One of the few luxuries and small indulgences my wife and I treat ourselves to is eating out every now and then. Like every week. It forces us to twist away from bright screens and talk to one another. Someone else handles the cutting and dicing of the foodstuff and brings it out all arrayed nicely and places it before us on a real table. We can then walk home overstuffed and feel like we accomplished something more than the usual. We went out into the world and ate things.
Our neighborhood, Inwood, is “up and coming,” it seems. There’s a snazzy row of trendy restaurants with seating ringside to the intermittent spewing of A-train riders coming home and motorcyclists gratuitously revving their engines and too-loud music and look-at-me-looking-at-you patrons along Dyckman. There’s a new Starbucks on the corner. But the options for a consistently pleasurable dining experience remain few. For some reason, even in places that charge upwards of $20 a plate, the service tends to be lackluster and the food sometimes good but mostly uninspired.
We have a few spots we like to attend, but even in those joints we rarely stray far from the two or three dishes we know we enjoy. When we do, we regret it.
Tonight we opted to try an old place we had stopped going to again (we’d forgotten why we’d stopped. Oh, yeah, know we remember). It started off right. Outdoor open area with a cool breeze, early evening, only one other person. An IPA delivered promptly by the waiter, our order swiftly decided and taken. A waft of fresh pesto from the kitchen as we walked in caused me to spontaneously order the pesto chicken linguini. What could go wrong?
I’m not the type of person to send a dish back. I hate confrontation and challenging conversations when roles aren’t clear. I can have them at work, but not in situations where I am the customer. I don’t feel like it’s my place. I’ve served a lot of people and I’ve always hated customers who are entitled a-holes, and I never want to give even the slightest hint of being one of them. I always tip 20% (still did tonight, BTW).
But as soon as the dish came out 30 minutes later, something was off. I’m sensitive to smell, and there was a faint off-odor to the linguini, hidden beneath the pesto. Something like dirty water or spoiled food. Maybe the dish hadn’t been cleaned well. I don’t know. But as soon as I smelled it, I could taste it underlying the pasta. And the chicken was overcooked. And it was already lukewarm. And it was $16.50. And my wife’s dish was similarly weak, and her fries were cold.
I agonized about what to do. Should I send it back? But what if I was just imagining things? My wife tried it and said it seemed fine. Was I just inventing the offending smell and taste? Had I been primed by the loogie we could hear being hacked by a kitchen worker right before the dish came out?
I asked for another beer and didn’t say anything to the waiter when he delivered it. I looked around for a hot sauce and grabbed a Tabasco from the other table and dunked it all over it. I thought, maybe I can work with this. I took several more bites. I stopped eating and sat back. I couldn’t do it. I had completely lost my appetite, and it was 6:00 after a long day of work. I get up at 5:00 in the morning and had only had a sandwich and a granola bar.
But I could keep smelling it and tasting it. The slight eau de rancidness. Even beyond that fundamental evil, there was nothing redemptive about the dish in any way. It was bland.
“I’ll just box it up and take it home,” I informed my wife. I envisioned myself dunking the meal in the extremely hot hot sauce I had at home, the kind where merely a drop was sufficient to completely overwhelm a dish with burning.
“Are you really going to eat it?” she asked. I took another meek bite and smelled sewage. I realized I wasn’t. That I had no desire to ever smell or taste it ever again. That I wanted to get up and walk away from this place of quiet torture and never look back.
A dark pool of negativity settled around my shoulders. My wife and I stopped conversating, and the only things that arose between us were dark noticings. We realized there had been warning signs since the moment we’d arrived. The unswept leaves. The extended length of time between waitery visits. The holes in the plastic windows of the awning.
Finally, my wife caught the waiter’s attention after he eventually ventured back to the back area another half hour later.
I apologized profusely and told him I couldn’t possibly fathom eating my dish. He took it away with vagueness, then I heard words between the kitchen staff and him. Then another guy came back out, ostensibly some form of manager. He didn’t look me in the eye. He hovered near and awkwardly gestured at his managerial duty, but didn’t seem to know what to say. He seemed to want us to simply go away.
I apologized again. Told him I never do this sort of thing. I wasn’t this sort of person. But something was off. I couldn’t really say what it was. But I felt really bad.
He walked away. Brought back the bill with the offending dish stricken.
I realized that I had missed an opportunity to level with him. That instead of saying what was on my heart to say, I white lied and pretended it was kind of my fault.
What I should have done is laid into him, like I was his manager. What kind of place are you running here, this managerial me would have said, quietly fuming, sweeping my hand magisterially. We come here. This looks less inviting than my parents’ front yard. Why isn’t this swept? We made a choice to attend your establishment. Why doesn’t your wait staff come out to check on your all of 3 patrons? My dish sucked. It wasn’t just that something undefinable was off. It was simply bad. There was nothing good about it, other than its existence as food. Why would anyone pay $16.50 for this? I could go home and microwave a better meal. Her fries were cold. Why did it take so long for uninspired food to arrive on my table? Why am I hearing your kitchen staff loogeying while I’m sitting here waiting for my food?
The experience of calculating the check, then finishing my beer, was agonizing. The manager guy kept coming out and passively aggressively half-approaching our table, then walking away. I could hear the kitchen staff complaining. The burden of negative unsaid energy was tearing my soul apart.
It took 2 hours at home to dispel. It weighed upon my heart. So much I now write about it. This is ridiculous.
The moral of the story is, sometimes it’s better to be an asshole. Sometimes it’s better to say what you fucking feel directly to people you don’t know because they need to hear your honest opinion. The agony of leaving what I really needed to say unsaid wears upon me. My mealy-mouthed inability to be an asshole in that moment delimited my usefulness to humanity right then. That restaurant won’t know what it did wrong. That cook won’t know why he’s getting in trouble. And I will never go back to that restaurant again.