Thursday, June 22, 2000

restaurant deficiencies

There are three things I hate about eating out. Not having a baby changing station in the men's room is one of them. Needing to wear long pants and a sweater in the middle of the summer is a second.

But the worst one has to be the way waiters like to take my food away before I've finished eating. You would think that since the waiter is the one who took my order, he should be aware that I probably have designs on those last eight ounces of my 10-ounce New York strip steak. But somewhere between taking my order and asking if everything is all right, most waiters' brains short-circuit.

Part of this might stem from a misguided attempt waiters make to spare their customers the embarrassment of waiting around for five hours, twiddling their thumbs and whistling along to old Tiffany or Rick Astley tunes as they try to get the waiter's attention, while the food slowly turns green and hairy.

The truth of the matter is that restaurants specially train their waiters to snatch food away from hungry customers. These commando waiters watch from a safe vantage point where the customers cannot see them, and study their customers' body temperature, posture and conversational habits.

At the critical moment when the customer is distracted, the waiters strike and make off with the uneaten portion of the meal, which they carry to the kitchen and -- in great deference to the starving billions worldwide, including the customer who is now staring, fork in hand, at an empty table -- toss it into the garbage.

This might seem like a clever ploy to speed customers through their relaxed and enjoyable night out so the restaurant can serve more customers, but that's only the beginning of the plot. The truth is that restaurants count on customers not to be confrontational and to ask for an overpriced dessert menu item instead of trying to keep their food.

"Why yes," waiters imagine their customers -- especially those who skip off to the bathroom for five minutes partway through a meal -- I realize I paid $11.95 for this ridiculously small portion and have had only two bites, but I'd love it if you would throw it out for me. While you're at it, could you starve some Ethiopians too?"

One time it really annoyed me, Natasha and I were eating at TGI Friday's in North Brunswick, N.J., with her uncle. I left the table for two minutes. When I came back, my plate was gone, and with it half my order of french fries.

And I don't mean Natasha ate them, although she has been known to do that.

"Can I get you anything else?" our waitress asked about five minutes later.

"Yes," I wanted to snap. "I'd like you to give me back my food that you threw away."

Two things constrained me: first, the manners I learned as a child and the desire to make a good impression on my uncle-in-law, whom I just had met; and second, I really didn't want her to dig the fries out of the trash. God only knows what would have been on them.

So I bit my tongue and said nothing, and tightened my belt that night when I went home, to cover the hunger pains.

No more. I'm tired of being pushed around by high-schoolers and college students. I've decided to fight back. My inspiration for this, as in much else, is my beloved wife.

Back when she was pregnant with our daughter, Natasha was unstoppably ravenous. A waitress at some restaurant we were visiting noticed Natasha had paused eating for five seconds in order to respond to a comment I had made about a movie we had seen recently. The commando waitress swooped down on our table from wherever she had been hiding when I had wanted a refill on my Coke, and snatched up Niki's plate.

"Let me get rid of that for you," the waitress said pleasantly.

I never had seen Natasha move so quickly. Before I could say, "Halla banana o'wickle sticks," Natasha was out of the booth and running across the floor. She slammed into the poor woman, grabbed the plate with both hands and growled, "I'm not done with my potato yet!"

The rest of dinner passed without incident, but I noticed an animal-control van circling the restaurant when we left half an hour later.

On a recent Saturday, Natasha and I were having dinner at Jonathan's Cork in Tucson, Ariz. I won't explain why we were eating at such an upscale restaurant because that would unduly embarrass Ted and Michelle Kaseler, whose wedding rehearsal we just had come from.

I was about three-quarters of the way through my salad when my wife reported that our daughter had received and answered nature's call, and that I had to take the baby back to the men's room and change her diaper. (Now you understand my opening remark that restaurants should have changing stations in the men's rooms.)

As I stood up, baby in tow, I told my table companions, "Don't let him take my salad. I'm not done yet."

You can guess what was missing when I came back five minutes later.

I was annoyed, not just because "I'm not finished with my salad" had been translated into "He can take it away," but because I really am trying to eat healthier, and this commando waiter hadn't even checked with me first before he throw out what was left of my food. To add insult to injury, he didn't even refill my water.

So when he came back to deliver the main course, I told him about the mistake he had made and that I'd like it set to rights.

"Dave, just drop it," one dining partner urged me.

I didn't. I couldn't. It was the principle of the thing. If he had said my haircut makes me look like Jim Carrey, I could have ignored it. If he had crossed his eyes at me, pulled at the corners of his mouth with his index fingers, stuck out his tongue and said, "This is you," I could have ignored it.

But he hadn't done those things. He had thrown out perfectly good food that he had served to me, without speaking to me first. It was an honest mistake, but it still was a mistake.

I didn't grab the waiter and put him in a choke hold or force him to apologize. I didn't raise my voice or use inappropriate language. But I made my point, and I got a new salad.

And maybe if they see the dirty diaper in the wastebasket in the men's room, they'll realize how fortunate they were that we had taken a changing pad to the restaurant with us, and they'll decide they need a better changing station than the sink counter.

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