It was a dark and stormy night, and I was trying to figure out a restaurant that was a suitable place for my family, my nephews, and my parents to eat dinner. It was a school night, so reasonable quickness was an issue. My parents do not at anything that may possibly have been stored in the same cabinet as a grain of pepper in 1999, so no Chinese, Indian, Thai or Mexican. Rob and I are carbophobic, which makes it hard for us to make good choices at places like “Oodles of Noodles.” The kids needed something fairly simple, which made it unwise to eat anywhere with “creative” soups or plating involving a swirl of cardamom oil. I refuse to eat at The Olive Garden, just because.
As if in a vision, the idea of a quick soup-and-sandwich kind of place came to mind. My friend Ted recently conducted an informal poll on Facebook concerning whether Panera was “fast foood,” and the consensus with which I agree, is that it is “fast” but also ell prepared, and very healthy if one makes wise choices. Panera was a viable option, as was The Grand Traverse Pie Company, a more regional restaurant offering counter service and a wide assortment of freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches (with pie for dessert if you aren’t me. I remember it fondly). I like both of these places a great deal, but since I had never tried the third option, McAlister’s Deli, I asked my mother if we could eat there. New horizons and all that.
The take-home message here, is that new horizons are to be avoided at all costs. Oh, the humanity! The place was unprepossessing as restaurants go, resembling most closely a sports bar with the “bar” and “sports” removed. This was not a big deal when dining out with assorted children; we had not been expecting Philipe Stark furniture and a chandelier. We were greeted at the counter by one of the two high-school aged women who were the only visible employees, both of whom elevated sullenness to an art form. We gave our orders to the blonde (hereinafter “the blonde”) who was clearly not happy to see a party of 7 that included children, drummed her fingers on the counter when orders were not forthcoming quickly enough, and asked questions in a way that indicated that, if you had not memorized the intimate details of their menu, you should probably go home and study. To whit: I requested a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with a slice of Havarti, dry. “You mean you want the ‘Be Choosey?!'” she asked in a tone that was the equivalent of “Duh.” Apparently I did, but I had tragically failed to distinguish between the “Be Choosey” and the flashier options, say, the “Smoked Turkey.” The side choices were kind of a problem for the carb-challenged; I could choose from chips, potato salad, mashed potatoes, “seasonal fruit,” or cole slaw. The menu on the internet includes steamed vegetables, which I did not see at the restaurant (possible my bad, maybe because I felt compelled to order as if giving a recitation at the closing ceremonies of the Evelyn Woodhead Speed Reading Course) and a side salad could be had for an additional $2.50. I ordered the fruit, figuring that I would give it to the kids. After all, I reasoned, I’d get a big sandwich and it would be a light, filling dinner. I even considered the fact that if, like Panera, the bread was too thick for my carb intake, I’d have to open the sandwich and pull out some of its insides. I needn’t have worried.
As the food was brought to the table, it became apparent that no human was actually cooking anything. My son and nephew received bread bowls, one filled with soup, and one with chili. When Sam, who really isn’t a complainer, told us that the bread was stale, we all took a taste and agreed that it probably was not actually “stale,” but “bad bread;” it was the kind of airy, flavorless bread that is often euphemistically labeled “Italian” at grocery stores. It did not have, if you’ll forgive me, the cojones to stand up to a ladle of hot liquid, and our kids, who have had terrific bread bowls elsewhere (again, Panera comes to mind) were bitterly disappointed that they could not, or rather would not enjoy the ritual eating of chunks of soup-soaked bread as part of their meal. When my mother called one of the employees to the table to let her know that Sam was unhappy with his bread bowl, (we’ll call this one “the brunette”), she looked skeptical, said she was “really sorry,” and walked away. It later occurred to me that she was presented with a customer service conundrum that perhaps exceeded her experience or interest level: when you have made an error in the kitchen, you can offer to replace the food with an improved version. When your food is just not good, there isn’t a lot you can do by way of an upgrade. (Gift card to Panera, perhaps?)
My sandwich was a small portion of turkey and a slice of Havarti on store-bought whole wheat bread. I tried to make it last, but there really just wasn’t much to work with. The “seasonal” fruit tasted as if it had previously been jarred or canned; at the very least it had been mixed together a long, long time ago. Although my young nephew, accustomed to school food, found it acceptable, my suggestion would be that “seasonal fruit” in Michigan in October would best be represented by a fresh, crisp apple. Grapes, pineapple, and whatever the smushy bits were are rarely, if ever, in season in these parts. My mother had a sandwich that was either corned beef or pastrami, from half of which I ate the meat and cheese because I was really, really hungry. It was beyond undistinguished; in fact my inability to tell whether it was pastrami or corned beef should say it all. Her sandwich, like mine, was he size of a particularly grand commemorative postage stamp.
The best meal award goes to my older nephew, who was smart enough to order a potato microwaved with bacon and cheese on top. It’s hard to mess that up, and the blonde and the brunette had, in some combination, assembled and nuked it with great culinary flourish. The worst meal was Rob’s. He ordered the aptly named “Nasty” sandwich (actually “The Nasty;” I just report this stuff) which, according to the menu, was tender pieces of roast beef, gravy and cheese on an open-faced sandwich. Not my thing, but, done right, his dream come true. It was a horrific mess of what appeared to be a can of “Beefy Gravy” Alpo flung on a flaccid hoagie roll, with shredded cheese melted on top in the microwave. It most closely resembled school food at its most punitive, and although Rob ate it because we were all really quite hungry, he was not happy. His parting words to me on leaving the alleged restaurant was that he was “going to get some dinner.” This is not the parting thought dreamed of by most restauranteurs.
In summary: the service was unpleasant, and there was no visible adult management. A legitimate complaint (from a very cute kid, I might add) was met with thinly veiled contempt. The food was not fresh, not good, and not sufficient. If yopu have had a better experience, I’m all ears.
My mother called this morning to complain about the meal (since she and my father had also stopped for dinner on the way home from dinner) and an apologetic manager offered to send her some gift cards as an apology. In her most polite and Wellesley way, she thanked him, but told him that he needn’t send the gift cards, because she would never eat an McAlister’s again.
You’ve been warned.