Avoiding restaurant disasters
By JOHN CARAFOLI
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Many years ago, I was personally responsible for a major restaurant disaster.

As a student, during the summer months I worked as a lifeguard for the State of Massachusetts. Several of us had been working since the middle of June and as of July 1, we had not been paid. I was tired of borrowing money from my father. Then one day Nora, one of my fellow guards, got word that a nearby upscale restaurant noted for its fine dining and sweeping Cape Cod Bay views was looking for waiters. I had been a bus boy there a few years before under different management. Nora (underage at the time) and I applied for the job. I figured being a bus boy was much harder than being a waiter, so I fibbed a bit, turning my experience as bus boy into that of waiter. No one questioned.

A few days later the phone rang. The restaurant wanted us to work that very weekend, which happened to be Fourth of July - the busiest weekend on the Cape. Nora and I were ecstatic-but a little nervous. Could we pull it off?

Our first night, Nora and I arrived at the restaurant in time for a five o'clock briefing. "John, you take the party of 18 coming in at six," the manager informed me. He handed me a small notepad and a pen. Shortly thereafter my party arrived. I greeted them warmly and proceeded to take drink orders. This didn't seem too bad, I thought. After the drinks arrived it was time to take dinner orders.

Everything went smoothly until I got to the tenth person. At that point the second person heard what the ninth person ordered and wanted to change his order. Then the fourth person heard what the twelfth person ordered and changed her order. This happened several more times. By the time I got to the eighteenth person, my hands were wringing wet, my pad was soaked and my notes were a mess. I was totally confused as to who ordered what. I went into the kitchen and confessed to Nora the mess I was in. She said, "Okay, just sit down and organize the dinners. Make a list before you hand in the orders." That took me 20 minutes. In between I brought bread to the table, more water, and tried to push more drinks. Meanwhile my customers were beginning to get fidgety and annoyed.

To keep things moving, I guessed at what my customers had ordered and put in 18 orders, praying that everything would turn out okay. An hour went by and my table of guests were angry and impatient.

Borrowing dinner

Panicking, I went into the kitchen and started filling my orders with other waiters' food. When I got to table with the plates of stolen food, I decided to take a creative approach.

"Okay, raise your hands," I said. "Who had the baked stuffed lobsters, and how many had the filet?" As fast as they raised their hands the dinners were in front of them. I ran back to the kitchen to get more food. Meanwhile the other waiters were waiting for their orders, which I had taken. At this point the chef realized what I had done. Red faced and angry, he ran after me with a large butcher knife. I bolted into the dining room, creating a spectacle before the startled diners.

Back at the table my guests were finishing the last of their meal and I served them coffee and dessert. As for the bill, they paid it in full but do not remember how much they left me for a tip!

I look back on this major learning experience and how I inadvertently ruined a meal for 18 people, not to mention disrupting a whole kitchen. I think of the times I myself have gone out for a special occasion and, instead of having an enjoyable evening, experienced an unpleasant, unrewarding and expensive disaster. These unfortunate occurrences can happen for a number of reasons. We are living in a society where many of our fellow diners are undiscriminating when it comes to what they eat. This breeds restaurants that do not care about quality. In some cases it is also due to the restaurant's careless attitude, sloppy preparation, and inferior ingredients or, as in the case described above, poorly trained waiters.

One showy Italian restaurant with pretend wood burning ovens (they are actually gas) demonstrated how bad one dining experience could be. The food was inferior, the waiter was totally uninformed about the menu, and a $10 bottle of wine was marked up to $35. I said to myself, Never again! But, I did go back with a group of people some time later because it was an easy place for all of us to meet. I didn't make a fuss (unusual for me). I ordered the simplest thing on the menu- pasta with oil and garlic. How could any one mess that up? Well, when it arrived in front of me, I took one bit and it tasted like plastic. I checked around in the dish and found a blue piece of plastic. I told the waitress, who said, "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you want something else?" I said no, that was that. Nothing more was offered.

Another time, in a historical restaurant bar, we ordered fried calamari as an appetizer. It came with red pasta sauce from a jar. I ordered a hamburger and a beer. When asked how I wanted the burger, I said pink. It came bloody. The unfriendly waiter said he would bring me another one. While my dining partner ate his meal; I waited for the return of my mine. If you are eating out with someone it is something you do together. When the burger finally arrived, my friend had finished his meal and I was just starting. The burger was the same one reworked and well done. The host, seeing my displeasure (with that and a few other things,) came over to me, acting like I had done something wrong, give me a long lecture as to what the restaurant called rare, medium rare and well done. Disputing him would do me no good. The kitchen did what they wanted to do. The burger came with a side of fries and a pasta salad, two carbohydrates on the plate. Why not a salad or vegetables? After this experience, I wondered just how much knowledge these people have of food. It also was a good example of how a restaurant's concept and style come first and the clients' needs second.

Obviously there are fine dining establishments on the Cape. One place I frequent is The Naked Oyster in Hyannis. I like eating at the bar, either by myself or with a friend. The food is of the highest quality and well prepared. And I am assured of having a wonderful meal.

When I talked with the chef, David Kelly, I asked him what causes the most problems in his restaurant. He replied, "I build my dishes with vegetable, protein and starch. I design my plates with a method in mind. Problems for me start when people build the dishes themselves. Special diets are making people request specialty items and substitutions. I offer side dishes so I do not have to substitute. Substitutions interrupt the kitchen's flow."

Kelly continues, "People do not understand that several special unplanned requests over the course of the evening can slow the whole restaurant down. Once the kitchen is behind, the dining room is behind. If you are out for a special occasion, forget your diet for a few hours and enjoy yourself."

Kelley is quite accommodating as long as it does not interfere with the flow of the kitchen. He continued, "If given enough notice I will prepare certain dishes for some of my customers. One man who comes to the restaurant loves chicken livers. It is an item I usually do not have on the menu. When I can get them, I give him a call and prepare them the way he likes them. In this case, I plan ahead so it does not interrupt the kitchen."

Now, I know many people may not be interested in what happens behind the scenes in a restaurant's kitchen, but I feel it is important. A meal out should be an enjoyable, hassle-free experience. Restaurants are providing a service and you are paying the bill. The price for quality food in restaurants has escalated and with that comes higher expectations from patrons.

There are also things you can do to help ensure a pleasant restaurant experience:

- Define your expectations for the evening and tell the restaurant when you make a reservation: Are you going out because it has been a rough day or week and are looking for a nice relaxed evening? Is it a special occasion like a first date or an anniversary? Pick a restaurant with ambiance that offers what you are looking for. DO NOT go to a restaurant if you are angry and upset or want to solve personal issues. Solve them at home before venturing out. It is unfair to the person serving you and the people around you.

- Never be late for a reservation. Fifteen minutes could cause the restaurant to lose an entire seating. Always call to cancel if you cannot make the reservation. Never make multiple reservations. Restaurants catch on to this when you do it more than once.

- If you are seated by the host and have an unfriendly, harassed waitperson, request that you be moved to another table. Things will not change. Always be friendly and courteous to your server.

- If you would prefer a different table to the one you are given, don't be shy- speak up and ask for it. Make sure you are comfortable in the room.

- If going to a restaurant for the first time, consider selecting one or two appetizers and splitting a main course. This will give you a good idea of how the food is prepared and what the chef is trying to do with the menu. As a rule avoid "Early Bird Specials," which often are inexpensive filler dishes like pasta or something the restaurant wants to move. If a restaurant prides its self on offering large portions at low prices be wary of the quality.

- When ordering wine by the glass, ask the bartender or waitperson if they have other suggestions not listed. If ordering an unfamiliar wine ask for a taste. Most places are more than happy to oblige.

- Don't hesitate when asked if everything is to your liking. Be honest and direct. Do not be timid about sending food back if it is not cooked the way you like it, or if it isn't fresh. You are doing a disservice to yourself and the restaurant if you leave unhappy.

- Ask the waitperson not to clear the table before everyone is finished eating. It makes people feel like they are eating slow and should catch up.

- Compliment the chef. If you like a particular item on the menu ask him or her about it. It may give you an idea for something to incorporate into your home cooking.

(Published: October 1, 2003)