"All That And A FREE Bag of Chips…"

April 25, 2011

We had a large group (20 people, on two tables of 10) the other night, and their servers did an admirable job of taking care of all their demands.  And they were demanding, rearranging every dish on the menu with more substitutions than a hockey game.

When it came time for entrees to be served (we were all shocked they actually ordered some, and didn’t make a meal out of salads and appetizers) the server at one of the tables made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting to order the Veal Chop for one particularly pretentious woman (we had already nicknamed her “Divalicious”);  and of course it was ordered Medium Well.  You got it: 15 minute fire time, at a minimum, to get her another one.  She has refused to accept my server’s apology and her offer of anything else on the menu.  She is now in full-on Righteous Indignation Mode, and basking in the attention she is getting from her table-mates.  She waves her server away, refusing to even speak to her.  So, my number is called, and I had to go over and try to make things right.

I apologized profusely for her server’s honest mistake, and gave her the bad news about how long her Chop would take.  Miss Thang rolls her eyes, big time, and asks to see the menu.  She orders the Trout.  I thank her for her “patience”, tell her it will be on the house, and we get it out and on the table in under 3 minutes.  I go back after a bit, apologize again, and make sure she is happy with her dish.  She is wolfing it down and nods her approval, without even looking up.   She is nowhere near the last person eating when the table is cleared, and her plate is literally licked clean.

When it comes time for the bill (separate checks, of course) my waitress comes over and says that the woman is now refusing to pay for her one drink (which she nursed for the entire 90 minutes they were at the table after sending back her first choice because it “wasn’t pretty enough”) AND she’s refusing to pay the service charge, saying “The Manager said it was on him…”  So, a free entreé wasn’t enough?  Whatever.  I comp out the rest of her check, and my server is just laughing because this woman is being such a ridiculous caricature.

So, as they are leaving, Chef and I are at the podium chatting; and as the group is heading out the door,  I start doing my “Thank yous and Good Nights” to the rest of the party who, truthfully, weren’t all that much trouble after we got past the ordering phase.  Miss Thang stops by, and I was so irritated with her I didn’t even make eye contact.  She reaches into the dish of Jolly Ranchers we have at the podium, and starts fishing through them, searching for the Sour Cherry ones that were apparently the only ones “pretty” enough for her.  She drops one, two, three, four, five of them into her knockoff Louis Vitton bag.  She finally notices me standing there and looks up.  I look her dead in the eyes and say “Haven’t you had enough free stuff for one night?”  Chef bursts out laughing so hard he almost choked.  I spin on my heels and leave her standing there, in mid jaw-drop.

At what point in their lives do these women suddenly become such self-absorbed pains in the ass?  You know that quite possibly they were once very sweet little girls, with pigtails and all that crap.  So, do they just wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Okay.  Time to start acting like a bitch”?  Or is it a long apprenticeship, watching Mom and aunts and sisters put on the Bitch Coat and wear it?  “Don’t worry baby, some day you’ll get to be a bitch too…”  Reality shows on MTV and E Network serve as their training videos; and then they test out their skills on Dad and probably their teachers.  Building on these minor successes, they soon become the full-fledged real deal; and now no one is safe, from cab drivers to store clerks to the counter guy at BK.  Well, check that shit at the door, girlfriend.  I ain’t playin’…


"For Once In My Lifetime…"

April 17, 2011

An entry in the “For Once, Everything Goes According To The Plan” category: we close at 10pm on Sunday nights (one half hour earlier), and tonight we got no 9:50 table of two star-crossed lovers that wanted to order one $8 appetizer and gaze into each others eyes for two and a half hours, until I wanted to stab them in said eyes with a salad fork. We got no solitary, scary dude sitting at the bar, staring at the TV until Sports Center was over. Our last table sat at 8:15pm, the bar emptied out at 10pm when the NBA game ended; and I beat the kitchen out the back door for the first time in over 3 months. George Peppard would’ve been proud..

"I love it when a plan falls together..."

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday…"

January 26, 2011

Well, hello.  It’s been a while; how’ve y’all been?  Me?  Oh, fine, just fine.  Why yes, I have been working a lot…

After coming to the realization (duh!) that I make my own schedule, and that I really need to take two entire days off each week, my work routine has settled down a bit.  I still have split days off as the restaurant is closed on Mondays, and the other manager has a commitment that makes Tuesdays off impossible for me; but I’ve kind of gotten used to it.  It’s almost like a 3-day weekend every week, if you don’t count the 10 hours of work right smack in the middle of it.  Such a rude interruption…

Really, though, the only aspect of my job that I even mildly dislike is the schedule;  and that only because it involves working Sundays.  No, not the dreaded brunch as I would have opened an artery long ago if Sunday Brunch were required.  Just like Jeff Golblum’s line in Jurassic Park, that “life finds a way…”, brunch also finds a way, every week, to suck.  We are open for brunch and dinner on Sundays, the only day we open the doors during daylight hours; but my “keyholder” manager is there on Sunday mornings, and God bless her for it.   That, and HBO On Demand are the only things that make working on Sundays tolerable, barely.   I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the bosses at my two previous jobs for giving me almost four years of Sunday-free work schedules.  As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Sundays, and the people who dine out on the 7th Day, are a different breed of cat altogether.  You see people out to dinner on Sunday nights that you never, ever see any other night of the week.  They say in the Bible that God rested on the 7th day, and the leper colony we get in each Sunday is your proof.  My theory is that all the people who dine on Sunday nights crawled out of the primordial ooze when God took His one day off because He, too, just couldn’t deal.  God was at home, in His sweats and wife-beater with His feet up and Sports Center on the tube when these people snuck their way into the evolutionary cycle.

And just to add salt to the gaping wound of working Sunday nights, and simultaneously drive a dagger into the heart of our check average, we offer a three-course “supper” for $20.  This is just to make sure that we not only get the weirdos, but also the cheap weirdos.  We have people who ask if they can split the $20 meal.  Really?  Look, if you don’t have enough money to eat out, just stay home…

Last Sunday night was a classic.  Knowing the check average is always down, and often cover counts as well, I was sympathetic to my staff’s need to make a little coin even on Sundays; so I went with a lean crew.  Three waiters, one bartender, one food runner, one hostess and I did over 120 people; and all of them came in at once.  The parties of 8 and 9 started coming in around 7:15, so we were all sufficiently lulled into complacency by then.  And they kept coming through the door, like extras from The Walking Dead.  We have an alarm system that makes a “beep-beep” in the back kitchen when the front door opens and, as I am back there madly buffing glassware and silver to keep us afloat, it was going off to the beat of Funkytown.  Let me take you down, beep-buh-beep, to Funkytown, beep-buh-beep… as more and more piled in.

In the midst of all this fun and good times, my bartender decided now would be a grand time to cut his hand, taking me off the floor and him out of a very busy bar while I triaged his wound.  I found our sparsely stocked First Aid Kit, (and someone please tell me why it is that restaurant First Aid Kits are either stocked to the hilt with eye cups, defibrillators, and enough stuff to treat the victims of the Haiti earthquake, or they have just three band-aids and some dull scissors?) and got his hand wrapped; but the bleeding just wouldn’t stop and the kitchen had run out of latex gloves.  Perfect.  Now wouldn’t this be an excellent time for the Health Department to stop in?  I got on my cell, called in a “Stunt Bartender” who, thankfully, was both nearby and willing to come in: go figure.  She arrived about 20 minutes later and jumped into the fray.

I had just barely hung up the phone when my hostess, who was still doing restroom checks despite being drafted into service running food and bussing tables, informed me that the toilet in the Men’s Room had backed up.  Dealing with the shitty situation in the bathroom brought new meaning to the term “Manager’s Log”.

As I was pushing the mop bucket from the restroom back into the scullery, I noticed that there was no one on the Sautee Station in the kitchen.  The sous-chef informed me that he’d had to send one of the cooks home because he had been caught drinking the cooking wine in the back, and was drunk.  Perfect.  He told me this as I was helping one of my weeded servers process the nine separate checks from a party of really snotty Nelly Queens who had decided they needed to leave, now.  All I needed was a good, old-fashioned computer crash to really make my night complete.

So then, another server comes up to tell me that the four-top on 72 wants to “speak to The Manager.”  All restaurant mangers know that these are words that are generally never followed by anything good; and a big Shit Sandwich is most likely coming your way.  As a manager, I like to remain in the background, offering support to the staff.  I am like an Offensive Lineman in the NFL.  The only time my number is called out over the PA system is when something bad has happened; but instead of “Holding, number 72, offense…” and the touchdown is called back, it’s “Overcooked Veal Chop, table 72…”

The tidal wave of business is beginning to withdraw from the beach, and the crew is starting to pick through the rubble, straightening out the beach chairs and umbrellas; so I cinch up my tie, shoot my cuffs, and head on over to 72.  The gent at Position 3 who, as I was seating them, had made an off-color joke about the “diverse” crew and the “war zone” of the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant, had appointed himself spokesperson. They are four very old, very Jewish people.  Oy.

“Lizzen, I just vant to tell you some-zing, here…”

Okay, here we go.  Open wide for the Shitburger, and make it a double.

“Our soiver, fen-tehs-tic!  And the Duck, to die for.  We loved it all.  Job vell done…”

I was speechless, as an ear-to-ear, decidedly non-shit eating grin had commandeered my face.  A perfectly mashugana end to Sunday, Bloody Sunday…

"Be All You Can Be, Even If You're Not…"

September 9, 2010

I’ve been using “Writer’s Block” as an excuse for not posting anything these past few days, but I just haven’t felt like I’ve had any material.  My blog topics always hover in or around food, wine and the restaurant business; and while I have certainly had no shortage of food (as my scale can attest) or drink, I haven’t been “in” the restaurant business for over three months now.  Ninety-eighty days and counting, that I’ve been an unwilling part of our country’s unemployment statistics.  I guess I’d have to reduce that total by 6 if I was to count the week-long tryout up in New England with a restaurant group looking to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  I mean, they did pay me, as well as cover all my expenses.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking, or even had an offer or two.  If you counted them all up (which I have, since I’ve had the time) I’ve been on 22 interviews for 11 different positions.   I hope I’m not putting the curse on things by saying so (like I do by washing the car to make it rain), but I may be nearing the end of my long drought.  I have had five interviews now with a very high-quality company that’s in an expansion mode, even in this economy.   It is run by real pros that have their act together, and they can actually afford me.  This could be The One that could actually turns into a bona fide career move.  I’ll know more after an excursion up North again (different state this time) to meet the big bosses.  My fingers are almost disjointed, they are crossed so tight.

This last one has so far included three hour-long phone conversations, as well as two in-person meetings.  They also had me go undercover to their place here in town and have dinner.  All they asked was that I write up a synopsis of my experience and submit it, along with a receipt, and they’d take care of everything.  Well, the dining experience was less than stellar, which is good news for me as they obviously need some help there; but bad news for them as things are a tad bit worse than they had thought.

After over 25 years in “the biz”, no matter where I dine I can’t help but notice service faux pas and over analyze the food and beverage.   I always notice the busboy that puts his elbow in my face when clearing, or the server that needs to stand closer to his razor and maybe go out and buy a steam iron.  Friends that dine with me know that if I suddenly drop out of the dinner table conversation and start looking around, I’m “seeing” the place through the restaurant version of what John Madden called “Linebacker Eyes”:  always on the lookout for a problem, taking everything in, always seeing the big picture.  My wife or our friends will stop in mid-sentence, and say stuff like “Uh-oh, what’s wrong?” or “Oh no, he’s not happy…” I can’t help myself. I turn into Dexter, and my Dark Passenger just takes over, until all I can see are the cobwebs in the corners and the complete lack of ice in that Iced Tea refill; and it’s not even my Iced Tea!  It can be truly maddening.

So, it was no real struggle to commit my insights on this covert dinner to paper (keyboard), and my review was no less than five pages and 2500 words.  I told the whole truth and nothing but, God help me, hoping that doing so wouldn’t kick me out of the running.  I mean, don’t ask if you don’t want to know, right?  Well, shit-howdy if the exact opposite didn’t happen.   I submitted the receipt and my laundry list of their defects and screw-ups, along with just enough insights and suggestions on how to correct some of them.  I held back on the rest.  You don’t get to drink this milk until you buy the cow, baby.  The next day, I got a call back to meet with the Director of Operations, in person this time.  When he arrived for the interview, he pulled out a hard copy of my review notes and went through it point by point.  He had shared it with the other Mucky-Mucks, and they loved it.  He even commented very favorably on my writing skills.

I’ve always had a nagging bit of a self-esteem problem when it comes to job hunting, especially when it involves a step up the ladder.  No matter how many successes I can count in my professional life, and there have been many, whenever I am interviewing and trying to sell myself to prospective employers, I always seem to mentally fall back to the Groucho Marx philosophy of “I will belong to no club that would have me as a member.” Even though I’ve always gotten every job I’ve ever really wanted, I find myself wondering why the hell would someone hire me to run a business.  Then I look at people who have positions and careers I want to have (and could easily do), compare their skills and experience to mine, and wonder who in the hell it was that they had to blow to get their jobs.

I can’t speak to “real job” situations (outside of the hospitality and restaurant industry), but looking for work and interviewing in my business is all smoke and mirrors.  You are never closer to perfection than when you are filling out a job application.  Most restaurant mangers know that, with all the drunks, dope fiends, and sex addicts in line for a job in our industry, going strictly by the resume can get you in a heap of trouble.  Anyone can write, or pay someone else to write, a resume that will make them look like Mother Theresa. No matter how many times they got drunk, stole, or sexually harassed an employee, and got their ass fired, they can still manage to look good on paper.  And I can’t believe that HR people are surprised when they call references and get nothing but glowing reviews; you’d have to be a moron to put anyone on your references that wouldn’t recommend you as Citizen of The Year or want you to marry their daughter.  The best and surest method in our business is to bring someone in for a tryout.

Since most tryouts are not paid, and prospective employees are not covered by Worker’s Comp if they get injured, having people tryout is not in the strictest sense, legal. For that reason, and the fact that they’ve probably had a labor lawsuit or two to lighten their pockets, corporations mostly eschew the tryout.  Not being able to take advantage of this much more accurate barometer of someone’s abilities, corporate restaurant companies rely heavily on their resumes, interviews, pumped-up references, and the recommendations of their favorite Resume Pimp, the recruiter.  And so they may end up hiring someone who looked good on paper; but then they wake up the next day with their picture-perfect first date lying next to them under the covers, Prom Dress thrown over the nightstand, with hair looking like Albert Einstein and make-up that looks like a tropical fish with a hangover.

This is where my crisis of confidence can get a little confusing, and starts to do a sort of “Studio Fade”.  At first glance, seeing the title of Chief Operating Officer after a name on a business card can be intimidating.   But I buoy my confidence with the idea that this person may have ever only done one or two impressive things in their entire professional lives to get that acronym of C.O.O.; and one of them may have been writing a resume.  I can tell myself that, in all probability, the only real difference between them and me is the fact that they have the job and I don’t.

So my ability with words to clean and gut a restaurant like it was a large trout, may end up separating the wool (me) from the chaff (the rest of the field), and actually land me the job.  That, and the fact that I’ve got more semi-colons and animal analogies at my disposal.  Shit, John Starks made an NBA career off of one dunk over Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a feat he never came close to repeating; so I am really OK with getting a job I really want, just because I wrote an essay.

"Sorry, We're Closed…"

July 12, 2010

Our move to Atlanta has pushed me into doing a lot of things I haven’t had to do for several years:  moving, for one; going to and dealing with all the various public and private agencies one needs for power, cable, water, garbage (still waiting for my trashcan from the City of Atlanta after almost a month, by the way), driver’s licenses, insurance, car registration, etc.  I am also back on the job market, and that means doing something else I loathe almost as much as going to the DMV:  interviewing.

They say that a person is never closer to perfection than when they fill out a job application.  It’s a real “First Date” situation.  Both require the candidate to put forward an unreal, unnatural first impression.  You never see what’s underneath the suit, tie, shined shoes, and firm handshake until several months in.  That’s when you discover the real person, after you’ve moved in together and spent some time getting “comfortable” with each other.  Truthfully though, would there be even the slightest chance of getting laid if you showed up for a first date in your boxers and wife-beater, holding a can of Bud and the remote, and then went to the bathroom to pee and left the door open?  Same with the job thing.  How many people would get hired if they showed up 15 to 20 minutes late for the interview, forgot their tie, and needed to borrow a pen to fill out the application?  Or couldn’t come to the interview because there was a concert they needed to go to; or asked to leave the meeting 10 minutes early because they needed to relieve the babysitter? All things that come out later.

I’ve been on a lot of interviews, some for great jobs, some not so great.  I’ve had one-on-one interviews, which sometimes turn into a mini-series event, getting passed along and up (sometimes down) the food chain.  I’ve had casual style interviews; and I’ve had very serious “Running the Gauntlet” panel-style interviews where I was seated in a conference room with several people from different departments, all peppering me with questions.  But ultimately, they all ask mostly the same ones, or variations on a theme.  Some make sense, others are strictly “HR-Speak”.  You know the type:  “If you were a tree, what kind would you be, and why?”  “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”  (My pat answer for this one, and it always lightens the mood in the room is, “Sitting on a beach in Mexico, drinking Margaritas…”)  And the classic, “What is your greatest strength?” which is, of course, followed by the corollary, “And what is your greatest weakness?”  These last two always puzzle me just a bit.  Not so much the “strength” one, but does anyone really expect you to answer the “weakness” question honestly?  “Well, my penchant for surfing porn on the Internet does tend to slow me down a bit…” or, “I’m not sure which is a greater weakness for me, but it would be a toss up between the heroin addiction and the alcohol…”  Anyone with half a brain is going to turn this one around and say something like, “Well, I guess I’m just too meticulous and thorough in my work…” or, “I’m always early for things, and that tends to cut into my time once in a while…”  I’d like to see more of the “Bob Barker” type of questions, some that would really shed some light on the candidate’s personality like, “Interviewee Number One, if I was a potato, would you bake me, fry me, or mash me?”

One question I got, though, that set me to thinking a bit was, “How do you handle stress?”  This particular question was asked in an interview for a job that was not in the restaurant field, so I really had to ponder it.  Why?  Because we in the restaurant business have nothing but stress, all day, every day.  I never had to think about how I “handled” it, I just did.  The occasional Waiter Nightmare was really the only psychological side effect I had.

And that’s the difference, really, between a restaurant job and “a real job”.  In a restaurant, a crew works together to do their One Big Thing every day, serve the guests that come through the door.  There is a build-up to The One Big Thing, when you are setting up the dining room, your mis en place in the kitchen, or choreographing how you will seat all the reservations on the book.  Then there’s The One Big Thing itself, service.  You deal with all the Type A personalities that are requesting hot water with lemon; that want you to seat them at that table over there, not this one; that want their steak well done, but still pink in the middle, and want you to do it all while standing on one foot.    People come in hungry and thirsty, you give them something great to eat and fill their glass.  They want a break from doing all the stuff that they do for other people all day and, instead want someone to do stuff for them, like give them the satisfying experience of a great meal.  And even though you get guests that act like they’re going to, no one dies or loses an eye if the skin on their chicken isn’t crispy and it has to go back to be recooked.  You do service, deal with all the usual challenges one by one as they arise, and then you’re done.  They order; you cook and bring; they pay, sometimes even say “thank you”, and leave.  Closure.

In most “real jobs”, closure is a much more elusive thing.  The “In-Box” on the desk is never empty, the boss is never satisfied, there is always more to do.  You are never really “done” with anything.  The closest I ever got to closure in any of the handful of Nine to Five’s I’ve had in my life was when I was in wine sales.  We had a number we had to make by month’s end, placements to make in By The Glass programs, on wine lists, etc.  There would be a big build up the last week of the month as sales people scurried around, madly trying to make up for all the time they had wasted by dicking around for the previous three and a half weeks, so they could make their numbers by month’s end.  But guess what?  After the Month-End flurry is over, the next day is a new month and everything re-sets to zero.  Closure, but it lasts for less than 24 hours, unless the last day of the month falls on a Friday.  Then the stress starts to build again as you enter another 30 day period.  And even if you make three By The Glass placements and place four other items on the wine list at one of the highest profile accounts on your list, your boss would be all “What about the well vodka?” or, “How many back bar items do we have there?”  Always more, always on-going, never finished.

So, to answer the stress question, I guess I would have to say that we in the restaurant biz have a great way to deal with our stress and get closure.  Every day, at the end of the day, we finish up and close.

"but let's do it again real soon..."

"That Really Takes The Cake…"

June 30, 2010

Last Saturday was one of our best friend’s birthday, and we were invited along to celebrate at one of our new favorite restaurants.  I already have a general unease dining out on a Saturday night; plus we had a cake to commemorate the auspicious occasion of her 2nd, 30th birthday, and a nice bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir.  So, corkage and a cake plating fee which means, essentially, little or no alcohol sales and no dessert sales on our table of six.  It wasn’t a conscious conspiracy but we had become a Waiter’s Nightmare before we even walked in.  Fortunately, we got our favorite server at the restaurant; and, like a pro should, she didn’t bat an eye at either concession.

The alcohol sales part didn’t concern me much.  I knew the personalities at the table; and I knew there would be at least some cocktail sales, if not a bottle of white to go with the apps.  So our server wouldn’t be completely shut out.  It was the cake that I was just a tad uncomfortable with, and it wasn’t simply because it would negate any possible dessert sales for the server.  Desserts at this place were only $6, so how much could they really be out in sales?  But, bringing in a cake, or flowers, or an engagement ring, and leaving the item with the host or manager at the front door to be presented later on is much more of a leap of faith than most people realize.

As a manager, I was confident that I could handle any and all special arrangements needed for such items; it was what happened to said items after they left my sight that always worried me.  If you had a hidden camera, and followed your cake into the dessert station and/or walk-in box at many restaurants, you would probably see things like a Pastry Chef or Sous Chef pimping on your cake (even if it was the most beautiful cake ever made by the hands of man, they didn’t make it; and so ridiculing it is required); you may see it taken out of the box, and stored near buckets of cooling Lobster Stock, or some other pungent product, allowing your Red Velvet beauty to fully absorb the garlic, onions, or fish smell in the walk-in.  You may see a dishwasher or busboy removing a frosting rosette or chocolate cigarette, and smoothing over the evidence with their fingers.  And, as it goes from host to manager to Chef to Pastry Chef to walk-in, the potential for someone dropping or losing it, and effectively taking a dump all over your special occasion, is huge.

We arrived, they took the cake, and we watched as it disappeared behind the kitchen doors.  We thought nothing more of it until dessert time arrived and, as our server was putting dessert menus down, I reminded her we had a cake.  Well, not so much reminded, as obviously no one had told her word one about it.  It had gone from our hands to the fridge without anyone opening the box or even mentioning it any further.

After being informed by us that we had brought the cake in, our server went off to investigate.   I watched as she disappeared into the kitchen and came back out a few moments later, beckoning to the Chef.  Chef disappears into the back kitchen, and soon after returns to the hot line.  I can see him gesturing wildly and ranting on and on about something, getting the full attention of everyone on the kitchen staff.  They are all shaking their heads and looking very worried as the Chef goes off on them.   Next, the Chef summons the floor manager and our server for a serious-looking discussion.  They look like a pitcher, catcher and third baseman deciding how to pitch around a bases loaded, one-out situation; and discussing all the possibilities for disaster.  They are talking, arms folded, glancing furtively over at our table, then back to each other.  I can see our server shaking her head, Chef shaking his head; and the manager with that “I’m about to eat a big Shit Sandwich” look on his face.  Now what can be going on here?

The manager sheepishly approaches our table and, kneeling down next to the hostess for our group, asks “Uh, excuse me, but was that cake untouched when you brought it in?”

Up until that moment it never occurred to us that telling them the birthday girl had taken a two-fingered dip out of the cake earlier in the day might have been a good idea.  They hadn’t opened the box until it was time to present it to us;  and I can only imagine the terror our server must have felt when she opened it and found it looking like Homer Simpson had gotten to it first.


We explained our guest of honor’s pre-dipping to the manager, and his head drops in a silent prayer of thanks, looking like a guy who was already strapped into the electric chair, rubber thingy between his teeth, and the guard’s finger on the button as the phone from the Governor’s office rings.

They presented the cake, having nicely shaved off the finger-craters and smoothed them over with the cream cheese frosting.  The lesson here:  Always check, as you just never know when someone might want to have their cake and eat it too…

"Sometimes Less is More…"

June 17, 2010

There is a tendency for restaurants to compensate for a lack of overall quality with sheer volume.  In Albuquerque, we asked the desk clerk at our Third La Quinta of this trip where to go for some good Southwest/New Mexican food. We wanted to sample some local stuff, and see if there really is such a thing as New Mexico Cuisine.  His recommendation was a place that served food on plates the size of surfboards, with everything smothered in cheese, lettuce and onions.  We saw a plate of Nachos served, and this is no exaggeration, that was a foot-tall tower of chips, cheese and meat.  It was all just too much, but the locals seemed content with their huge portions of mediocre/bad food.  I was reminded of the old Yogi Berra quote about “the food is terrible, but at least the portions were big…”  This place totally reinforced my theory that sometimes more is not better; more is just more.

In an earlier post on the Supersizing of America and Americans (blame Starbucks and their “Tall Is Small” concept) I had mentioned how people have not only gotten wider, but taller as well; and what a farmer from the 1800’s might think if he were time-warped to a present-day Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City.  The irony is inescapable as I sit here, typing this in the lobby of my fourth La Quinta of this cross-country trip, gazing over at, yup, you guessed it, a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma, both the city and the state are amongst the most obese in our otherwise very obese country.  But the people here are just so damned nice; and why wouldn’t you be when the chances are good you will be having some pie real soon?

We had but one night here, and they say if you only have one night in Oklahoma City, you need to go to Cattlemen’s.  Cattlemen’s is not some Western-décor, Cowboy-themed restaurant; Cattlemen’s IS a Western- Cowboy restaurant.  It’s located in the Stockyard City district of OKC, and there are really stockyards there, along with more saddle shops, Western wear stores, and Cowboy hats than you could ever hope to see in one place.  There is nowhere else in this country, where you can see your dinner, still on the hoof, roll by in a Semi truck while you are standing outside waiting for a table.

You know you are definitely not in California anymore when they ask you if you prefer the Smoking or Non-Smoking section, and are serious; so as our beeper has finally gone off, we are ushered in.

There are two different Cattlemen’s, actually: one half is an old 50’s style coffee shop, brightly lit, with a counter and lots of vinyl booths; the other a dark, wood paneled “Boys Club Steakhouse” with lots of roundy, button tuck booths and red floral print carpet you would definitely not want to see n the bold light of day.  There are sketches of famous people who have eaten there on the walls of the main room, along with a room-length photo of, what else, a bunch of cows. There are two guys in the photo, both in suits, riding herd over them.  The founders, perhaps?  One guy is wearing what looks like a tux, the other a plaid sports coat and a fedora.  Think “Mad Men meets Bonanza.”

In the front of the coffee shop side where people were waiting in the blissfully cool air conditioning, sat what was probably the World’s Least Used Scale; one of those Old Timey ones that you put a coin in and you get your weight and your fortune.  Looking around a the size of the clientele, weight and fortune was probably information that most of these folks just didn’t want to have.  I was afraid to step on, fearing my fortune would be “Better have the fish, Fat Boy…”

The menu at Cattlemen’s is not classic steakhouse, it’s more old time dinner house.  Nothing is ala carte, all dinners come with a baked potato and a salad.  They have all the steaks, and even the obligatory fish selections.   Looking around the dining room, I am wondering if they really even have any fish back there or if, on the rare occasion anyone ever orders the Salmon, the waiters are trained to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Hun, but that Salmon was real popular tonight…”

Our server is cute as a button and she has that totally sincere Southern Hospitality vibe and is willing to do just about anything for your table, and do it happily.  We guessed from her accent that she was probably from Tennessee  (Alabama and Tennessee accents are very similar; but people from Tennessee just talk faster).

Every review we had read said that the wine list was a joke, so we brought our own bottle in which, we found out, is illegal in Oklahoma.  The manager finally acceded to taking our bottle of Revana Cabernet to the back, bringing in back out and pretending like we had ordered it from them.  “Excellent choice sir, and it’s brand new to our list.”

The steaks at Cattlemen’s were not massive slabs o’beef, their baked potatoes were not the size of footballs.  But the beef was aged and grilled magnificently, the potatoes tasted fresh; the salad was a nice, manageable size and the house dressing was fabulous.  Cattlemen’s is a great example of how more is not always better, sometimes more is just more, and less is better as long as it’s great.

The most interesting item on the menu at Cattlemen’s however, is not the steaks.  It’s the “Lamb Fries”.  All the reviews had said not to ask what they are, just order them.  But we had to ask.

“Lamb Testicles,” our cute little five-foot-nothing server replied.  They were sliced thinly, breaded and fried, and served with cocktail sauce, of all things. (And our girl knew her animal parts.  I told her I had eaten “Rocky Mountain Oysters” before and that they were served in a somewhat more anatomically correct presentation.  She correctly informed us that they were from a bull.)

In seemed a bit incongruous that a cowboy joint would be serving this particular part of the lamb.  No lamb chops, just the juevos.  They could have just thrown them away after removal, but probably some sheep-hating cattle rancher decided he wanted to eat them just out of spite; so now everyone that comes to Cattleman’s orders them.  And so that is how the three of us came to be eating Lamb Balls at the most famous steakhouse in Oklahoma City.  And I don’t think we’ll be putting that on the postcards.

Cattlemen's in the Stockyard City district

Cattlemen's Steakhouse in The Stockyard City district of OKC