Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Radical Restaurant Proposal

How about bringing me what I ordered? And nothing else?

Today I met a friend for lunch at a restaurant. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad... very carefully. No croutons. Dressing on the side. I thought that should have done it. I mean, I know what goes into a Caesar salad. But the salad arrived with two big slices of garlic bread sitting on top.

Expressing my surprise, I picked off the offending slabs and explained to the waitress that I neither wanted the bread nor could eat it, since I have celiac disease. An agonizingly drawn-out conversation followed.

"Should I have them make you a new salad?"

"I don't think that's necessary. I hate to waste food."

"Are you sure you'll be OK?"

"I don't think I'm so sensitive that one breadcrumb is going to affect me."

"But it might be better to be safe..."

"It sounds like you'll feel more comfortable if you make me a new salad."

"No, this is for you..."

And on, and on. Finally I persuaded her that the salad was all right for me to eat, and handed her the bread. I like to dump pieces of bread right in the hands of serving people. They seem reluctant to touch it. Maybe they don't want to get butter on their hands. But what do they expect me to do with it? Leave it in a heap on the table? Perhaps make it into an impromptu centrepiece?

Before the waitress left, she told me that in the future, I should always tell my server about any allergies I have before ordering.

"She's right," I said to my lunch companion. "I should." I wondered why it is I'm reluctant to do so. Perhaps it's a desire to avoid that scarlet letter feeling, that public declaration of oneself as a sickly oddball. But something else was bothering me. I thought I'd ordered pretty carefully, and somehow it wasn't enough. Why did I feel as though the waitress, indeed the entire restaurant business, is somehow trying to fob its responsibilities off on me?

Later that day, I figured it out. I'm tired of restaurants serving me food that I didn't ask for and don't want. Is this such a radical notion: serve me what I ordered, and not what I didn't order?

I don't think I'm merely being whiny. It's true that I don't enjoy the necessity of giving a spiel on my digestive health to the wait staff every time I eat out. But in fact, this is not just an allergy problem. Once, I ordered chili at Boston Pizza and it arrived with cheese all over it. I didn't want cheese. Nothing in the menu said that the chili came with cheese. I could not have avoided this situation by discussing my allergies with the waitress, since I have no dairy allergy.

I didn't send the chili back. I carefully scooped off the cheese and deposited it on the side of my plate.* As I said earlier, I don't like to waste food. Also, I think today's prevailing restaurant climate may have affected me. I felt as if the situation was my responsibility because I hadn't read the cook's mind all the way from the dining hall. I had failed to anticipate that he might put unrequested cheese on my chili.

Ketchup can also be a problem. It's an oddly popular condiment, so restaurants tend to assume you want it. Many wait people will slap a ketchup squeeze bottle on your table as soon as you put in an order, whereas if you prefer vinegar on your fries, you have to ask. I don't mind the ketchup squeeze bottle, but I hate it when a little ketchup-filled plastic tub appears on the side of my plate with my meal because I know that every ounce of it is going to end up untouched in the garbage, along with the once-unused plastic tub. All waste, which could have been avoided if only they'd asked.

And what happened to asking? Remember when wait staff used to ask you questions? "Fries or baked potato? White or brown toast?" Some of the higher-end restaurants, like Swiss Chalet, still do this. But many don't. I think this may have to do with the newish trend of dropping by your table after you've received the food and asking something like, "How's everything tasting?" or "Is there anything else I can get you?" Perhaps wait staff decided that there are only so many questions they can deal with having to ask, and if they had to ask these post-order questions, then the pre-order questions had to go.

Well, I don't think this is a worthwhile trade-off. The pre-order questions are more important. Rather than abandon pre-order questions in favour of the repetitious and potentially disruptive "Can I get you anything else?," restaurants should provide patrons with some sort of signalling device they can use to let the wait staff know when they need something. I have long thought it would be great if restaurant tables each came equipped with a little flagpole and flag that you could raise when you needed service. This would be easier for the customers and easier for the staff. Further, the flags could add to the overall design motif. They could be brightly coloured, or styled to match the room decor. Restaurateurs, please feel free to use this idea without giving me credit. The joy I may one day feel upon walking into a restaurant and seeing a mini-flagpole on each table will be reward enough for me.

If you don't want to ask questions and you don't want to equip the tables with flagpoles, why not print on the menu everything that comes with the dish by default? Then at least people like me will be in a position to specify what we want and don't want on our plates. We won't have to wrack our brains to work out every surprise ingredient the cook might decide, on some crazy, onion-fume-influenced whim, to plunk on top of the meal.

I know I can't change the world. I can't make restaurants stop serving me things I didn't ask for. So I resolve from this day forward to tell wait staff that I have celiac disease. Frankly, I doubt it will solve the problem. I fully expect that at some future date, I will order by saying, "I have celiac disease. I can't have any wheat. So I'll have the chicken Caesar salad, no croutons, dressing on the side." And the salad will STILL show up with garlic bread on top. And the waitress will be all like, "Oops, garlic bread has wheat in it." Because waitresses aren't paid to think. If they were, they might wonder why a person who didn't want croutons would want garlic bread, which is, after all, a larger chunk of the same exact thing.

So I'm quite sure that the scenario I've described will eventually come to pass. But when it does, I'll be able to send the food back with a clear conscience. Likewise, my other resolution is to return any dishes that come with unexpected cheese on top. Yes, there will be food waste, and no, I won't be the one responsible.

* When my husband proofread this, he suggested I could dump the cheese into the waitress's hand, the way I did with the bread. I thought this amusing enough to share, although I want to make it clear that I do not advocate waitress abuse of any kind. [back]

† I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Here, Swiss Chalet is one of the higher-end restaurants. [back]


L R Barrett-Durham said...

When I read this and came to the offending cheese problem, I also thought you should be dumping the cheese in the waitress's hands. Maybe you should try it. You know, just to shake things up. Great blog.

Vivian said...

LOL. Thanks!

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