Dishin' That: It's not what you say, it's how you say it

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The You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up file is bursting at the seams. Adding stories is business as usual because in the hospitality industry, unexpected things happen daily. Never knowing who is going to do or say something column-worthy, the file itself is one reason I still love front-of-the-house restaurant work.

That, and because the job is never boring.

Most of the file is viewed through server or bartender-colored glasses. But this week, a few things went down on the relaxing side of the bar that had me reaching for my notebook.

Even with the number of competitive drinking and dining choices, most of us have favorite go-to places. We default to those choices based on pricing, physical proximity, and to hang out with others who default there. No exception to the rule, I found myself heading to one of my top three after a mid-week shift.

Cutting to the chase, a server irked me to the point of walking out, which I’ve only done once, at a low-budget foreign film with subtitles. (Cultural acumen escaped me when I realized the subtitles were in a completely different foreign language from the one I was hearing.)

However, the place I went to last week isn’t fancy. There’s no host, no “Please Wait to be Seated” sign, and nothing indicating a table or bar stool might be reserved. It’s deservedly crowded almost all the time, and when you walk in and see a bar stool or table, you sit down.

That’s exactly what took place. I walked in, sat down and sent a text to my co-worker to shove the cash in the safe, lock up and head over. Simultaneously, the server, sans a pleasant greeting, said, “Um, people are waiting for this table.”

Looking around, I saw a couple by the door with drinks in their hands. I saw them when I walked in, and thought nothing of it since people congregate there often. Granted, I did sit down before the table was fully cleared, but thought nothing of that either, since things often roll that way at this establishment.

Looking at me like I had taken a warm bottle from a hungry baby, the server offered to put my name on “the list.” Quite frankly, the exchange painted me as an inconsiderate line-cutter and I was surprisingly embarrassed. Behaving fairly well in restaurants (especially in a place I so dearly love) is important to me. It may seem like a simple thing, but it could have been handled in a kinder, more respectful manner. After a bit of a stare down, I got up and left.

File it under the “It wasn’t what or why something was said section.” Instead, like most exchanges gone bad in restaurants (or anywhere, for that matter), the crux of the incident was how it was said.

Immediately after I texted my co-worker to meet instead at Place B. I found myself comfortably seated (and warmly welcomed) at the bar, with a second stool next to me.

My friend arrived and scooted in between me and a guy who had apparently brought in his own food. It was odd because this was not a Chinese restaurant, and he was eating some kind of fried rice out of a take-out container. With the end of his straw.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but in a light, non-condescending or judgemental tone, I offered him my unused fork. He didn’t appreciate it, and made sure I was aware of it. My friend thought it so bizarre she Snapchatted it.

Adding to the oddness, nobody on staff seemed to care, or want to give the guy a fork. Everyone carried on as if it were perfectly normal. Who knows? Maybe the guy is a regular whose choice of cutlery is overlooked. Maybe it wasn’t how I said it, but that I said anything at all.

Regardless, I’ll still be frequenting both places with great affection. Even when you can’t make it up, stuff happens.

Peas & Q’s

Q — Why do some restaurants think it’s desirable to have the lighting so low that it’s impossible to read the menu? Tiny print and low lighting are not appealing. — Barry R., Portland.

A — You’re preaching to the choir in the vision department, and most places who strive for subdued ambiance are aware of the drawbacks.

Why not discretely mention it to your server? I think you’ll find they offer Dollar Store “cheater” reading glasses and pen-like flashlights. Hopefully, your eyes will adjust and you’ll enjoy the experience as it was intended to be. Case in point? The fabulous Tree House Cafe & Lounge on Stevens Avenue in Portland’s Deering Center neighborhood.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.