For 40 years, my late father made a living as a banquet server at the Washington Hilton, the same Hilton where John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Educated as an accountant in his native Cuba, there were many things my father disliked about his job — the occasional 12-hour shifts; the occasional rudeness of some of the clientele; and the wear and tear on his body from carrying heavy trays of food; Despite all this, my father did take pride in the work he did.
Having been raised in a family that owned a regional bakery, my father appreciated food and passed his love for food onto to me. While my father was the cook in the family, the one who cooked for pure joy of the experience as much as for the simple need of eating to survive, we also ate out fairly regularly, where he would always engage the wait staff with tales of service experience, making a new friend in the process. He would also be quick to pass judgment if things were not done to his liking. We would be the ones to hear about it as the critiques came fast and merciless in Spanish.
My father’s engagement with the wait staff, and the constant running commentary of the staff’s performance and appearance made me dread dinning out with him, especially as a teen who wanted to be anonymous to the fact that she was dining with her family. Even as an adult, my father’s focus on service was often distracting to the family’s time together by inviting the wait staff to join us in our experience, or to make sport of their profession through endless commentaries.
I, on the other hand, prefer to engage with the wait staff as little as possible, keeping it strictly to a professional relationship. No questions of where they are from (a favorite of my father’s) or sharing personal anecdotes of myself. In my mind, the best wait staff performs their duties seamlessly, and will enhance the experience with solid recommendations from the menu and some charm. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the value of everyday human interaction; I just prefer to spend the energy with those sitting at my table before me.
However, bad service can be distracting, even comical in the way it deflects from the overall experience of sharing a meal with friends and family—I will attribute that much to my father. I recently had such an experience at Ardeo + Bardeo where I had taken my best friend to celebrate her birthday.
Like me, Wendy is a foodie and one of the few people, along with my good friend Natalie, who I trust to cook alongside me in the kitchen. For us, birthdays are just another excuse to go out and enjoy each other’s company, without pondering too much on the passage of another year. So armed with my OpenTable® rewards certificate we made reservations at Ardeo + Bardeo and thanked our good fortune to be seated on their outdoor rooftop on an unseasonably spring-like day in August.
Wendy had arrived first and had already ordered samples of two wines to determine which she would like to order, a Rose Syrah/Tempranillo blend and a Rose Cinsault/Syrah. The bar was out of the Cinsault/Syrah blend so she ordered the Vermentino to sample. The waiter brought us the Viura which was incorrect and the first mistake of the evening. We ended sampling both the Vermentino and the Viura and decided the Viura was the better of the two. We ordered a bottle to share.
Next came time for us to order. Since we are both very conscious of our physiques and overall health, we decided to share two appetizers and a single entrée. We ordered the cheese tray and the salmon tartare for our appetizer, and the soft shell crab for our entrée. Much to our surprise, the softshell crab arrived first which made me question the whereabouts of our cheese tray and salmon tartare (mistake no. 2)
Our salmon tartare came out, but what of our cheese tray? Well, we were informed, that we had not made a selection. Hmm. Well we weren’t told that we had to make a selection (clearly we had failed to read that each cheese was $7, not $7 for the whole selection. Our waiter quickly brought out the menu so we placed an order for the rouge affinee and the camembert. Almost immediately, we were informed that the restaurant was out of the rouge affinee so we selected the coupole as our second cheese.
When the cheese was presented to us, only the coupole appeared on the cheese board. “We also ordered the camembert,” I mentioned and promptly followed with, “You’ve made a lot of mistakes tonight.” I had reached my limit and was now beyond distracted by the level of service or lack of that we were receiving.
We were served the camembert. Shortly thereafter, we were presented with the check. No offers of a dessert menu—which would have surely ordered from since we were celebrating a birthday. No offers of coffee. No offers of an after dinner drink. Just the check presented to us mid-meal. And that is when I went from distracted to being upset and disappointed.
The meal itself was good, although Wendy did find the salmon tartare’s dressing to be more mayo-like than she would prefer. The softshell crab was prepared just right and the bed of veggies that the crabs laid on were firm, retaining the freshness of a newly harvested crop. However, it was not great because of the poor service we were offered. The cynic in me would have blamed the presence of the OpenTable reward certificate which covered the check in its entirety, as being a reason for inattentive service. Except that I had not presented the certificate until we were midway through our meal and that should not have made a difference anyhow. The restaurant would get paid just the same.
With every gaffe committed that evening Wendy and I had to stop our flow of conversation; address the problem; and regroup to continue on with our conversation. Unlike my father, we did not make the service the focal point of our meal or time together. It was at worst a series of minor disruptions. And truth be told, my father tried to show grace when the service was bad. Everyone has an off day, he would acknowledge, perhaps wishing for the same empathy from his clientele that he had for our wait staff. Sometimes the kitchen was off and it was our waiter, our emissary for the restaurant, who had to execute diplomatic skills in helping us select a new entrée when the one we ordered was no longer available, or unmet expectations when the meal does not measure up. I try to emulate that graciousness and even though the service was lacking, I still issued a 15 percent tip on top of the full bill (tax included).
After dinner, Wendy and I headed out next door to Firehook Bakery for coffee. A self-service operation, we were happy just to sit on the bench outside the storefront on Connecticut Avenue, enjoy our drinks, talk and watch the world go by. No interruptions to break the flow in our conversations. No one checking to see that we were okay with our drinks or with our service. We were okay because we met our own expectations for the night—enjoying each other’s company.