Sometimes, when a restaurant experience goes awry, it’s easy to tell what went wrong. The steak was overcooked. The service was lousy. The couple next to you spent the entire night talking loudly about vasectomies. In those instances, when you can pinpoint the problem, it’s usually possible for a restaurant to climb back into your good graces. Isolated deficiencies can be corrected and explained. The chef was just having a bad day; the offending waiter’s since been fired; you won’t sit next to the same couple twice.
Then there are those evenings when you meander into a restaurant and re-emerge as if lifted like a lobster from a boiling pot, those evenings when the restaurant has morphed into a swirling vortex of doom, when not just one or two things have gone awry but rather your whole existence seems to tumble into nothingness. These evenings don’t happen often, but when they do, they make an impression.
This past Friday, Carolyn and I went to the Food Market, a trendy new place which popped up recently in Hampden, in Northwest Baltimore. It was Carolyn’s birthday weekend, and we were in the mood for something special. We don’t go out often (it’s too much fun, at this early stage in our marriage, to cook on our own), but when we do, it’s an event. We spent the day poring over the online menu, haggling over which appetizers and entrees we’d choose, and trying to decide whether dessert was worth it, or if we’d go for a beer instead (we agreed to dessert and a stop at our local tavern on the way home).
Food Market, it turned out, was not cheap, but we were playing with house money: a friend had given us a gift card. This made the prospect even more tantalizing, especially since, after one look at the menu, we realized we’d have to use it all up in one go.
So we took the bus to Hampden for our 9 o’clock reservation. When we got there, it was packed—packed full of attractive, extremely well-dressed mostly youngish-looking people. Cool! Except I had worn a ratty pair of shoes, and Carolyn was wearing All-Stars. Oh well. They weren’t going to kick us out. We came through the doors and saw that the bar area was swarming with people. This was apparently the place to be on a Friday night. We’re hip! Hooray! Then we headed for the hostess. “Two for Ryan, please. Reservation for 9,” I said, trying to sound like a grown up. She seemed nice, the hostess, and told me, “OK, Mr Ryan, sir, I’ll check you in. If you’d just give me one second . . . .”
It was then that I saw the desperate gleam in her eye. Suddenly, a man dressed in black suede emerged from the crowd at the bar. He was clutching a glass of red wine. He was glaring at the hostess. “This is the most outrageous excuse for a restaurant I’ve ever been to,” were his first words. And he proceeded to complain, with utmost bitterness, about the deplorable state of his evening, all thanks to the Food Market, and that he was about five minutes away from forcibly ejecting some unlucky patrons from their seats, because it had been that long, oh yes that long indeed! The helpless hostess kept apologizing, but it was no use. He wouldn’t budge.
What a schmuck, I thought, cheerfully. Carolyn and I retreated outside, but before we could get out of range I did hear him shout out a forceful “Give us a goddamn table!”
“Who does he think he is?” I said to Carolyn, incredulous. Then, we realized that the Man in the Black Suede was not alone in his discontent. Others were emerging, red-faced, clutching their Gucci purses and furiously blinking their immaculately mascara’ed eyelashes. They were not happy, we could see. Thank goodness our reservation was for 9. Soon, the restaurant would be cleared out, we’d be alone, and paradise would be ours. It occurred to me that this was why classy people always arrived “fashionably late.” It wasn’t about fashion; it was about atmosphere. They didn’t want to deal with the Man in the Black Suede–I couldn’t blame them.
At 9:15, the beleaguered hostess led us to our table. The first thing we realized was that it was LOUD. I mean, like loud enough to drown out all conversation that wasn’t undertaken in Outside Voices. It was funny at first. It quickly became unpleasant.
We were seated very close to two adjoining tables. Like, very close. I could have easily reached over and snagged their silverware. The table on my left was occupied by a family of five: two parents, two grown daughters, one of whom was pregnant, and the pregnant daughter’s husband. This was not a happy table, it soon became clear. The patriarch, a huge, grizzled man, wasn’t saying anything. I really mean this: I do not believe he said a word the entire time. The son-in-law was worse, for, unlike the father, he actually spoke. And he would alternate between eating bites of food, staring at the ceiling (he did not impress us as a particularly intelligent individual), and absentmindedly patting his pregnant wife’s belly. We were so close he could have done the same to me.
We ordered our appetizers, our enthusiasm dimming significantly. (We still couldn’t hear ourselves speak.) The waiter brought us some bread, which looked and tasted, Carolyn (accurately) decreed, like Pizza Hut breadsticks, except staler and without any flavoring to speak of. We ate them anyway because we were ravenous. Being fashionably late had its drawbacks.
For appetizers, we ordered Amish Pretzels (with cheese dip), Buffalo Pickles (“they’re just pickles that you fry,” our waiter had helpfully explained, looking almost as harried as the hostess), and Hot Nuts with duck fat and, according to the menu, a whole array of tasty spices. The cheese sauce was pretty good, though not readily distinguishable from ballpark nacho cheese, and the pickles were, well, they were positively delicious if you’re OK with paying six dollars for six pickle slices with some fried batter on them. The Hot Nuts tasted like they’d been cooked for a minute or two in oil. If there was duck fat in there, I couldn’t detect any. There certainly weren’t any spices.
We moved on to the entrees. I’d had my eye on the Bronzini, which is apparently Mediterranean Sea Bass, but Carolyn suggested, given how things had gone up to this point, that I stick with something more predictable. Seeing the wisdom in this, I ordered short ribs with mashed potatoes, which I figured would be impossible to screw up. Taking the same approach, Carolyn ordered steak and fries.
At this point, as we waited, somewhat apprehensively, for the main course to arrive, we saw a very large man in an apron stride out of the kitchen and engage in a heated conversation with someone who we’d earlier identified as the manager. The conversation continued for at least twenty minutes, while we pondered its significance. Was the fat man the chef? Had he given up? For that matter–if our earlier fare had been any indication of his talents–was he being fired mid-meal?
This was officially a disaster.
The entrees were pretty much what we’d expected. My short ribs came in a steaming pile of brown and beige sludge: a glorified pot roast. Carolyn’s steak, remarkably, was cooked to a nice medium-rare, but all good feelings evaporated when we tried her fries. Halfway through the meal—which had become a sprint to the finish—a runner came to our table bearing two onion rings on a platter. Apparently they were for me; the chef, or whomever the hell was back there, had forgotten they came with the short-ribs. I took a taste and questioned the wisdom of remedying this oversight.
At ten thirty we finally paid the bill, and one of the worst restaurant experiences of both of our lives was finally over. But on the bus home (able to hear ourselves once again), we cracked up laughing, time and again.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time a night out made a bigger impression on me. Maybe there’s something redeeming about a bad restaurant experience after all.