Vartabedian: Restaurant Snafus Not What Customer Ordered

I can’t fry an egg to save my soul.

Every time I crack the shell, either the yoke gets broken or I make a big mess with the white. I’m better off boiling a three-minute egg in five minutes or whipping up an omelet, provided I don’t cook over a large frame and leave everything stuck to a pan.

This posed quite the dilemma when I was slinging hash at my dad’s restaurant as a teenager.  He once told me, “Son, if this business is good enough for us, it’s good enough for you. People gotta eat and they gotta die. Those are two constants in life’s playbook.”

He was right, except he didn’t tell me that one could lead to the other if you whipped up a bad meal. For that reason, I wanted no part of the business and leave the cooking to those more qualified.

But one thing the eatery did teach me—that the food business was no piece of cake and required a certain degree of chutzpah.

I’ve dined out enough to know that one bad meal can produce a rotten impression, especially when you’re visiting a restaurant for the first time. If you’ve ordered a burger rare and it arrives well done, either you bite the bullet or send it back.

If the soup is cold and you like it piping hot, on comes another complaint. If there’s a fly in your soup, well, I won’t even go there. I find it repulsive to be shooing away flies at my table while I’m trying to enjoy dinner, whether it’s at a diner or a five-star restaurant.

I prefer deli food over the more posh settings where you pay extra for atmosphere. It’s nice, but you can’t eat atmosphere. I’m not talking dives but modest settings, with home-cooked meals, a cheap fare, and plenty of good eating.

I once received a $100 gift certificate to a high-end establishment, thinking it would be enough for a party of four, not including drinks. By the time the bill arrived, it was three times that amount. Everything on the menu was a la carte, even the salad, and nobody was keeping track of the order.

Over the years, I’ve had my share of indigestion from restaurants and not always from the food. I’ve waited as long as two hours to be seated and another hour to eat, dealt with uncanny waitstaff, sat by drafty windows in winter, coped with wobbly tables and chairs, had my bill totaled wrong and paid for items I never received.

Some of these places charge you a bargain for “all you can eat,” and what a come-on that is. Take one bite and that’s all you can eat. I’d rather pay a little extra and eat like a human being.

A place I frequented recently had this sign on their wall: “Our customers are always right. Misinformed. Impatient. Grouchy. Stubborn. But never wrong.”

That was Dad’s philosophy: “The customer was always right.” If they wanted sunnyside up and the yokes were broken, then try again.

 We have a place down the street from our condo that we visit occasionally. The owners are Greek and prepare the best salad entrees around, which is what I prefer lately given my perpetual diet.

Good food, modest prices, no fuss. And always a personal touch. Just the way I like it. The nicest thing about eating in such places is the frills: There aren’t any.

At a time when restaurants must be feeling a pinch due to the dwindling economy, I suspect many people are dining in prudent surroundings. I know one couple that eats out four to five times a week because she doesn’t usually cook.

They are discriminating diners who compare their meals with other restaurants. I’ve seen them walk out without giving a tip because the service was erratic.

I was shooting a wedding once at this elaborate restaurant in Boston. The banquet hall had chandeliers and pillars of marble. This was the epitome of formal dining.

I found my seat and told a table guest I would return after shooting tables. He assured me there would be plenty of food.

I must have been gone a half hour. When I returned, a bowl of soup had been placed by my setting. I like my soup hot.

“You better hurry up and eat that,” a gentleman suggested. “It’s getting cold.”

Well, sure enough, it was like ice water. I summoned the waitress and apologized for the delay. “Would you mind reheating this soup?” I asked.

The entire table erupted in laughter—and the joke was on me.

The soup was gazpacho and meant to be served chilled.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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