Food critic confessions: 3 dining out pet peeves

12:20 p.m Wednesday, June 22, 2016 Community
(Steve Lopez/The Palm Beach Post)

I love dining out. For the most part, my experiences are good ones. But there’s always a few recurring situations that can ruin a dining experience. Today, I’ll share three of them. As you might expect, there are more. You’ll read about those as our occasional series continues. And we invite you to share yours with us in the comments section of this story.

— Liz Balmaseda

The peeve: servers who sit down while taking your order

It was all going swimmingly – the drinks, the décor, the ambiance. All first signs pointed to a feeling that this would be a restaurant I was going to like.

Then our server sat down. At our table.

In a split second, she went from being adorable and smart to why-is-this-woman-sitting-here? We didn’t invite her to sit. She hadn’t fainted. She wasn’t wearing toe-scrunching stilettos.

No, she was riding the friendly vibe of our initial chitchat into a place that, apparently, made her feel comfortable enough to toss out all semblance of formality. She broke a cardinal rule of service, shattering the fourth wall, the one that allowed us to feel secure in our dining experience.

I imagine in her mind she simply was trying to be genuine and approachable. Instead, she made herself a glaring example of what happens when “keeping it real goes wrong.”

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But in this era of chummy service, I have found myself entertaining more than a few servers at the table.

Dear server, stay adorable – and away from my table’s empty seats.

The peeve: the dirty rag

I stopped in at a neighborhood bagel shop recently for a takeout sandwich. I put in my order and watched the attendant go to work on a narrow stretch of counter. He reached for the bag of bread and, with gloved hands, placed two bread slices directly atop the work space.

I noticed the bread slices were far too close – disturbingly close – to a wet cleaning rag, the kind of rag restaurants use to wipe down their tables and counters.

“Sir, please, can you make the sandwich away from that rag?” went my request.

He nodded, grabbed the rag with his hands, moved it away, then looked at me for approval.

“Thanks,” I said.

But then I watched in slo-mo horror as his hands went from the dirty rag back toward my sandwich bread.

“No, no, no!” I said, trying to thwart the move.

But it was too late. Still wearing those gloves – surely bacteria-laden by now – the guy began handling the bread.

“Mayonnaise?” he asked as if what just happened had not happened.

“You know what? I don’t want it. I can’t,” I said, putting away my wallet.

The sandwich guy had this “what-just-happened?” look that no amount of explaining could erase.

It was the same look I had seen on the face of a young server at a local Mexican eatery about a year earlier. I had watched her wipe down some tables with a wet rag. Then, with rag in hand, she had fetched our menus and handed them to us. The menus hit the rag as she peeled them off and set them on the table.

I didn’t say anything. I watched her walk around the entire restaurant with that rag. And when she returned to our table with chips and the rag, which dangled close to my face, I had to say something. Like:

“Señorita, the rag. Can you leave it over there? It’s dirty.”

I tried to be polite, informative even. But she fired a look my way that said, “You have something against cleaning supplies, señora?”

If that’s indeed what her look said, here’s my reply:

Yes, I do. I don’t want to see a dirty rag near my food. Just like I don’t want to see or hear a vacuum cleaner buzzing and coughing up dust around the dining room while I’m still dining.

Maybe there’s an element of denial in my peeve. We do have to assume, after all, that wet rags are used to clean kitchens, counters and tables out of our view. But allow me the fantasy of believing your place is clean to begin with, and that your employees have been taught basic, proper food-handling skills.

So much about dining out is a game of trust. The restaurant trusts diners won’t walk out on their checks or steal the silverware or purposely break the wine glasses. In turn, diners trust the place is clean and the food prepared in hygienic conditions.

If it’s not, we have every right to rag on the place that inflicts its rags on us.

The peeve: bad chairs

Ever been to a place with good food but distractingly uncomfortable chairs? You don’t remember what you ate, but you remember the chair. It was metal, short-seated and painful for a grown-up to endure.

You may not notice inconveniences such as cushion-less, steely chairs if you’re a child focused on a tablet game between chicken nugget bites. But if you’re an amply sized adult, you can’t help but to notice.

Tucked into my brain somewhere is a map of bad-chair eateries to avoid. There’s the place with the stellar shakes, but shaky chairs. There’s the other joint where the booth sitting space must have been measured for the slimmest of supermodels.

The other night, I returned to one bad-chair place only because I was curious about the expanded menu. I was thrilled to find they had added four comfy Parsons chairs to their collection of creaky, tight, excruciating metal chairs. I grabbed one, leaving my dining companion with a bad seat. After about 10 minutes, he stood up and grabbed a good chair from an adjacent table.

“I can’t,” he told me.

I know. Who can?

I can forgive a restaurant for skimping on décor, on tableware, bar glasses or menu-printing costs. But a chair? A chair should be comfortable. A chair should say, “hello, stay a bit, eat!”

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