Thursday at noon, I leave work to pick up my husband after his doctor’s appointment. We only have one car which is enough since one of his medications causes unexpected dizziness that does not mix well with driving — so, he doesn’t.
I suggest we grab lunch before I take him home but only if it’s fast because I need to get back to work soon.
He suggests a local Latin fast-food restaurant. Not my favorite. Most of the food is mediocre and service is unpredictable. But, their black beans and rice are decent enough and he likes the steak sandwich. Our local colleges are on summer break so chances are good there won’t be a crowd. Plus, the restaurant is nearby. I accept his suggestion and drive to the Latin cafe.
The fact that there were two open spots in the parking lot suggests the July lunchtime crowd is light.
We are shocked to walk in the door and see no empty tables. Even the individual chairs for those waiting for take-out are full. There are a few unoccupied tables outside but the temperature is 94 degrees with humidity also near 90. Not the perfect atmospheric conditions for dining al fresco.
Typically, when we enter that establishment, a server greets us and tells us to sit wherever we want. But, no one approaches. We stand awkwardly for about three minutes and still aren’t greeted.
“I can’t see if anyone is at the very back table,” my husband says. “I’m going to walk back there. I’ll try to see if any of the other people look like they are about to leave.”
He meanders between tables, eyeing plates to determine how close to empty they are. I continue standing, alone and un-greeted.
As he approaches the back table, a couple rises to leave. My husband waves me back.
We sit at the small table crowded with dirty dishes, happy to have seats and willing to wait for the table to be cleaned. Two, three, four minutes pass. I anxiously look at the time on my phone then reach for a menu to distract myself from the minutes ticking by. Servers scurry about but no one approaches us.
After a seven-minute wait, a female server walks up, scowling. “Please leave the table,” she says tersely.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I ask, thinking I misunderstood her.
“Leave the table. You can’t sit here,” she replies indignantly.
“Why not?” I ask.
“There is a wait list. There are people waiting for this table,” she replies frowning at me.
“What wait list? I didn’t see a wait list.”
“Well, there is one.”
“I stood at the front for five minutes and no one told me there was a list. In fact, no one greeted me. My husband finally came back here looking for a table,” I say defiantly, my annoyance evident.
The server squares her shoulders as she reaches for the menu in my hand. “You can’t sit here. You have to be on the list. I can put you on the list.”
I reply, “We’ve already been here fifteen minutes and I need to return to work. Where are all these people waiting for this table? No one was standing in the front but us.”
“In the to-go chairs,” she answers, waving her hand in the direction of the to-go area, “They are all sitting in the to-go chairs.”
Determined not to give up without a fight, I say, “How would we know that? No one greeted us. No wait list was visible. No one appeared to be waiting for a table. And, in all the times we’ve been here, there has never been a wait list.”
“Please leave the table,” she growls, ignoring my question.
My husband reaches for my hand, encouraging me to stand and leave without making a scene.
“Better luck next time,” the server says smugly, as she begins to clear the table for someone on the mysterious wait list.
As my husband steers me quickly to the front, I manage, with difficulty, to keep my tongue.
But, without a doubt, there will not be a next time.
As unhappy as I was about the surly attitude of the server, that is not why I won’t return. A rude or disappointing server is not a reason by itself to avoid a restaurant, but it is a warning that there may be a more serious underlying problem — a management problem.
The fact that we were not greeted was a problem.
The fact that there was a wait list that was not posted or offered is a problem.
The fact that we’ve had other past problems (consistently incorrect to-go orders being the chief one) is a problem.
The fact that the establishment is small — maybe twelve tables inside and four outside — and the wait staff is large — usually ten or more servers at any given time — is a problem. Often I have been there when the servers outnumber the occupied tables two to one. This hints of inefficiency at some level. With such a large wait staff for a relatively small number of tables, someone should be able to handle incoming customers even at a busy time. During slower times, servers are often talking behind the counter and need to be interrupted to accept payment for a meal or to take a to-go order.
A lack of parking and a poorly designed drive-thru window/line are two other problems that are probably not remediable but still annoying.
And, lastly, the food is mediocre. It used to be better — never great but better — but the quality and taste declined over the last few years.
And, all of this is a shame. Our city does not have many Latin restaurants. It is also sad because this cafe could be so much better— food and service — if management would make some basic changes.