Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dinner Reservations? Plenty!


“Uncle.” Seriously, Los Angeles restaurants, you’ve done me in. I’m taking the five-figure amount my husband and I used to spend annually at your tables and spending it on food to make at home. I’ll use the money to buy only the best ingredients. Yes, even those insanely priced tomatoes at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. I love to cook but time constraints make it somewhat difficult. No matter! We will happily adjust our lives to eat at our own table from this moment forward.

I used to love the words ‘Your dinner reservation is confirmed.” Not anymore. Now, the very thought of going to a restaurant for a meal fills me with anxiety. For many reasons. Many really good reasons.

Going out to eat used to be an occasion. Usually the people at the restaurant were happy to serve us, the food was great, the place was clean, and my husband and I weren’t endangered by the food on our plate, the staff, or the building.

The following is a list of a few incidents that have occurred to my husband and me at Los Angeles area restaurants over the last couple years. The list comes from memory because I never wrote them all down. I’m glad I didn’t, at least I’ve forgotten a few. The moments I recall are bad enough.

One of my complaints falls under a very big tent. The entire dining experience is simply deteriorating. The atmosphere and the service at many Los Angeles restaurants are no longer designed to make the customer feel comfortable and attended. Fellow diners frequently make the experience unpleasant for everyone nearby. Manners are as passé as Cherries Jubilee. People give no thought to the highly personal conversations they are conducting at the table next to you. Loud cell phone calls, fights with dinner companions, and screeching children running around tables, often give a restaurant all the charm of a cross-country bus trip in August.

At a small, Italian restaurant on Robertson, just north of Wilshire, we were all held captive (and horrified) by a doctor trying to wrangle a large sum of money from his dining partner. The doctor was loud, angry, and irrational. Within minutes, everyone in the restaurant knew he was in the middle of a very contentious divorce, was hiding money from his soon-to-be-ex, and had a fantastic business opportunity for his friend. The soft-spoken friend politely turned down the business opportunity. That sent the doctor into a rage shouting they were no longer friends and he should look for another doctor for his dying father. At this point, one of the doctor’s minions, dressed in scrubs, came in and called him away for an emergency. My husband and I, as well as every other diner, were silent as this dust-up dwarfed anything else happening in the restaurant. At some point before this event ruined the meals of everyone else, the manager should have asked them to keep it down, take it outside, or tuck into a dessert, compliments of the house. He did nothing.

Good service is no longer the norm in Southern California restaurants. It is a pleasant surprise. Time after time, we’ve watched our food languish at the pass as our servers fold napkins, chat with friends, have a cigarette out back, organize their appearance in a student film, stare out the window, or just, inexplicably, disappear for twenty-five minutes. Then, there is the exact opposite with servers who really feel we’ve come to have dinner only with them. We recently had a server bore us for our entire meal about his political views, which were the exact opposite of our own. We have no idea why he chose us as his victims for the evening. The restaurant was busy and, certainly, his other tables were suffering from his lack of attention. Not too long before that, the owner of an Indian restaurant spent over 30 minutes telling us why India is a better country than America and how he is a happier person than we are. He managed to insult our emotional and spiritual happiness, our car, the Hasidic community surrounding his restaurant, Catholics worldwide, and his uncle who runs an Indian restaurant around the corner from his own, in one very long, heated monologue. My husband said the phrase “off his meds” was the only way to describe the owner’s behavior that night. We have never returned to the restaurant though we used to eat there 2 or 3 times a month.

One of the most prevalent problems with dining out is over-anxious bus boys who take away food, silverware, and drinks before we are finished eating. It happens constantly. My husband has even had glasses of wine whisked away. Recently, at a seafood restaurant in Santa Monica I had to stop a bus boy from taking a lobster away. I had simply taken a break in eating to enjoy the view of the ocean and the pier. That’s all it took. He swooped in and grabbed lobster and bucket. I nearly had to wrestle him for the food. I got the lobster back but he did take off with the bucket, claw cracker, and lovely clarified butter. Two weeks ago a bus boy took away my plate when I, literally, had the fork to my mouth taking a bite.

At an Italian restaurant in Studio City, a waiter dropped a plate of spaghetti and meatballs on my husband. It hit one of his shoulders and slid down his white shirt. The waiter snapped an apology, gave my husband some napkins, and continued on his way. The restaurant refused to even pay for the dry cleaning bill. At a pizzeria on Wilshire Boulevard a pipe burst over my head soaking me in ……I don’t even want to think about that one. At a restaurant owned by two famous chefs, my husband bit into a sausage and cracked a molar on a bone, causing him agonizing pain and 2 trips to the dentist. To the restaurant’s credit, they picked up the dental bill without hesitation, making me a repeat customer. Randy still hasn’t returned, however. Then there was the night with two of my girlfriends when a very odd waitress tried to trap us in a parking structure. I still have no idea what was up with this lady but she really spooked us throughout dinner and then ran to the parking structure to bring down the gate so we couldn’t exit. We were, literally, racing her! We made it out and she stood in the street glaring at us as we drove away.

Sticking with food that hurt us, at a Mexican restaurant on La Cienega, I nearly choked to death on a piece of wood that was in my food. It got stuck in my throat. The manager told me the wood didn’t come from their restaurant. He changed his story when I showed him my wooden plate charger with a piece of wood missing from it. At a very popular taco place near Chateau Marmont, my husband was nearly killed by chicken bones left in tacos we picked up as a to-go order. Just west on Sunset, at a very popular Chinese restaurant, we found a two-inch piece of blood red lipstick in our noodles. At a popular and expensive bakery on Melrose, an employee brought my cake through the kitchen door and into the café, with a finger up one of his nostrils.

Worth our money? Nope.

Quite simply, much of the food is mediocre and I can cook so much better on even my most uninspired days. I use fresher ingredients and my kitchen is cleaner. The atmosphere is fantastic and I get to be alone with my husband. I also get to avoid the often off-putting visit to a restaurant bathroom. Sheesh……

Los Angeles restaurants, we’re out. Our money and our time will be better spent elsewhere. Perhaps on cooking classes in Italy!

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