Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Three minutes thought would suffice to figure this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time"--A.E. Houseman

One brief disclaimer so as to avoid unnecessary offense--technologically [at the very least], I am an imbecile. As recently as 18 months ago I had no idea what a "blog" was--I used the big, scary computers on my desks to create and maintain documents and correspond via electronic mail and that is basically it. Reading articles about restaurant bloggers and war bloggers piqued my interest, and the rest is marginal history.

I also never expected that anyone would ever read this. The wierd serendipity that would have another "restaurant blogger" stumble across and link to this thing is truly remarkable. To say I am overwhelmed by the response to a thing created solely to stop myself from committing murder or assault as a result of bottled-up rage is a gross understatement.

I am most grateful and honored by all the kind words in the comments, and by all those who find the content herein enjoyable enough to be mentioned on their sites. I will respond whenever I can, and please understand that I probably want to respond at much greater length than I actually do.

I am limited by my lack of expertise, however. There are a great many sites I would like to link to, if only to show my appreciation for their content, but at present I simply don't know how. It is on my list, but then again so are things from 2006. I wouldn't mind throwing a blind email of some kind on here, as well, but again stupidity steps in. One of my posts didn't allow for comments, and I don't know why. Sometimes stuff I have saved as a draft disappears in whole or part and I am clueless as to that as well. You get the idea.

In short, thank you very much and I am terribly sorry if I seem unresponsive. Now, I have to go find my baseball.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"Try to relax and enjoy the crisis"--Ashliegh Brilliant

"My throat was parched and my entire body was leprous with cuts, yet my mind was exceedingly clear. I knew I was in deep shit. I didn't know how deep--just that I still hadn't touched bottom"--Sol Luckman

It is a beautiful late spring here, heading for summer. Nights still have a touch of cool, though not terribly much, but winter is clearly long gone unless something freak should occur. Within the old stone office building in which we are housed the AC is on and has been cranking for a few weeks. Alot of bright light is reflected off the surrounding concrete into our floor-to-ceiling windows, heat rises from the parking garage below, and our space does not breathe. The AC's are on lightly right now, but without them it would quickly get to 85 degrees in the dining room, even without 450 teeming bodies.

With 450 teeming bodies, the mercury hits 89 degrees. If you are wondering how I know this so specifically, it is because I spent last Saturday running a full-to-the-brim restaurant that had no functioning AC. Or refrigeration. Or icemakers.

What I experienced four days ago, and can only just now look back on without becoming anxious, was the restaurant manager's version of a waking "weed dream". When I was a bus boy the "weed dreams" centered around 500 dirty tablecloths or plates that weighed 60lbs empty or having to run two blocks to find a working sink to fill up the water pitchers. When I was a waiter I would have tables everywhere, including at other restaurants, would wait in line for hours to use the POS, and would forget all the orders that I normally took by memory without fail. As a bartender every bottle would be empty, every glass I picked up would break in the ice, and every guest would be drunk and spoiling for a fight. Now, the dreams have become slightly more esoteric--the complaint call that describes the worst restaurant experience EVER, the valet parking booth suddenly staffed with chimpanzees, the meat crawling with maggots, and lastly but just as terrifying the catastrophic equipment failure in a full restaurant--AC, broiler, lights, you name it. Every dream ends the same--with some version of me sitting bolt upright in bed slimy with sweat--first bewildered, then relieved, and then furious at the loss of valuable rest.

This Saturday, there was no end to the nightmare no matter how many times I pinched myself.

At 6:45pm Saturday evening the entire operating mechanism for the building's cooling tower [also known as a "chiller"], the gigantic piece of equipment that regulates all the cooling and refrigeration equipment in the entire building, expolded into a million pieces. First it was a bit still, then stuffy, then a little humid, then sticky, then warm, then "I NEED TO SEE A MANAGER!" Just about the time everyone started screaming for me was also the exact moment we served some poor gentleman a rocks glass with a razor-sharp splintered edge while outside a homeless person was attempting to make off with the purse belonging to of one of our [luckily] departing early diners.

I spent the next five hours explaining, sweating, cajoling, sweating, apologizing, sweating, comping, sweating, drinking, sweating, cursing, and sweating. Under the best of circumstances, I will sweat through the collar and collarbone-area of my shirt on any busy night--this particular evening I sweated through not just the shirt but the suit as well, both jacket and pants. The two other restaurants in our building simply gave up and closed, but we just had too much business, and too many people who still elected to stay even after being told of the problem.

In the end, it was a mixed bag. I was incredibly lucky that we cut open the lip of one of the most gracious human beings I have ever encountered. I was disappointed that I didn't have the time to pummel the would-be purse snatcher myself, but pleased that his attempted caper was a failure. I was somewhat horrifed to encounter a small group of people who attempted to use the situation, wholly beyond our control, to their advantage but was overwhelmed by the huge number of guests who took the situation in stride and considered it almost a challenge to enjoy themselves regardless of the opressive temperature. I made an extra $500 in sympathy tips beyond my average Saturday night haul, and delighted in blowing it on a huge drink tab for my staff at a nearby, air conditioned bar after the shift. I ate my dinner at one of our outside tables for the first time in ten years, but found the chairs a little uncomfortable after about twenty minutes. I got to bed a little later than usual, but wasn't the least bit afraid to dream.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Open the pod bay doors, Hal..."--2001: A Space Odyssey

"there have always been ghosts in the machine..."--I,Robot

What shall we say about Open Table. Virtually unheard of a few years ago outside of Manhattan, this computerized reservation system and a few others like it have had a huge impact on the way that restaurants run their front doors.

As for the system itself, I have warmed considerably to the database and paper-free aspect of it. I like the fact that notes, reservations, and volume numbers from any day since the system's inception are avilable at a moment's notice. I like the fact that guests and their preferences can be tracked by something other than my aging memory and a three-ring binder.

Where I fall out of love with Open Table is at the phone jack--I do not like the fact that the system is open to the internet for reservations. I do not like the often endless comments that come along with many of these reservations, announcing everything from ethnicity to music preferences [including not one but two demands that guests' iPods be connected to our music system so that they might dine while listening to their favorite tunes] and requesting everything from balloons to violinists to specific liquors, all while rarely supplying correct contact information. I do not like it when a reservation is made on Open Table for four people at 6pm but the comments say something along the lines of, "we are really coming with ten people at 8pm, but this slot was the only one available on-line--you should fix that!!! See you then!!" I further do not like it when hotel [and idiot credit card] concierges use the system to make reservations just so they can score cash bonuses, leading them to make reservations at the wrong time for the wrong number of people [because that was all that was available on-line] and relying on the restaurant to "find room" and honor the reservation so they can get their points. I also do not like green eggs and ham, but that is a subject for another post.

I understand that this flow of guests is an initial selling point of the system--it is touted as a gateway to an "untapped" guest resource. More importantly, I understand that many if not most restaurants using the system welcome guests no matter what their source, and that those restaurants always have tables to sell. We, however, get along just fine on our own. I know this may sound elitist or arrogant, but the simple fact of the matter is that we have worked like animals for ten years to build our business, and we are very protective of each and every aspect of it. If I won't let the coffee company come in and do their own pars and ordering and if I won't let the beer companies come behind my bar to "inspect" their product, it is a sure bet I won't want to give away part of my restaurant each night to some company making $1 every time someone uses them to go out to dinner.

It took us over a year to decide to use Open Table. In the end, the allure of the hardware and its in-house benefits won us over. After a great deal of pondering, we decided to start out with the system fairly wide open, track its users and their habits closely, and see what we could learn about the average Open Table user. We established a three-month trial period during which time we opened at least a few slots to the internet on every half hour seven days a week.

What we discovered was the following: Nearly half of the reservations made did not have usable contact information. 35% of the reservations were no-shows. Of those that did arrive, nearly half did not arrive at the designated time, and nearly a third did not arrive with the designated number of people. The average Open Table check average during this time was $58/pp, perfectly respectable until compared to our normal $79/pp check average. There were also a number of recognizable names among those reservations--Ivana Tinkle, Dick Hertz, Amanda Huginkiss, Anita Shower, Adolf Hitler [who actually made reservations three nights in a row], Judge Smales, Billy Ray Valentine, and Richard Nixon just to name a few.

In the end, we decided that we loved the equipment, but had to protect ourselves from the losses associated with many [though not by any means all] of the system's users. We open slots to the internet through the week up until 6:30pm and then after 9pm and on the weekends up until 6pm and then again after 9:30pm.

We still track the Open Table guests, however. We make sure to greet them in the restaurant and we make sure they are enjoying themselves, and we always make sure they have business cards before they leave. We don't come right out and say so, but we try to make sure everyone understands that better reservations options are, usually, just a phone call away. We don't want to exclude anyone, we just want the inclusion to be on our terms.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"a life without risk is no life at all"--unknown

"we the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much with so little for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing"--unknown

On rare occassion I wonder how much I have missed of my life while within the four walls of my restaurant, or driving on restaurant errands, or sitting as now before the computer in my home office as spring explodes in full force outside my window.

I am not bitter or sorrowful--I have much to be thankful for. I am curious however, and slightly wistful. I said goodbye to an employee at our sister restaurant early today--he worked the fall and winter, saved all his money and lived frugally, and is going to spend the next year exploring our country. Now, if this fellow was 20, or even 25, I wouldn't still be thinking about it, but he's two years older than I am.

He worked as a cook and a waiter, but has a master's degree in political science. He spent nearly fifteen years working for the office of a powerful southern US Senator, one who retired just about the time that his wife divorced him. He did what many people in such a situation do, he went back home. For him home meant the midwest and restaurant work, and in his own words he has spent the last few years just healing. We spent two hours talking after I coaxed him to lunch--most of the time we vented our concerns over the direction of the country--the fact that politicians and government seem almost completely disconnected from truly governing and representing the people they serve as they fight for soundbytes, face-time, and polling numbers. We talked about his old boss, who retired not because of his advancing age but because he couldn't get anything meaningful done any more, even though he was in the majority. He is fearful, as I am, of how our society's obsession with blame and easy answers is blinding us to the real world. He's terrified and embarrassed of the way our people seem to accept whatever the TV or computer tells them without question, and literally wants to see his country before it is too late.

When I told him how much I envied him before saying goodbye and heading back to work, he stopped me and gave me one last thing to think about. He told me that for his last six years on Capitol Hill he averaged nearly 90 hours a week, slept with a beeper and a cell phone, and spoke with the most powerful people in the world on a daily basis. His eyes saw some of the most sensitive information in the world, often read before breakfast, and he was so obsessed with his job that his wife had to call him three days after she left him to make sure he realized she was gone. When his boss told him he was going to retire, all he could think about was finding another senator to hire him, but his boss insisted that he take two weeks at session's end to think about it. His boss promised him that if he returned wanting another senior staff appointment, the senator would find him one.

This guy I knew as a decent cook and great waiter told me about leaving his beeper and business phone on his desk and going to watch a movie in the afternoon for the first time ever. After that, he said, he went to a TGI Friday's for wings and mozzarella sticks [his favorite] and then to a bar to watch sports. He said he came home hammered and passed out and woke up the next morning with a slight hangover and a smile on his face, and he was smiling as he described it to me. Then he said that he actually began calling out his wife's name to ask her where she wanted to go on vacation before he remembered that she had been gone for months. He was no longer smiling when he described having no food in the house that wasn't spoiled or canned, and having no one to call or talk to who wasn't a professional contact. He still wasn't smiling when he told me that he grabbed an overnight bag, hit the ATM, and drove down the East Coast and back again over the following two weeks thinking about the previous fifteen years. He came back to DC, he said, went and thanked the senator, and oficially resigned. He packed his things, sub-let his apartment, wrote a long letter apologizing to his wife, and drove back to his home town.

He said that all those things that were so important to him for fifteen years--the contacts, the classified information, the power and the fame, the high-energy lifestyle--he said he missed them terribly, for about a month. After that, he said, they stopped being important.

When I asked him if he was leaving right away, he said he had one more stop to make--to buy a cell phone for the trip--he hadn't owned one since DC.

Friday, May 18, 2007

"The older we grow, the greater becomes our wonder at how much ignorance one can contain without bursting one's clothes"--Mark Twain

Perhaps I'm becoming sensitive in my old age, but I do believe that there is a certain, growing segment of the population that thrives on demeaning others whenever possible. I must further suppose that these cretins have come to believe that the ridiculous and wholly incorrect mantra "the customer is always right" is some invisible shield, able to protect them as they violate every tenet of common courtesy while vomiting forth the most inane, ridiculously false pronouncements imaginable. This scenario can manifest itself in many instances throughout a dining experience, but it is clear to me that the ordering and tasting of wine is perhaps the ideal situation in which these societal ulcers can truly shine.

I was very short-handed tonight, and both my sommeliers had to work as servers--as a result I was left to open all the wine myself, nearly 130 bottles. My hands are stained red, and it hurts to make a fist with my wine-opening hand. The vast majority of the guests were great, and many remarked positively about our long-standing policy--that everyone recieves the same attention and service regardless of bottle price. The $25 bottle of shiraz/cab was served with the same glassware as the $875 Cote-Rotie, by the same person, and using the same type of decanter. In a few instances however, it was clear that I was dealing with guests owning remarkably ill will, tremendous stupidity, astounding arrogance, or a varying combination of all three afflictions. Much like bacteria under the microscope or maggots emerging from a torn garbage bag, these persons have noticably similar habits by which they may be identified.

With all due respect to Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a douche bag if:

1. You look at the $16 [wholesale] lead crystal 23oz wine glass in front of you and still ask for the "good glasses" or the "big glasses".

2. Your response to my presentation of the wine bottle is to completely ignore me, give me an annoyed look as if I am interrupting you rather than bringing you something you have asked for, wave dismissively at me as if you are Emporer Diocletian deciding whether a gladiator lives or dies, or any of the following phrases--"looks like it", "so far so good", "what do you want me to do with it?", "I suppose we'll try it", and my personal favorite "you took the order, don't you know if it's the right bottle?". You see, I didn't take the order, your server did--the server who is female, fifteen years younger than I am, and a foot shorter, you fucking idiot.

3. In the time it takes you to taste and approve the wine, I could undress, shower, dry off, and re-dress not in a business suit but in a full set of armor and chainmail complete with padded undergarments. You are not Robert Parker--smell the wine [which is really all that is necessary], taste the wine if you wish, decide whether or not the wine is corked or not, ask for a second opinion from the server if you are unsure, and be done with it.

4. After sampling the wine, you decide that everyone else at the table, and possibly those dining adjacent to you, should have their say as well. "pour a litle for Harvery, Blanche you try too, and Uncle Marvin, and Trixie, Bald Petie, etc.". On rare occassion that someone chooses a perfectly good wine that they simply don't like, I usually take the wine back as a courtesy--this however does not mean that not liking a wine, or finding one person in your party who does not like a wine, is reason to return the wine. Not liking a wine that is viable is not a valid reason to return it, and frankly if you can't say yes or no without having everyone else try, you shouldn't be picking in the first place.

5. You use the word "connoisseur". "Connoisseur" is French for "douche bag"

6. I pour you the sample, and you immediately attempt to force someone else in the party to sample the wine. "here, Mortimer you try. Just try it, try the wine, try the wine, just come on--I got it for you, I know you're the real connoisseur, just don't worry about the martini, just try it, try the wine". The icing on this rotten cake of idiocy is when, while Morty is finally trying the wine sample I poured for you, I take his clean glass and set it in front of you. However, when Morty is finished tasting, he puts the sample glass back in front of you, looks at me like I am an idiot and tells me that he will need another glass.

7. When I ask if you would like the wine poured, you say "no, we'll let it breathe for a while". Now, it is true that a full bottle of wine uncorked breathes better than one still corked, but just barely. The neck of a wine bottle isn't so wide. You see, Copernicus, "breathing" is oxidation, that is--exposure to air. The best place for wine to air is in the glasses. Are you telling me that you don't know that, Oppenheimer, or are you too embarrassed to tell me that you don't have the willpower not to drink the wine if it is poured and so want it to stay in the bottle? You are also a douche bag if you tell me you aren't ready to have the wine poured, but then pour it yourself thirty seconds after I leave the table. If you want to pour your own wine, just say so.

8. You start making a bunch of stuff up about wine, a winery, a vintage, etc. and then ask me to back you up in front of the rest of the people at the table. I will lie for my friends when necessary, but that doesn't happen often. You are not my friend. Get your facts straight, do your lying when I'm away from the table, or prepare to be embarrassed.

9. You demand a new set of glases with every successive bottle of the same wine, because "the wine has changed and you can't mix them". Once again, your mouth is way ahead of your tiny little lottery-winner brain. Wine is constantly evolving, whether in the glass, the bottle, or in a decanter. The process of drinking and pouring even one bottle of wine displays nearly incalculable variations of the wine in that bottle--its part of the reason for drinking it in the first place. If you haven't greased the glass up with your grubby paws and there hasn't been any surprise sediment, there is very rarely any reason to have fresh glasses for newly-ordered bottles of the same wine.

10. The hand. Putting your hand over your glass to signal that you do not want any more wine is a non-stop ticket to Dickville on the Douche Bag Express. If you haven't noticed, I'm not sneaking up behind you and tanking up your glass--as Ii go to pour I always make sure to get the drinker's attention and make sure that they wish to have more wine. I am gifted with excellent hearing, please do me the courtesy of speaking to me.

I understand this my seem a bit bitter, but it has been a long, hard weekend. Sometimes I just don't know what people are thinking when they do or say the things they do.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"...that in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred"--Virginia Declaration of Rights

Many of our guests have recently asked me whether or not I would ask OJ Simpson to leave our restaurant should he ever come to dine, as the owner of the steakhouse in Kentucky recently did. My answer was immediate and short in each case--"no, I would not". If OJ Simpson walked into our restaurant [and i admit that i hope he does not] and was properly dressed and did not himself source a disturbance, I would seat him--worse still, if other guests decided to accost him, I would feel it necessary to come to his defense.

I believe OJ Simpson murdered his wife and her companion. I believe that he is a bad man, and I believe that if divine retribution exists he will see more than his full measure following death.

I also believe that as a lawful society we must respect the rule of law. It is no matter whether we agree or disagree with a verdict, and no matter whether human error or incompetence [whether individually or as a whole] has contributed to an unjust result.

Orenthal James Simpson was found not guilty of murder by a jury of his peers. He is innocent of that crime. I have no right to judge him further. Not only would I want to be accorded this same respect should I ever be falsely accused and tried before being exonerated, but if I decide to judge he who is almost assuredly guilty of such a heinous crime, where after will my judgements end?

I believe Nancy Pelosi is a traitor to her country, but she has not yet been charged or tried--do I refuse her service? What about Robert Blake? R. Kelly? Dr. Jack Kevorkian? Hell, Dr. Richard Kimball, for that matter?

Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan collapse signalled the fall of that entire industry and tens of billions in losses. He was convicted and imprisoned, but later released after a successful appeal--convictions overturned--like it never happened. He has been to our restaurant, and I have allowed him service--was I wrong there? As an interesting sidenote, his trail judge was Lance Ito, who also presided over the Simpson trial--Ito's incorrect instructions to the jury were partially responsible for the vacation of Keating's conviction--if you believe in personal judgements, then perhaps I shouldn't be serving Judge Ito either.

Most of the guests we see each day are wonderful, polite, and considerate people. Some are not. Some cheat their employees, beat their wives, screw around on their husbands, write illegal prescriptions, get drunk and insult their servers, lie to get free stuff, and far worse transgressions each and every day. The formula is simple. If a guest is properly dressed and does not perpetrate unacceptable behavior while in the restaurant, they are welcome. Period. Even...Nancy...Pelosi--please don't ask me about the Clintons.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"...for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap"--Galatians

"If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you shall also suffer defeat"--Sun Tzu

What we are talking about here at the apex, the heart, the crux, the dinner. Where one is seated and when one is able to make a reservation is not, I repeat NOT on a par with being knighted, winning an Acadamy Award [maybe a Grammy], defeating terrorism, or fusing atoms to release a world full of cheap energy. It is just dinner.

Sure it is a very nice restaurant, a prominent restaurant, and an expensive restaurant--for many we are THE special occasion/celebratory restaurant in our area--we are an independent steakhouse that regularly kicks the crap out of a number of prominent chain steakhouses located in our vicinity. All this accepted and understood, it is still just dinner, and nothing that can happen [or not happen] in this restaurant is worth the grandstanding, histrionics, conniving, lying, plotting, and in some cases even crying that I have witnessed and reluctantly been a part of for the better part of the last decade.

Because the vast majority of our guests are such wonderful people, those that fall short are illuminated in an even harsher light than would otherwise normally be cast upon them. I remember when a woman who recieved an overcooked rack of lamb asked me to meet her away from the table. She proceeded to have some sort of gran mal siezure of ass-wipery culminating in her bursting into tears and sweeping a dozen crystal wine glasses off a nearby service table. Over a rack of lamb that was medium rather than medium-rare.

An elderly gentleman once threatened to fight me over what he perceived to be a short by-the-glass wine pour.

A woman wrote a letter of complaint to the owner of the restaurant because I refused to remove a dinner from the check that her drunken girlfriend had vomited onto [when we refused to serve alcohol to the women because they were drunk on arrival, they simply made trips to their limo and did shots in the car between courses].

One of the greatest examples of this poor behavior, not to mention a massive strategic miscalculation on the part of the guest, started over a simple question and ended up with one witless imbecile losing a $175,000/yr job. A large local development company has hosted countless business meals in the restaurant, usually with the owner of the company [who is a great guy] in charge or at least in attendance. One evening the company had a dinner without this owner at the table. Toward the end of the night, while I was in the room checking on everyone, the company vice-president acting as host asked me, in front of his guests and in a large booming voice, "Can I pay for dinner tonight with a company check?" My response was affirmative and honest--I informed the gentleman that we don't usually accept checks, but were happy to do so for him and for his company as they were such loyal guests. With that statement I asked him to give the check to the server as he would a credit card and we would take care of everything. Two minutes later he was outside the room and in my face--how dare I "talk back" to him in front of his guests and "discuss the check" in front of his guests and "tell him who can pay with what" in front of his guests and he was furious and I had made "a big mistake, mister".

I responded by apologizing for any misunderstanding and informing the gentleman that I responded to HIS question in front of his guests because he HAD ASKED ME IN FRONT OF HIS GUESTS. Apparently that was more "back talk" and he was going to "take care of me". He wrote his check for the exact amount of the check and stiffed the servers.

The next day I had to tell my side of events to my employer and the owner of the development company. Not surprisingly, my version was much different than the hosts'. The owner of the company asked me who else was in the party, and I was able to name a couple of attendees that were familiar to me--once the developer returned to his office, these two people apparently backed my version of things and also added the extra tid-bit that others in the party that evening made merciless fun of the host after I left the room for not having "enough clout" to rate a company credit card.

The next day I received a fed-exed personal letter of apology from the developer along with a huge tip for the servers--apparently the other attendees had also let him know that vice-president douche bag had declined to leave a gratuity. In the letter he mentioned that he was sorry to have doubted me [we had known each other at the time for nearly seven years], and that he was very embarrassed that someone representing him had acted in such a reprehensible fashion. The last paragraph casually mentioned the fact that the gentleman in question had been dismissed for violating the company's printed code of professional conduct.

Be nice, be polite, and you will be treated like a king and have a wonderful time. However, if you decide to be a tool, be damned sure that the person you attack doesn't have more influence than you do.