Yesterday I ruminated on the second type of Waiter Nightmare: Real Life. I was having trouble recalling my worst ever.
Sure enough, as I lay in bed, relaxation set my mind free and I recalled a fateful night some fifteen years ago.
It was Christmas Eve at the Fish House in Southern California. The Fish House was a large, high-volume restaurant in a populous, well-to-do city. This was also at the early stages of what I call “the breakdown of society”, where in lieu of traditional values like family time together gathering around the kitchen and participating in (creating together) the ritual of preparing the meal, people opt to meet in a restaurant, have others make it for them, and go home drunk to pass out.
No one wants to work Christmas Eve. Do you? Well, that Christmas Eve, everyone from servers to cooks to bussers to bartenders to managers, all the people with seniority (or just a screw-you-attitude), had finagled to get the night off, a Friday. At the Fish House we had a skeleton crew, and I’m not talking a human skeleton. I’m talking like a trout skeleton.
Add in that the managers, trying to squeeze profit knowing we would be closed the next day, had trimmed their food orders from the purveyors severely. They wanted as little as possible sitting in the restaurant to spoil. Also factor in that the intervening week would be slow until New Year’s Eve, the blockbuster of the year. Their idea was to save all deliveries until Dec. 30.
As I said, this was the burgeoning of the “breakdown of society” era in the ’80s. Ten years earlier, on Christmas Eve restaurants might be closed, or else have light business. But business had improved year after year. So we were open.
Well the people came early without reservations. And they came on time for their prime reservations. And they came late. And they kept coming even later, in groups of six and eight and ten, as the families gathered their kin from the airports. Us waiters were used to five-table stations. We were running seven, and if someone felt like he could maybe handle more, the manager would give him another.
Of course first we ran out of prime rib. You’re used to that. ‘Sorry, folks. It takes hours to cook a prime rib and it’s all sold. There’s lots of halibut, though. And of course we always have our New York steak!’
But as they kept coming and coming, we ran out of everything. We ran out of salad! A restaurant that boasted 20 different fresh fish had just trout and red snapper! The ol’ NY steaks were gone by 8 p.m. The appetizers? They were the worst nightmare, as a lot of them also were made upstairs in the bar at the ‘Oyster Bar.’ So you take the order, rush back to see if we have it in the customary downstairs pantry . . . No! So you rush upstairs to see if they have an order to sell . . . No! (or Yes!, it didn’t matter – it was a nightmare).
The service bartender downstairs (dining room) was a hell of a gal. She would help out however she could, running food, making a salad for you. But it also turned into a nightmare because she’d be gone running food when you needed drinks.
Then she would run out of a liquor – like Jack Daniels. You know there’s enough Daniels in the restaurant to serve David Lee Roth for a year, but there’s no manager around to get in the liquor room. So you don’t eat it and tell the table we’re out. You run to the bar upstairs again and have them pour you one. For one F’n’ drink!
Well all that would have been fun (seriously – it’s cool when you weather a major storm and come out alive), but then the kitchen – remember? they’re understaffed just like everybody else? – went down.
I might just be an asshole waiter, but it’s always been hard for me to understand how the kitchen can ‘go down.’ The Fish House is where I formulated this opinion.
I mean, the ticket comes up, say “Bass – Broiled; Mahi – Blackened.” So you put a Seabass on the grill, and dredge a Mahi-Mahi in cajun spice and put it on the flat-iron. Do it now, because it just came up.
At this point you could do nothing for ten mintues but smoke a cigarette, drain your lizard, and stare at the ceiling. And guess what? You’d come back and those fish would be cooked. Why are you telling me the fish I ordered 30 minutes ago won’t be ready for another 15 minutes? There’s open space on your grill! Put some F’n’ fish on it!
So I was a lot more hot-headed in my younger days.
But that was what happened.
I had a six-top walk out because it took 1.5 hours for their dinners. We comp’ed other tables, who stayed, for the same reason.
It could have been worse, but this was a corporate place. Corporations encourage/require servers to refer complaints to the managers. Believe me, I followed the letter of the law. I, personally, dodged a lot of the flak. Of course, the kitchen breaking down is rarely the waiter’s fault (it can be), but if there’s no manager/owner there, the guest will blame whoever is handy.
I recall I still made $200 or so that night, which was exceptional for that restaurant and for that time.
But when I was finished, even though I wanted nothing more than to go upstairs and have a couple of Root Beer Long Island Teas (I wasn’t a manly-man martini-drinker back then), I jumped in my ’79 Honda and headed home.
My family was waiting.