Here’s the question: if you have been to a restaurant many times in the past and had excellent food, and then you have a clunker meal, do you write it off on the basis that everyone has a bad day, or do you take the stand that a really good restaurant doesn’t have a bad day? Does it make a difference if there was more than one problem, making it harder to say “it was just a new waitress” or “maybe the kitchen was slammed?” Do you see the experience as a possible sign of decline, and think twice before choosing where to eat there again?
During my most recent trip to Florida, we had lunch one day at The Owl Cafe. I can honestly say that I had never had a bad meal at The Owl, that their menu is stimulating and well-executed, that their waitstaff is generally intelligent and attentive, that their rooms are elegant in a spare and welcoming way, and that (and this is a huge deal for me) they are exceedingly good to my parents, who are regular customers during their annual stay in Florida. I have eaten dishes at The Owl that have a special spot in my heart – the Lump Blue Crab Cakes Benedict and the Oyster Po Boy, for example.
On our most recent visit, however, it was as if the restaurant was temporarily possessed by evil (or maybe just not very smart) aliens. In place of the usually astute and interesting waitstaff, we had a very pleasant, but clueless waitress who would have been more at home at The Waffle House. She could recite what was on the menu, but was clearly not trained in the way typical of Owl staff to make good suggestions, talk wine pairings or figure out how a dish might be modified to be eaten by a child or someone on a restricted diet. These are not hanging offenses, but they were shocking in the context of this particular establishment, where I have never been served by anyone who didn’t seem to have a deep interest in and understanding of the food and wine offerings. Also, I have to admit that I am kind of a snob (this will not come as a shock to my regular readers) and that the back-and-forth that’s possible with a well trained wait-person is part of the pleasure I derive from meal in a good restaurant. I have nothing against the lack of polish of a small town diner waitress, and I don’t expect the person who takes my order at Taco Bell to engage me in a discussion about Merlot or chevre, but I do think fine dining waitstaff should know their stuff and come across as a good resource.
We all ordered, and I chose the Shrimp, Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, over rice. I noticed that the menu specified that this was a “mild” version (possibly in an attempt to avoid damage to the Prilosec Generation) but I asked if mine could be made spicier. The waitress assured me that it could. My mother ordered the Sauteed Mushrooms and Vegetables over a grit cake, my dad requested the Prime Rib Roast sandwich, and Sam went with an interesting special offering of chili dogs made with Boarshead hotdogs, house-made chili and bakery rolls. Then we waited, and waited and waited for such a long time that I feared that we would need to add Sam’s graduation dinner to the order despite the fact that he had just turned 12. A long restaurant wait is never a peak life experience, but if one is having a relaxed meal with peers and there is lots to talk about and free-flowing alcohol, it can become a pretty okay part of the occasion. Not so much when you are dining with a hungry kid, two exhausted senior citizens and you, yourself, are positively twitching to eat lunch and get back to the beach.
Strike three was my jambalaya, which was pretty and well-prepared except that it was completely un-spicy. I wasn’t looking fore blow-your-head -off, and I honestly would have understood (and changed my order) if the waitress had returned and told me that the chef really had an investment in preparing the jambalaya a certain way and felt that it would not represent his work well if he changed it. I was, however, expecting a little bite, and there was absolutely none. It was competent, but not what I asked for, which means either that the waitress failed to communicate or the chef failed to comply. Not great either way. I will say, however, that my dad’s lunch looked and tasted great, Sam was happy, and the grit cake that came with my mother’s sauteed vegetables and mushrooms was to die for. Since she doesn’t eat much, I actually ended up abandoning the dull jambalaya and snarfing her meal, which was delicious.
So, they had a bad day. None of us died, I’m happy to report, and three out of four of us ended up eating quite well. (Well, four out of four since I ate my mother’s lunch). Here’s how I’ll solve my dilemma: to The Owl, I will say that they should be careful to maintain their typically high standards of service. I’ll be back, but I want to know that I’ll have the smart service and the great food quality I have come to expect over the years. To you, I will say: if you are in Apalachicola, eat at The Owl. Enjoy the great views out the big windows, order something besides the Jambalaya, and savor the interesting recipes and fresh, local ingredients that characterize their food. Did I fix it?