Monday, February 22, 2010

Caught Unawares

It was last Tuesday night, the day after a decent snowfall that left the streets muddy, slippery, challenging to navigate. With only forty on the books, we all expected a slow night and accordingly, one of us was cut from the start.

It took awhile for anyone to get a table. Bored, Andy and I picked at the leftovers of family meal sitting on the chest freezer downstairs. "I feel like I'm snacking at the buffet table on a movie set between takes," I joked with him. After a couple of minutes of ruminative chewing and stacking plates into the dish rack, I brushed the crumbs from my hands and moseyed up the steps to the dining area.

A few tables trickled in and I took care of them. It was such a casual night. Because many people do not go out during bad weather I was able to give my couple of tables some extra attention, even bringing two different bottles of wine to a two-top so they could carefully sample before they decided on a white. But I think we all agree that when it's slow, it throws our game off. I know it does mine. I prefer the restaurant busy, not only because it makes time fly but also because it forces me to really concentrate; I make few if any mistakes when we're slammed. But this night was slow to start, and I wasn't as sharp and precise as I usually am. I was actually getting sleepy from the lack of activity. So of course, of all the nights he chooses to walk in and eat, it's this one. Sigh. Dammit.

He's one of the most important food critics in the city, if not the most important. We've been expecting him. He's already come in once, this is his second time, and then he'll dine one more time with us before writing his review. So I'm working my tables, doing my thing, and we actually get pretty busy for three servers. Cool, I think. It's gonna be a good night for us after all.

At the moment I have a four-top, a three-top, and two two-tops. In the throes of my three-top's entrees, the owner subtly beckons me over. "That's ______ ________ at forty-five," he whispers, referring to my three-top. I just look back at him, stunned, my face suddenly very hot. "I can't believe we missed him," he adds, shaking his head. Immediately my mind begins to race as I try to recall every minute of my interaction with them. Apps went out okay, entrees were timely, dishes went to the correct position numbers. I start to calm down a bit. Ooh-- I made a small mistake reciting the oysters but corrected myself at the table. They got their drinks. Everything went normally like it does at all of my tables. Of course they got the right drinks, and the steak and burger were cooked medium-rare, and he got his po' boy. Of course the food was timely; I fired the entrees right when I should have.

So the rest of the night, we all keep looking over at the table, kicking ourselves endlessly for not recognizing him. But damn him if he wasn't sneaky. He sat facing the wall (apparently just like he did the first time he came in) and barely looked at me the whole time I interacted with his table, opting instead to incline his head in my direction and look down at the table, assuming an attitude of concentration as I spoke. When I cleared their plates, what was left and what was consumed was of intense interest to the kitchen and the owners. I presented the plates for their inspection before racking them and was now being prompted and coached every time I was away from the table. We were all a little stressed out, Chef and I in particular, I thought.

When dessert time came around, I was told to feature a special digestif along with our sweets. They were impressed with the ingredients of the cocktail, but declined to partake, instead settling on two of our desserts. I punched in the order, dumbly messaging his name along with it, as we do with all V.I.P.s, as if that would matter now. And, as with the entrees, I was directed to show chef the remnants of the dessert plates for his professional scrutiny.

He paid. I was anxious for this moment. Maybe we were just wrong, we mistook him for someone else and we would all laugh at one other, relieved at the mistake."Look at the card," I whispered to the owner hopefully, for indeed, their was a different name on it.

He studied it quickly and handed it back to me. "He's using an alias," he answered with the quiet, self-disappointment of a detective who knows he's let his guy slip right through his fingers. The owner asked me to repeat his name back to him when I handed the card back, which I did. "Thank you very much, Mr. _______. Ladies, have a great night," I added.

The three of them were pleasant with me, a very nice and easy table. But I agonized about it for hours later. Was it better that I hadn't known? In a way it was. If I had known, I probably would've second guessed myself a lot and may have appeared stiff and nervous at the table. But most of the time I'm so busy that I don't have time to act weird with special guests.

One of the hostesses' jobs is to hand us little slips of papers, called chits. They have information on them explaining why they are V.I.P.s. But I'm always so busy that I can only scan them, stuff them in my apron pocket and try to remember to message V.I.P. to the kitchen so that they're aware. I don't treat them differently really. Often a manager or Chef will send something special to the table, but I always just try to be very cheery, knowledgeable, and prepared. A table should lack for nothing. Everyone's V.I.P. we try to keep in mind, and really, you never, never know who you're serving. Food bloggers and critics regularly dine with us, as well as countless people who read food blogs.

I had a table a couple weeks ago, a six-top, who proceeded to sit down and all pull from their purses a print out of an amateur review of our restaurant, probably something from Menu Pages or Yelp. And it doesn't matter that these people reviewing us aren't professional food critics. It doesn't matter that they think they're describing a consomme online, when in fact they have no idea of the actual definition of a consomme. Or that they're commenting on how much mayonnaise is in our dip or that the clams were too salty (our dip doesn't contain mayonnaise, nor is a pinch of salt added to our steamed clams). Amateurs and professionals alike are regularly critiquing restaurants and people read it like it's the truth.

So dinner went pretty smoothly with the critic that night, but I think I wish I had known. I would've made sure his experience was perfect. We're expecting his review to come out in a month from now, and I, like most of Manhattan, read his reviews regularly. I chose the restaurant for Valentine's Day dinner based on his review. I'm scared now to read what he'll write about us. He's coming in one more time. Can't I just have one more crack at him? I hope he's seated in my section again. I want one more chance.

No comments: