I don’t really write bad reviews. It’s not that I don’t eat bad meals, because, I most certainly do. And it’s not that I write good reviews for bad places, because I most certainly don’t. It’s just that I would rather spend my time extolling on the virtues of a restaurant that’s pumping out magic than gripe about one that overcooked my chicken. I believe that a local food scene tends to operate like an ecosystem and that if you drop good customers in from of a strong business, strength will prevail and nature will handle the rest. But in the interim, those bad restaurants are out there, lying in wait like scavengers, feeding on the uninformed, forcing people to ask themselves, ‘what could be worse than eating at a bad restaurant?’
Not long ago, I explored the answer to that question.
A blustery December morning found my wife and I turtled up in our coats, wandering the streets of one of the many islands speckling the Puget Sound’s steely waterway. Slipping off to an island is something we do every now and again, especially around the holiday season, to fill a bag with knickknacks and our bellies with pastries.
This particular island, had a special place that drew us in every year without fail. It was warm and full of laughter, the servers really cared about what they were doing and the food was love from an oven.
On this trip, the velvety memories of all the good times we had before was a wriggling worm. It brought us unquestioningly through the door of the place, past all the new, stock photo decorations in the nearly empty dining area. It got us to the counter, where the bored looking barista took our orders, and by the time we were in our seats and the wrongness had started to dawn on us, it was too late. We had paid. The food was coming. The hook was sunk.
The chef went out for a smoke break.
I found a server, and reminded him about our food and he darted into the back. After a few seconds, he returned, looking a bit shaken.
“It’ll be a few more minutes.”
When the food came out, it was cold. My wife’s salad had a meaty looking hair in it.
We had already paid for the food and the servers were all texting on milk crates behind the counter, so, reeled in and gutted, we left.
God, I was so angry. We marched through the frigid winter air fuming at one another, grieving the inexplicable loss of a place that we used to love with steam hissing out from between our teeth and our fists balled in our pockets.
Three blocks from the restaurant, the experience was still taking the twinkle out of the Christmas lights, pulling the joy out of the quiet island morning. I suddenly remembered an old Buddhist saying that I’d read somewhere.
Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intention of harming another. You’re the only one who gets burned.
I realized that I had to get out from under this feeling or I was going to need skin graft and since anger is usually the byproduct of a lack of understanding. Three blocks from the restaurant, I spun on a heel.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked.
“I’m gonna go ask them what just happened.”
I found the server from earlier folding cardboard into an overflowing recycle bin behind the restaurant with the same kind of dutiful hopelessness that he’d taken with him into the kitchen to check on our food. He didn’t know I was coming until I was upon him and when he saw who I was, there was the briefest flash of uh-oh on his face. Like exasperation, but without the hackles. Another customer coming to complain about the food, or the service, both of which he knew to be bad.
“What happened back there?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“That was a rough dining experience,” I said.
I walked him through it all, and he nodded. He had stopped with the cardboard. He was listening carefully.
“ So what happened?” I asked at the end of it. “This place used to be really fantastic. Are you guys just having an off day?”
He shook his head. Weight in his shoulders, pushing him down.
“No,” he said. “Honestly, man, it’s just like this now.”
He walked me through it. The new, absentee owners. The cheap remodel. The head chef quitting. The fact that the manager was considering cutting the food off the menu altogether, which meant the remaining chef was on borrowed time, which didn’t bring out the best in him. Hard to be a server who cares when every piece of food you walk out of the kitchen is either going to be sent back or complained about, so, there went the rest of the staff.
He spooled it off like an intensive care nurse. The sickness. The complications. Everything but the time of death, which was yet to be announced but seemed inevitable after a glance at the yelp reviews for the place, which were spattered with vehemence and grief like my three-block walk.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
And we stood there behind the dying restaurant, next to the overflowing garbage, feeling sorry for one another. Somewhere between “what happened back there?” and “I’m really sorry,” I realized that everyone that I was burning my hands to harm, was already carrying some coal of their own. That the whole building was smoldering with it.
I shook the server’s hand and wished him well. I made my way back up that twinkling street on that blustery morning, thinking that there were worse things in this world than eating at a bad restaurant. Namely, working at one.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.