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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Today's uncomfortable shift from Driving to Dining.

It’s been months since I’ve written anything here because it’s winter….aka: the “Anti-Car” season. I’ve had little in the automotive world really rock my boat or get under my skin, so I’ll swing wide at another topic on which I have many strong, obnoxious opinions:


I’m not a “foodie” or a “Gourmand” or anything else so pretentious. I just goddamn LOVE food. All of it. All the time. Anywhere. I’ve spent enough time working behind the scenes in the food service industry to have some exposure to it’s nuts and bolts. No….I don’t watch the Food channel. Ever.  What follows is simply my own impression of a local eatery.

This week will mark my father’s 78th birthday and I decided to take him out for a fine dinner last night. The venue: “Brasserie 33” in Pittsburgh. As the name implies; it’s French. I loves me some French food.

The experience was jarring and disappointing from the very start to its rather fizzled FIN. What troubles me most is that I WANT this restaurant to do well. I want them to be the biggest thing since the Incline. I want them to THRIVE. And I know they can…..but there’s work to be done.

The food was reasonably good. The bread was some of the finest I have eaten in the United States. The staff was friendly… and that’s where the good stuff ended. It looked like it was their first day running a dining room. When the entrees average $24 to $32…I have certain rather reasonable expectations. It was a FAIL of Napoleonic proportions executed in a series of careless mistakes une demitasse. Inexcusable for a high end restaurant trying to survive in a city already saddled with the Nom “a culinary wasteland”.

1.   I attempted to make a reservation on-line via their website but noticed no confirmation or real time availability. Part of me was almost pleased with the lack of a slick, modern interface. This caused me some concern however, so I called them immediately afterward. I was told by a rather chatty employee that the owner isn’t very good at checking the incoming e mails for such things. She then proceeded to tell me about how a customer got extremely upset and caused a scene in the dining room the other night based upon this same issue. She asked me to provide my name, and upon hearing it, laughed out loud and said “ what? Wigwizer? That’s awesome”. I’ll admit it’s a weird last name, but REALLY honey….what if I was especially uptight about it, or a food critic? I would have hung up the phone, called your boss,  and had your ass in a sling toot sweet.

2.   Our reservation was for 7:30pm and I called at 7:20 to say we’d be about 7 minutes late. If they were busy, I couldn’t expect them to hold the table for us, so when we walked in, I wasn’t concerned. Like I said….I’ve BEEN in food service at restaurants of all levels of swank. I get it. Eye contact was avoided by the staff, until I walked up to a group of them and introduced ourselves as the 7:30 pair. We were told (presumably by the same person that took my reservation) that other members of the dining room staff don’t often honor reservations and that they have interpersonal / personnel problems with that rather frequently. We were offered a seat at the bar and drinks “on her”. In a moment of empathy for ANYONE that works in a kitchen environment, I almost said “No, don’t sweat it”. “I know how hard it is to hustle in this business” I thought. As it turned out: they weren’t.

3.   While seated at the bar, I watched a lumbering 250lb dining room employee arrange a pair of tables…over and over…and over again as if he’d never set up a dining room table before. He’d move a salt shaker….then stare at it like a stunned moose…then pick up a fork and slide it over…then stare at the table again. This went on for over 10 minutes. If there’s ONE thing I know about restaurant work, it’s that ECONOMY of MOTION is ESSENTIAL. For Christ’s sake Bluto…at least PRETEND to know what you’re doing and act with some fucking purpose! It was like watching a car wreck (note automotive content here!) He wore jeans and an untucked blue shirt and looked like he had just woken up on the couch at a friend’s house. The rest of the staff wore tidy and typical black and white attire…and I saw no other shirt tails.

4.   We were seated at a nice little table and handed single page menus. Mine was singed from a close encounter from a candle I assume.

5.   We were served food that was good. Very good in fact, but my father had a bowl of clams swimming in a fantastic broth…and there was no bread. I’ve been around enough Europeans to now that bread is as important as a napkin or utensils on a tablecloth. I asked for some bread for the table and was handed a basket with four (yes: FOUR) 10mm thick slices of bread that each approximated the diameter of a poker chip. I will add here again, that it was some of the finest bread I have eaten in North America. It was tremendous. I asked for another basket of the stuff and also if it had been made “in house”. Our server didn’t know.

What? Who HIRES these people?

6.   At the end of the meal, we ordered the requisite cups of Espresso and received one with thumbnail sized chips in the rim, no spoons, no sugar.

I will repeat my Mantra: I want this restaurant to do well. I want the owner to make bags and bags of cash. I want the food and service to be superb, cost be damned! I could overlook each and every one of the above flaws had the entrees been $16-20….but it you want to charge $30 a plate for your food, you simply MUST hire PROFESSIONALS to move it around the joint. You don’t allow them to discuss internal problems, confrontations, unprofessional behavior, or puke their personal problems on your clientele. You throw out chipped cups and burned menus…or at LEAST you NOTICE them.

To our server’s credit, she DID, at some rather extra effort provide my dad with a nice plastic storage container with which he could take his broth home. **ALL** of the staff were friendly and courteous to us. Often smiling and even putting a hand on my dad’s shoulder…which he so loved. I could tell.

Monsieur Hickey, if you want your business to succeed among folks with deep pockets and a taste for things NOT Primanti, you must school your staff in being professional and knowledgeable about the product they serve in your name.