Restaurant Week Musings – Philly 2010, and in General

So, I just passed chef Jennifer Carroll on my way home from buying coffee at Spruce Street Espresso (counter culture coffee) and it reminded me that I wanted to blog about restaurant week.  I’ll start with this year’s impression and then hit on the inspiration from Chef Carroll.

We’ve been spoiled here in Philadelphia, or at least I have.  I’ve come to expect a quality of service at restaurants which is generally achieved, though this last restaurant week was a great disappointment.  I think it’s safe to expect exceptional service at top notch restaurants which is usually delivered, and, in my personal experience just in this area, that has been the case.  I have dined at Le Bec, Lacroix, Vetri, The Fountain, and other like establishments and the service has been nothing short of perfect.  But that’s what you expect at a place of that ilk.  However, I think we can ‘blame’ Stephen Starr and his organization for coaxing us all into expecting outstanding service in pizza to the perfectly prepared steak.  It’s this paradigm that makes the lens through which I’m looking at restaurant week all the more critical.   We didn’t visit any Starr restaurants this time around though, for better or worse.

So, on a Thursday night of the first week, we went to Xochitl.  The food was good, but not great.  Reviewing the food is useless as they are introducing a new menu on 2/22, but suffice it to say that there was more fruit than fish in the Ceviche and the guacamole was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary.  The lasting impression was my “rice pudding” dessert.  I took two bites and stopped eating because it was boring, dry, and bland.  The waiter came over and asked, “you didn’t like it?”  I said that I didn’t really and he just walked away.  No apology was made, no offer for something else, and that was my last impression of the restaurant.  So, now it’s time to tip.  Do I give the waiter just 15% because he was average and end up stiffing the rest of the support staff who were very good (food runner, tableside guac guy, etc.)?  It’s a tough one and we ended up at 17%, not great, not bad.  Yet, this still didn’t feel quite right.

The next night we went out for drinks and appetizers and the poor service continued.  We went to the bar at Tinto which was full, but not overwhelming and they had 2 bartenders taking care of everyone.  Getting our initial glasses of wine wasn’t that challenging, but that trend ended quickly.  We secured two bar seats and spent no less than 15 minutes looking at a food menu any no one asked us if we wanted to order anything.  The bartenders were more amused with each other than coming over to talk to us.  By the time we got some attention, I took the bill and left.

We were still a bit thirsty and hungry and made it over to Tria on 18th and Sansom.  The far end of the bar on the side of the restaurant near the bathroom had 4 people sitting at it.  The two people on the end near the service area got up and we snagged their seats (yes!).   That was short-lived as someone behind the bar rudely informed us that there were only 3 seats on that side and we couldn’t sit there.  A simple “I’m sorry” to start that sentence would have gone a long way.  We pointed out that 2 people were there before, but apparently, that was a 1-time event.  We left there without a drink or anything and were still annoyed.

Still hungry, we went to Devon Seafood and found two seats at the bar.  We ordered drinks and getting refills was just as challenging there as it was at Tinto.  We also ordered dinner which, after 40 minutes had still not arrived.  I asked the bartender what the deal was and he was just as surprised that we didn’t get our food.  The food eventually arrived and was comped (as it should have been), but it added to the frustration of restaurant week.

Saving grace was at Noble which has quickly become one of our favorite bars due to service and product.  Christian knows how to make a drink (sounds like a future entry).  We got to the bar at Noble which was full, but they cleared off a table behind the bar since the kitchen was closed and made us feel welcome.  It was a great end to a disappointing night for service in Philly.

So, back to the inspiration for this entry.   Last year’s restaurant week took my wife, mother and me to 10Arts.  The atmosphere is great, but the food was average.  I really, really wanted it to be great.  I’m a huge fan of Chef Ripert and wanted to have that amazing experience that would motivate my return (by cooking at home a couple extra nights to justify the cost), but it just wasn’t there.  Maybe it was soon after it opened, maybe it was another restaurant week anomaly, but either way, I’m not pining to return.  Especially since the Top Chef season ended, I have wanted to go back as it was fun to watch a Philadelphian in her pursuit, but I’m not convinced.  Maybe, I’ll change my mind, but there are so many places I haven’t been that I want to try…

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One thought on “Restaurant Week Musings – Philly 2010, and in General

  1. Sorry to hear restaurant week was so dissapointing. As for service, I think its easy to get spoiled if you go to the really nice places, and not just restaurants. A certain hotel in northern NJ comes to mind for great service. I spent too much time there, and now every hotel I stay in, I expect them to know go the extra mile, whether I’m paying the appropriate price for that kind of service or not. However, it’s a humbling reminder that you aren’t such a big shot. One establishment that treats you like a big shot can have you convinced you are even after you have walked out the door and into another establishment. However, as someone who really appreciates good service, I feel like many just don’t get it. A thought on improving this, next time you actually have great service (especially if it’s unexpected), don’t just tip, but tell them that the service was great and you really appreciate it.

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