Dishin’ That: Breaking up is hard to do

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Breaking up with a favorite restaurant can be painful.

Always the ”go-to” place when other restaurants are unappealing or inaccessible, having a favorite spot or two is the answer to the age-old question: “Where do you want to go Saturday night?”

For most couples, mutually agreed upon fall-back destinations help fend off appetite-spoiling squabbles. They provide comfort and familiarity. Without such places the dreaded question is followed with the inevitable: “I don’t care, you decide.” It becomes a back-and-forth, downward spiral.

One of my Boston friends complains that she and her husband have that very exchange often. Heaven forbid her restaurant suggestion is accepted. If the service is bad, the food is lacking or the bathrooms are dirty, the “I don’t care,” turns into, “Well, you picked it.” Only the most evolved of couples can equally shoulder the responsibility of selecting a disappointing restaurant.

“We used to go to this great steakhouse at least once a month,” my friend said. ”It’s pricey, but we didn’t care because the food was always great and we had ‘our’ table. There was a waiter who remembered I wanted blue cheese for my roasted potato wedges.”

No stranger to the hospitality industry, she took their split from the long-established institution to heart.

“One night the sommelier and my husband, Jake, got into it over a vintage or something,” she recalled. “Jake thought the wine was misrepresented and the sommelier told him he didn’t know anything about wine. Then Jake said the difference between vintages was $20 a bottle retail, and the guy went postal on him and made a scene. This is a person we gave big tips to at Christmas every year. It was worse than just a bad night, and the GM never came to the table or contacted us after.”

Under most circumstances, the assumption would be that my friends were demanding, high-maintenance snobs. Having dined with them since two-martini lunches were alive and well on Newbury Street, I know that isn’t the case. But like all breakups, there are three sides to every story. This time, there’s Jake’s side, the sommelier’s side and what really happened. Sadly, their divorce was finalized when the GM did not reach out to mediate. All sides lost.

Locally, I have broken up with my very favorite “go-to.” Having dismissed their competition, I am wondering where I will find such quality food of its type. It’s frustrating because the fare is still top-notch, but the service has been off – more than three times.

Most recently, we put our name on a waiting list, even though there were many open tables. Were they short staffed for servers, or was the kitchen in the weeds, I asked myself. Turns out it was both.

The 15-minute wait turned into 30 minutes. When seated, we waited another 45 minutes, this time to order and for our food to arrive in unnecessary and unwanted courses. My dining companion was out way past his bedtime, making the impromptu dinner anything but relaxing.

Of course, I sympathized, since the staff was doing their best, but irrationally, I felt betrayed and cheated by my “go-to,” to which I have been so loyal. As far as reconciliation, I’m considering lunchtime carry-out. I’ll miss the place dearly so, maybe, I’ll give it another try around Valentine’s Day.

Peas & Qs

Q — Last week you mentioned privilege when complaining about so many new restaurants. It sounds to me like you’re out of touch. Did you forget we have a famous restaurant reputation and this is where local jobs are created? Sam K., Portland.

A — I did not forget. In fact, quite the contrary. Restaurant reputations and jobs (both good and bad) are only as strong as the consistency and sustainability of the house. But too many pieces of the pie, and too many pies to choose from, becomes dangerous.

However, you raise a good point regarding privilege (overused media buzzword du jour.) A few servers were displeased that I suggested a donation to the food bank in lieu of a night out. One Freeport server said the call to action was “thoughtful, but treasonous.”

One solution to dining out and do-gooding at the same time is to support places that offer weekly fundraising evenings for nonprofits and charities. Ricetta’s, Portland Pie, Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill, and Flatbread, to name a few, all donate a portion of a particular night’s profits to a designated cause.

Natalie Ladd detests restaurant reviews, but always has an opinion. She has spent most of her working life studying the human-nature, behind-the-scenes side of hospitality and is passionate about sharing it. And she still loves Bruce Springsteen. Reach out: nladd@theforecaster.net.

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