Friday, November 30, 2007

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on"--Winston Churchill

A few weeks ago I actually stumbled on a day off--it was the Monday of Veteran's Day and without our normal business crowd we were unusually slow.

Attempting to behave like a normal human being is a constant challenge for me, and this day's little sojourn about town with my trusty girlfriend in tow met its share of setbacks.

First stop was our faithful watering hole, dead just like we were. Second stop was my fair city's new highly-hyped "art in cocktails" lounge, a sort of farmer's version of the Pegu Club, but they were having fire alarm issues. Third stop was girlfriend's favorite hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant, but it was being either steam-cleaned or disinfected--I couldn't tell which but am quite sure the place is in dire need of both procedures, regardless.

Not wanting to risk a fourth strike, we headed off to a friendly competitor of ours, a great steakhouse that for whatever reason attracts an entirely different clientele than ours. Food is great, ambience is welcoming, the winelist is kick-ass, and enough staff members know me to insure us a good time no matter what--or at least that has always been the case in the past.

Our dinner this Veteran's Day was destined to be one of the most perplexing dining experiences I have ever had, both during and even after the meal itself. The place actually had a little business as they are much more a local hang-out than we are, but the maitre d' knew me and seated us right away in a nice out-of-the-way table overlooking the entrance where we could recognize and make fun of people as they entered and exited the property. At first I thought an old server of mine was going to be waiting on us [he left our restaurant because of a scheduling conflict, but on good terms], but he stopped by, said hi, and let us know that another server would be right over because he was buried with an ultra-high maintenance 8-top that had just sat down. Ten minutes later the ubiquitous server, who we shall henceforth refer to as "Schleprock" or "Schlep" for short, finally appeared and greeted us as if we had just been seated. Giving Schlep the wine order right away, we went back to people-watching and putting the final touches on our dinner order. Another ten minutes and Schelp finally showed up with the wine, opened the bottle with difficulty and proceeded to pour the taste all over my hand, which was a good four inches away from the glass. Wine was fine, Schleprock poured, and then we forced him to stay and take our order--I actually had to call after him twice as he began to wander away right after setting the bottle down.

After we ordered and he withdrew, an expected dialogue began between girlfriend and I--is he in the weeds? Are they short-staffed because they are busier than they expected for the holiday? Is he training someone? Is he also being crushed by the 8-top [who were clearly running my old waiter ragged]? As we looked around, the answers to our questions became readily available and were not at all comforting. We could see the whole station, and they weren't really busy. There seemed to be plenty of staff around, Schleprock had nothing to do with the evil 8, and there were none of the waiting throngs that can often make moving around this particular restaurant a real chore for the staff. We concluded it might just be an off night for the guy, but what did it matter--we weren't in a hurry, we had plenty to entertain us, and this place was as close to a 100% lock as we were. No worries.

As our appetizers arrived, basically on time, we began to relax. I noticed a limo drop off a pro hockey player and we saw a former Olympian [and regular guest of ours] come walking up the boulevard and into the restaurant. Another regular guest of our restaurant saw us in the corner and came over to chat for a little while--the very attentive busboy cleared the apps, crumbed the table, and re-poured wine and water. Nary a sign of Schlep this entire time excepting the odd glimpse here and there as he sauntered between the tables chatting with other guests.

Twenty-five minutes later our salads arrived. Yes, I'll write it again--TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER OUR SALADS ARRIVED. They were the wrong salads, but we didn't protest because we were just happy to have them. Ten minutes later super waiter returned with the correct salads and his only apology of the evening. When we let him know, graciously I might add, that the salads we had were fine he did one of the oddest, most maddeningly inappropriate things I have ever seen--Schlep turned to the two guys sitting next to us who had been seated when we got our wine and were already eating dinner, placed the two salads on their table and said, "here you go guys, I have a couple extra loaded wedges if you would like to give them a try on the house". First of all, the fucking guys were already eating dinner and the salads sat untouched until the busboy eventually cleared them. Second of all, if anyone was going to get to try them, it should have been us.

At this point, I simply stared at girlfriend like bigfoot had just walked through the dining room--I was incredulous to the point of near-collapse. Her response, "...I got $20 that says it's another half hour before we get dinner."

By the time Schleprock next appeared it was indeed twenty-five minutes later and my mood was, shall we say, somewhat delicate. As he glided near the table I caught his eye, looked at the empty table before me and spread my hands wide as if to say, "what the fuck?". His response was, "I guess I should go check on dinner", to which I replied, "Hey, I don't want to put you to any trouble". Here again in surreal fashion came his most stupefying retort, "Oh, I'm headed in that direction anyway".

When dinner finally came ten minutes later, girlfriend vocalized the growing quandary inside me. "How are you going to tip this retard?", she asked. As her words sank in, we both watched the hockey player, the former Olympian, and their guests walk out of the restaurant--finished with dinner in the time it took us to go from apps to entrees. When the busboy [again, the excellent busboy and not the awful server] stopped to ask if we needed anything else with dinner, I said, "please tell Bullet Bob Hayes to bring me the check". The clear look of alarm in the guy's eyes told me that at least one person realized that there was a problem.

Now, if I can digress for a moment--I understand that for people not familiar with our industry my quandary is no such thing. Standard logic says that if service sucks, you don't tip. In our industry however, there is no standard logic. If I didn't tip normally in this situation [which for me means tipping huge] I would have to find a manager and explain why--otherwise the possibility would exist that I would just be considered cheap or a dick. "Explaining" to a manager this battlefield amputation of a dining experience is another way of saying "complain", and for most of us complaining is simply not an option--the last thing in the world any of us want to do is become one of those screeching douchebags telling anyone who will listen that "they are in the business". So I was stuck, until providence showed me the way.

My bill should have been about $500 with wine, which by itself makes the whole situation even worse--it was obvious that I clearly had the biggest check of anyone in the room outside of the killer 8-top. Normally, a $500 check means a $150 cash tip not counting money at the door and valet, but of course this was far from normal--as a matter of fact this was the first time in my adult life I have ever been faced with such incompetence and indifference as it relates to service, made worse in comparison to the extraordinary quality of the venue.

As I watched someone at the 8-top slip a side-tip to the cocktail waitress, salvation was revealed to me. Busboy came back by and nearly froze when he saw that I still had not gotten my check--I waved him over, asked him to box our food [we had actually lost our appetites and had eaten nearly nothing], and gave him $50, thanking him specifically for his help. Schlep dropped the check a moment later, announcing that he had graciously removed the incorrect salads--before he could drift off I directed him to stay, looked over the check to find two side dishes we had ordered but never received, asked that they be removed, and handed him a credit card. As he departed I called him back again and asked, "just out of curiosity, does it usually take two guests 2 1/2 hours to eat dinner here without dessert?" Schleprock didn't disappoint even to the end: his answer was, "sometimes".

The food runner brought our boxed food back--I asked him to bring my claim ticket to the valet and let them know we would be out in a moment and then gave him $50 as well, thanking him specifically for his help. Thus, by tipping the busboy and runner I had hit my gratuity quota without actually having to overtip the waiter--experience also told me that the two guys would make sure Schlep knew that they had been nicely duked.

In a final insult, it took nearly ten more minutes before this walking cyst returned with my check and the most disembodied and offensive ?courtesy? ever--he put the check down, told me that "management" had taken 10% off the bill, and then turned and walked away. Never an apology, never an admission of any problem or error, never even a simple word of concern over our experience, not even a half-hearted "good night". I left him $60 in cash on what, after voids and discounts, had become a $380 check and we left before I could decide to get more involved in an "explanation".

Two days later my old waiter called me to ask what had happened, or more accurately to ask if anything had happened. As my description lengthened, the silence on the phone grew deeper and deeper--when I got to the explanation of how I tipped, my former server exploded in profanity. It turned out that Schleprock had pocketed the $60 I left him and told my old server, who was actually his partner, that "the dick" at table 71 had stiffed him. My guy was so busy with his 8-top that he never got a chance to explain to Schlep that he knew me or to tell him who I was, and none of the junior managers stuck working Veteran's Day were good enough to pick up on the problems--the 10% discount came from the MIT who happened to be Schlep's roommate.

Characteristically, my first concern was that there was a whole restaurant that thought I had stiffed someone, but my old waiter quickly let me know that the truth was readily known, and was actually the reason he had called--he said that when he questioned Schlep about the stiff and explained to him who I was, the guy had turned first bleach white and then purple. B-B-B-Busted. Then apparently the busboy and food runner had piped up about their side tips.

If anyone would like to hire the worst waiter in the world, who is also a thief, Schleprock is currently unemployed.