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Will Your Culinary Concept Kill Your Restaurant?

By Anne Mitchell · March 24th, 2010 · The Dish

“Dear ‘concept’ restaurant: It is not the diner’s responsibility to be in tune with your fad, unless you only want to appeal to the few who knew ahead of time that you have a ‘niche.’ When a customer is visibly uncomfortable with your concept, offer guidance. Or kiss that customer goodbye forever. Can you afford to do that? No, not really.”

This little rant was my Facebook post a few nights ago after returning from a very disappointing dinner. It’s three days later, and I’m still annoyed about spending $77.31 on a bad night out. Yeah, it happens, but it could have been avoided.

I'm married to a fussy eater. I know how ironic that is and, believe me, sometimes I have to bite my tongue instead of shrieking, “You won’t eat ... what ... now!?!” But I keep trying to accommodate his quirks because I love him in spite of his dietary dictates. Imagine, though, if it was my job to make him happy. Because, Dear Restaurant, it’s yours.

Sure, chefs are artists. Cooking is an art! And nobody wants their art to be reduced to paint-by-numbers. Artists have principles and creative integrity. Years ago, I worked in a restaurant owned by a Jazz musician who would stop playing and stare in disgust at diners who had the nerve to talk and interrupt his riffs. As a server, I swallowed hard and tried not to think of the impact on my tips — after all, he was the artist.

Now, I think maybe I was a little naive.

So back to last week’s disaster. We strolled to a place I wanted to revisit. I’d heard that they were offering free food with drinks during happy hour, so that deal — combined with the nice location — sealed the plan.

There were only two tables occupied as we were seated, and I said to the host, “We’re here in time for happy hour!” He replied, “Then you’ll have to go sit at the bar.” Of course, dear fussy British husband equates “getting up and moving” with “making a spectacle of oneself,” so we remained in the booth. Sigh. We ordered wine.

Then, the menu arrived. Small plates. Local food. Quick perusal — he’s going to hate this. I started to ask questions I hoped would get us out of the mess. I asked if there was any chicken, maybe, even though it wasn't on the menu. No? OK, well, that was a long shot.

He asked for “A plain salad.” And I, pleading, came right out and said, “He’s very fussy.”

No, sorry. Well, there was one dish on the menu with gnocchi. He went for that, and I crossed my fingers. When it arrived — a long rectagonal plate with eight gnocchi lined up like a firing squad on a thin line of sauce, garnished with raw microgreens — oh, God. He stared. No good could come of this, I thought.

I saw the chef emerge from the kitchen twice, looking toward the bar and the open door and never glancing toward our table. I devoured my food instantly so that we could pay almost $80 and go. The young server ignored the frost that had descended and chirped, “Have a great night!” Ai-yi-yi! Not bloody likely!

We’ll never go back. I can tell you emphatically that, even if my husband dropped dead, his corpse could not be carried back into that place. And, yes, he’s an awkward bugger — but what if he wasn’t? What if he was allergic, had celiac disease or kept kosher? There are lots of completely reasonable reasons why a guest, a paying customer in your restaurant, might not want to eat goat or wild boar.

So help them have a good dining experience! Offer to combine a few ingredients you have on hand in a different way and make them happy.

Can you afford to lose that fussy guy and his poor, patient wife forever? Then stick to your artistic vision! You have nothing to lose but your livelihood!

CONTACT ANNE MITCHELL: dining@citybeat.com



03.24.2010 at 03:20 Reply
This is an incredibly pointless article. This could've easily been avoided by either checking online to read the menu beforehand, if available, that way your husband could see if there were any choices he'd like, or, if they don't post it online, you could've asked to see it before sitting down. That would hardly have been rude. If it would've made your husband too uncomfortable, perhaps the experience of dining out should be abandoned altogether. "What if he were allergic?" Well, that would be another issue, and hopefully the chef would've been accommodating, but he isn't. If I waltzed in to a vegan restaurant and demanded a steak, I would be called a jerk. You might rethink who you're upset with. If, as you say, the mere thought of eating "small plates" or "local food" upsets your husband, then you've got bigger problems. No one forced you to go there. If everyone agrees with you, then the place will go under, and you can smirk and say "I told you so." This was a 100% avoidable problem.


03.29.2010 at 10:56 Reply
The writer of this article should grow up. Almost every restaurant menu is online and if not, a breif phone call can confirm that there is something for picky husband there. Or better yet leave Mr. Picky at home with a peanut butter sandwich and take someone who will appreciate it out to dinner. I, for one, love local foods and support chef driven restaurants. If you can't -OK, but don't expect a restarant to be an extension of your kitchen. If all you want is that, eat at home.


03.31.2010 at 07:46 Reply
Thanks for the feedback, but I think you've missed the point. This wasn't pre-meditated dining, and not all dining is. Sometimes you just stroll in. And this really isn't about the concept being bad - it's not! It's about the opportunity a restaurant has to offer customer service that could win over a picky eater. Not on a busy Saturday, not during a rush, not during restaurant week. During a weekday evening when you only have a few tables seated, would you want to take that opportunity to make people happy so that they come back? Some places can't do that because they buy pre-made food from Sodhexo or whatever, and they can't make changes to suit the customer. This wasn't that kind of place - I hate places like that. This presumably was a kitchen full of food, that could have made something - like a plain salad - that wasn't on the menu. And the stuff about happy hour only in the seats at the bar? Again, do you want to stay with that arbitrary rule, or do you want to please the customer? Like I said, I'm not out to crucify anyone. It's constructive criticism - food for thought.


03.31.2010 at 10:12 Reply
Anne, grow up — the customer is always wrong! :) I would think restaurants would offer free backrubs in order to draw/keep/return patrons


03.31.2010 at 10:27 Reply
Listen, you! Go eat a pickled pig's foot! And yeah, basically all I wanted was a free backrub and a cheese sandwich.