By Danielle Walsh, Bon Appétit
Welcome to The Nitpicker. Jason Kessler loves to complain almost as much as he loves to eat. Join him on his journey through the imperfect universe of food.
A few days after Valentine's Day, it happened to me. I was in San Francisco on a press trip and several of my meals had been arranged for me (translation: I was going to eat for free). After extensively studying the menu of one particular restaurant, I looked forward to an excellent meal there. The 20-year-old spot had just lost its Michelin star, but that didn't dampen my excitement--it's located right across the street from the illustrious Ferry Building, and serves up fresh, local produce bought at the markets there.
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And then ReservationGate hit.
What I'm about to describe has nothing to do with me as a food writer. I never expect special treatment, and had I encountered this situation plenty of times before I ever embarked upon this delicious career. All patrons in all restaurants should be treated as guests. It's the hospitality industry, after all, and I fully expect restaurant employees to be hospitable.
It all went wrong in one very specific moment: when the hosts, who couldn't find record of my reservation, decided to get management involved instead of working quickly to solve the problem and seat us. Normally, that wouldn't be an issue. Managers are (or at least should be) trained to deal with situations exactly like this. But apparently, the manager on duty this day hadn't received such training. I saw her storm up to the computer at the host stand and search around. I saw her take phone calls. I saw her angrily talk to the hosts. Never once did she address me directly as my date and I just stood there trying to figure out just what the heck was going on. After half an hour, she finally deigned to give us a table (of the many that were sitting empty). At that point, however, I didn't want to eat there. In fact, I don't ever want to eat there.
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It's a shame. A lost reservation is an opportunity to show just how much your restaurant values customer service. If they had seated us, I would have been impressed. If they had even sent us to the bar and bought us a drink while they sorted it out, I would have given them bonus points. If they had simply treated us like human beings, I would have been satisfied. Instead, we were made to feel like intruders.
We're at a difficult place in the restaurant industry. While the grand palaces of haute cuisine used to pride themselves on their excellent service, there's now an attitude that we customers are lucky to be allowed in at all. Restaurants are calling out no-shows on Twitter. They're forcing us to accept "no substitutions" policies and buy tickets for dinner as if it's a sporting event. It's become an us vs. them battle.
Thing is, we're all in this together. Restaurants can't survive without customers (or guests, as they're more appropriately referred to) and people love dining out, now more than ever. It's a system that works, but when one group values itself more than the other, the system breaks down.
As luck would have it, I went on to have excellent meals during that trip at SPQR, La Mar, and Foreign Cinema, so all was not lost. It's just a shame that one restaurant lost a customer over a lousy table for two.