lamb, Van Der Heyden 02 Cab and Recchiuti chocolate purloined from its rightful owner.

But if I had to complain, I'd put my crank in the form of a question, you know? Because have you noticed? On CNET's food blog? How about every third post ends in a question? Do you think they're trying to drive up traffic? Or more just trying to get the readers to do all the work?

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

25 percent is the new 20 percent, which was the new 15 percent, which was the new 'thank you'

SF Magazine weighs in on tip inflation in the February issue, noting that Poleng Lounge and Toast Eatery both print receipts showing how much a 25 percent tip would be, in addition to the usual 20 percent and 15 percent.
"Yes, that's one-fourth of what you paid for the entire meal. Not that service isn't important, but at that rate restaurants may soon be known more for their signature servers than their signature dishes."
The best part is the accompanying picture of a receipt, which shows the 25/20/15 tip calculation. Whoever filled out the receipt has left a $6 tip on $44.16 -- 62 cents under 15 percent. An editorial comment on the 25 percent tip calculator, an editorial comment on service at Poleng or Toast, or just a frugal diner who remembers the days when 10 to 15 percent on a round of cocktails was considered Just Fine, Thank You?

(The story is not online, as is always the case when I don't provide a link.)

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Everyone's a critic. No, really.

Two remarkable blog posts today reveal how quickly word of bad service can travel.

The most horrid example is New York magazine's Underground Gourmet, who waited 45 minutes for roast chicken at a West Village place, only to see it delivered to TV dude Charlie Rose less than five minutes after the VIP walks in the door. A waitress then lies, saying the chicken was "accidentally" misdirected and offering free pasta while another chicken is roasted.

SFist, meanwhile, recounts being ignored, seated late and seated quite poorly at a table that sounds like it should not exist in the first place at Harry Denton's.

In the old days, the only recourse was to tell your friends and threaten the manager. These days, anyone with time and a legitimate example of poor service can find a ready audience online.

Which is hardly news -- to anyone, it seems, but several platoons of clueless chefs and managers, who don't seem to realize that the price of stealing from the status-poor to give to Charlie Rose is higher than it has ever been.

More bloviating on the topic in the Gawker comments.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Animal (Front-of-the) House

Seethe with Restaurant Girl as she recounts a recent late-night visit to Sauce. The wine was outstanding, the bisque and the stuffed-and-fried calamari very good, and the martinis strong. But the service?
We felt like we were invading a private party. Although the bartender was only about three feet away from us the whole evening, every time we wanted something we had to flag him down, and I felt rude pulling him away from his co-workers that were finishing up the shift and coming to sit down at the bar and have a drink. When we finished our meal, the bartender came over and said, "So, I guess you guys are all set then?" and dropped the check.
Restaurant Girl explains that most restaurants do not allow staff to hang around after their shift -- and now she understands why.

I had a similar experience at Plouf recently, where after a long, two-glass-of-wine lunch and fruitful conversation with a source, I, like Restaurant Girl, was thinking about dessert. The waiter was, for whatever reason, more interested in closing our tab than offering us espresso and pastry, though the place was far from closing.

And to think that just a few months ago I scoffed at the very notion of a lunchtime dessert menu.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A lecture at Silks

The following morsel positively leaps out of generally positive review of the Mandarin Oriental's Silks by Josh Sens in San Francisco Magazine's new issue:
Silks has a thick, world-traveling wine list, which may or may not explain why my server, on one visit, brought me the wrong bottle. Whatever the case, I didn't catch the error when she showed me the label, and when I sent the wine back (it was a sweet gewurztraminer, not the dry white I'd ordered) I also managed to send her into an evening-long pout. On my next trip to the restaurant, I was paired with her again and as she delivered the wine list, she muttered, "Read it carefully this time." Touche! But if I wanted a guilt trip, I could get one from my grandmother at a third the price.

Service stories like these -- and this one is especially choice -- have a way of provoking emotion in the reader and sparking endless discussion in a group setting.

My own spin here is that ideally, the diner would take care to read the label when it is presented. If the wine is opened and then found to be erroneous, one would consider trying to make do.

But ultimately, if the diner asks for the opened wine to be returned, it is a judgement call on the part of the restaurant. I personally would want a restaurant to accommodate the request, particularly given the quite likely sky-high markup on a typical bottle of white wine and the fact that the diner will be paying for another bottle.

And clearly, whether the restaurant has decided to accommodate such a request or not, it is plainly rude and foolish to grumble at the diner about the incident when he has the good grace to return and order more wine to boot.

The devil, of course, is in the details, and we only have one brief account of this incident. But what an account!

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Waiters leapt for $6,000 tipper

A juicy story in October's San Francisco Magazine details the restaurant largesse of convicted embezzler Carol Huang.

Or, as they call her at Chez Panisse, "Berkeley's Robin Hood."

Huang jacked more than $11 million from Edward Scarff by secretly mortgaging his house, cashing in his life insurance and taking out business loans in his name. Scarff is supposed to be enjoying his retirement, but instead he's now bankrupt.

Some East Bay restaurateurs still hold Huang in high regard, however. Former Chez Panisse maitre d' Lee Ann Philips told the magazine that Huang, who dined at the high-minded restaurant before and after her embezzlement came to light, was dubbed "Berkeley's Robin Hood" by Chez Panisse staff. Quoth Philips:
You have no idea how much she did for people, how many lives she changed.
Well, Lee Ann, we can imagine. Especially after reading Gordy Slack's article.

After a 50-head, $6,000 dinner at Oliveto, Huang not only paid the $1,000+ service charge but also distributed checks of $800 to $1,000 to three waiters and "several" people in the kitchen. The checks aroused jealousy, and one waiter resigned. I tally at least $6,000 in tips from this one meal.

She once wrote an unidentified waitress, a single mother, a check for $8,000.

Her reputation at Chez Panisse was such that "the normally unflappable waiters would jockey for the chance to serve Huang." We don't get numbers on her tips there, but they can be imagined. Consider that a wedding bartender -- catering staff -- once netted a $400 tip from Huang, without even meeting her.
"It made me kind of sick, the effect she had on people. It was ugly," says Elaine Smith.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Must. Not. Interact. With. Other. Humans.

Get-rich tip: Figure out when robots can deliver better service than humans.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco now allows guests and residents to issue service requests over email. Hotel "butlers" receive their orders over handheld emailers.

The local Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons pooh-pooh the idea, saying human conversation is the only way to initiative truly excellent service.

But don't humans sometimes get in the way of optimal service, what with their language differences, misunderstandings and moods? Last night, New York Magazine's Grub Street blog reported on a service not unlike the St Regis': "Mobo," which lets you order lunch via text message from your cell phone:
We ordered a small "Newman" pizza on our phone, via text message, while walking over that way. And sure enough, the food was waiting for us at pickup, already paid for.
Of course, it takes about 10X as long to tap out a text message as it does to actually call the friggin' restaurant. But then you'd have to talk to another human being.


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