"Well Boys, Break's Over!"

Well, we are back from vacation.  The wife just left for her first day back at work; mine begins later today.

Returning to work after a vacation is always a bitter/sweet situation for me.  I am a realist and, as such, know that I am nowhere near having the financial wherewithal to be on a permanent vacation (a.k.a. retired); and that having bills and working for a living to pay them will be a necessity for many years to come.  Still, after a week of having nothing to do and plenty of time to do it, going back to work can be a depressing reality.  That’s the bitter.  The sweet?  I really do love my job and what I do; and I generally don’t mind going back to it.  So, as they say, “It is what it is…”

Anyone who knows us will tell you that eating and drinking is a big priority for us on our vacations.  Being in Atlanta afforded us copious opportunities to do both.  We had some good, some very good, and some excellent food at restaurants there; but there always seemed to be just one or two pieces missing from the puzzle.  Food is great, service is poor.  Service is great in one aspect, but lackadaisical in others.  With the closing last year of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (see a lament on their closing here…), there are now no dining venues in Metro Atlanta that require a jacket.   This is not such a huge deal for us, as this trip was on somewhat of a budget; so the $150 per head places were off the itinerary.  Service in general here has been suffering of late from a “casual dining” malaise; and the lack of attention to many of the seemingly small details is an unfortunate result.

Our last meal of the trip was at a supposedly great, fairly new (1 year) neighborhood restaurant run by a well-known, highly-regarded local Chef.  It’s in one of those converted warehouse spaces so popular in Atlanta because there are so many of them:  condos or lofts upstairs, Big Name restaurant downstairs.  We were a party of 5, but arrived as four, with one in transit.  It was a lovely, warm Spring evening, and their patio tables were available; our thinking was the outside might become too cool later to enjoy what was surely to be a two-hour dinner, so we asked if we could sit outside for a drink while we waited for our “fifth”.

The hostess was quick to oblige, and told us we could stay outside or move in for dinner, whatever we wanted.  Good first step; but before we had even ordered our drinks she informed us that the waiter inside would be a different person from the one outside, and would we mind settling our tab before we went inside, if that’s what we decided to do?  I am always willing to settle up, or at least tip, a bartender or server if there is to be a transfer involved; but I am decidedly against being required to do so.  I recognized their POS system, and knew it had the capacity (as most all of them do) to transfer a check, so why put the onus on the guest?  Bad form.

Then came the “outside server” who looked to be about 16 years old.  She was friendly enough, but didn’t know the liquors available, and had to return two different times to inform us they didn’t have the particular spirits we had asked for.  Okay, bring me a Hangar One Lemon instead of Ketel One Citron.  Five minutes later:  Okay, bring my wife’s Negroni with Hendricks instead of 209.

There were maybe six tables already sitting inside a cavernous dining room that just screamed “Cafeteria” in its decor, with some banquettes around the perimeter but dozens of tiny tables all in perfect, straight lines out in the middle.  The place was practically empty, and yet a solid ten minutes passed between ordering and the server returning to inform us of the liquor substitutions.  Through the windows I could see the bartender, (not exactly a bolt of lightning he, when it came to making drinks), serving four people at the bar.  There were four others at the bar, already with cocktails in-hand.  This guy was not busy, yet when I inquired about our drinks taking so long, she informed us the bartender was “slammed” and he was trying to get to our order.   As I have mentioned in a previous post, using the excuse that you are busy to explain away poor service is a big, big Restaurant No-No.  You are supposed to be busy, you dolt!!  It would be more honest to just say, “Sorry, we are too lame to have hired and trained our people properly, and the long wait for service you are experiencing is the result.”  Bad form.

Another five minutes passed so I went in to inform the hostess, and someone who looked to be a manager, that they were really getting off on the wrong foot with us.   I was assured that our cocktails were on the way, so I returned to our spot on the patio.

Then the drinks started appearing in “Chinese Restaurant Service” fashion: one at a time.  First our friend’s Hendricks and Tonic; two minutes later, my wife’s Negroni.  Then came my Hangar One martini.  It had a slight pinkish tinge and a distinctly bitter flavor, likely from being made in the same shaker as the Negroni, without rinsing.   I don’t think it’s being overly picky, considering the $12 they were charging for this drink, and the fact that it was the subtle flavor of it’s one and only ingredient I was after by ordering it, that it should be free of any unwanted residue left by a lazy bartender.  Bad, bad form.

Now we are in a real quandary.  Our fifth guest had arrived and we are faced with cutting our losses and leaving, or taking a leap of faith that the “inside server” would be better and things would improve.  Literally having a bitter taste in my mouth from the poorly made drink and the bad service up to this point, I was in favor of the bolt.

Fortunately, for us and for the restaurant, we decided to stay and things went decidedly uphill from there.  Our “inside server”, a pro, was lots of fun; and all the dishes we ordered (many on her recommendations) were delightful.  Corner turned, we ended up having a great time for the rest of the night.

Even though there are positive signs of recovery from our recent economic downturn, the impact on service quality due to the rise of the lower priced, casual dining venue cannot be ignored.  In addition to some relatively new places that had the wisdom and foresight to keep menu prices more realistic, and have been packing in the guests as a result, many others have also “down-priced” their menus, or offered other economic concessions, in order to put the butts in the seats.  Great idea; but  allowing service  to slide, with the excuse being that “we are casual dining”, is not so great.  There has also been a thinning of the herd with regards to the labor pool, both in management and service staff, with the result being a general drop-off in overall service quality.   Patrons have learned (or been forced) to settle for less in terms of good service standards and fundamentals.  Service quality has now somehow been linked to price; and as a result has spiraled downward alongside the check average.

At several other meals, some at “top tier” spots, there were glaring service gaffes; things that just made me cringe.

  • Many occurrences of what I refer to as “pivot point” service, where the waiter serving or the busser clearing, stands at a fixed point at the corner or end of the table and just reaches across to put down drinks or clear/serve plates.  This is an understandable tactic in booth service, but not on tables that have the easements available for staff to move around their perimeter to serve guests individually.  Just plain lazy.
  • “Chinese Restaurant” Style Service, where the food is brought according to when the dishes are ready, with no concern by the kitchen over timing the plates so everyone’s eating at the same time.  This also happened with drinks, as I already noted.
  • Auctioning food:  One local restaurateur told me that people have gotten so used to this “Waiter 101” rule being ignored, that they are blown away when a table is served without asking who had what.  Many guests will now ask for verbal verification that what is being served to them is actually what they ordered, because staff didn’t have to ask.
  • Silverware in “roll-ups”.  (Sigh.)  There are some battles that will probably never be won.
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