The waiting game: Restaurant service continues to be a hot topic, especially since folks with fewer dining dollars want to spend their money somewhere, anywhere, that doesn't treat them like dog poop on the bottom of a shoe. Although the service was just fine at Chautauqua Dining Hall (see review above), two recent reports make me think that some eateries need to consider whether they want to attract repeat customers. After all, just because a place is busy now doesn't mean it always will be.
The first incident occurred at Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue), an immensely popular, if uneven, French eatery that often has lines out the door on weekends. On the Friday in question, Kathryn Works, a Denver woman who owns her own lobbying firm, showed up for her 5:30 p.m. reservation with a client; she told the manager, Scott Kennedy, that she would need the table for a while in order to conduct business. Without getting too much into the "he said, she said" nature of this messy story, the crux seems to be that Works was seated at a four-top rather than a table for two (Kennedy says the lobbyist insisted on it) and was still there three hours later. At 8:30 p.m., with a line of would-be diners still waiting, Works and her guest were asked to leave the much-needed table. Kennedy says he offered to move the pair to a two-top and buy them dessert; Works insists they were told they had to leave and were not given a chance to order dessert at any table.
Both versions of the story agree on one point: Works and her client left in some form of a huff. But Works and Kennedy both feel like the wronged party. "Our policy is that we try to feed as many people as we can, and we had people who wanted to come in and eat," Kennedy says. To which Works replies: "There were a hundred other ways they could have handled this, and they didn't use any of them. I told them from the start that I needed to be there for a long time, and I told them I'd make it worth their while. If they couldn't accommodate us, they should have told us that from the start."
Over at Pete's Kitchen (1962 East Colfax Avenue), a quintessential Denver dive that serves diner-style food into the wee hours, competition for a table can be intense. Like Le Central, Pete's often has lines out the door on weekends; reader Scott Womack complains that as a result, parties are asked to leave the second their plates are cleared. An employee who asked to remain anonymous confirms this: The restaurant's policy is to get people out of there quickly so that more can be seated, she says, and if diners don't want to leave, the doorman is called in to take care of things.
While I can understand such a lack of decorum at a place like Pete's, I was totally baffled by Le Central's attitude. To make sure I hadn't lost my mind, I called John Imbergamo, a local restaurant consultant who's my go-to guy on questions of eatery etiquette. "The easy answer for a situation like this is that there is no easy answer," Imbergamo says. "I'd say if the diners are taking up space way beyond reason, a restaurant would not be out of line to ask them to go to the bar and have a drink or dessert on the house. But it would be insane for a restaurant to do that if they knew ahead of time, if these people had announced from the start that they were going to be a while."
Consummate diplomat Doug Fleischmann, host and co-owner of Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue), agrees. "I can't even imagine asking someone to leave a table in a nice restaurant," he says. Because Mizuna is so small, Fleischmann tries to avoid any potential for conflict by allowing two hours per table -- the law of averages almost always works, he says, since some people take only an hour and a quarter, while others stay closer to three -- and by booking only deuces for two people and four-tops for four. "Sometimes people request bigger tables, but I tell them it's our policy and why," he explains. "They're always fine with that. But I have had people waiting at the door wanting to know why we don't ask people dining to leave when they're obviously done, and I politely explain that we can't do that."
Because at a nice restaurant like Mizuna, there's an unspoken rule that you treat diners as courteously as you would guests. Says Fleischmann, "It's like you're in my house, and you're welcome to stay as long as you need."
According to Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) owner Corky Douglass, another host extraordinaire, the responsibility "really lies with the person taking reservations or greeting at the door," he says. "No one should ever feel rushed, and it's up to management to make sure that doesn't happen."
Before he'd ever ask diners to abandon a table, Douglass adds, several criteria would have to be met: "The patrons would have to be completely finished with the meal, the bill would have to have been paid, and the people would then have to have been sitting there for at least 45 minutes after all of that had been done for me to even consider thinking about doing something. And I would have to be really pressed or pushed into having to make a decision like that.
"The key," he concludes, "is to avoid ever even being in that situation."
Guy talk: How long you should be able to claim a table isn't the only question readers are asking. Robyne, who requested that I not use her full name, wanted to know when "guys" became acceptable server-speak for all genders. "'Hey, guys, are you ready to order?' and 'Hey, guys, how is everything?' is very annoying," she wrote. "And even more so in proportion to the cost of the meal. I appreciate the casual atmosphere of most local restaurants, but not the 'familiar' attitude of the staff." A week later, Andrea Frank voiced a similar concern. "Whatever happened to some semblance of respect when someone is paying upwards of a hundred bucks a person?" she asked. "I was in a pretty upscale Denver restaurant last night, and the server kept calling us all 'guys.' We were five women who spent $500 on food and wine, and we were very put off."
Deborah McDaniel had her own criticism of server-speak: "I'd like to tell all servers that if you think I'm finished with my meal, please do not ask me, 'Are you still working on that?' I come to a restaurant to dine. Dining does not equal work. A simple 'Are you finished?' or 'May I take your plate?' would suffice."
On these matters, I didn't even need to call answer-man Imbergamo. "Guys" is only appropriate at a truck stop. "Are you still working on this?" makes it sound as though getting through a restaurant meal is akin to childbirth. I wouldn't cut a place from my dining list because of either server-speak infraction, but I sure wouldn't think very highly of its management.
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Win-win situations: If the Olympics have you hungering for more competition, consider these culinary events. On March 2, Westword's very own Steel Chef Competition joins the lineup at the sixth annual Artopia, an event that fills the Temple Events Center (1595 Pearl Street) from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. with art exhibits, a fashion show, live music, and food and drinks from local eateries. The Steel Chef challenge will pit area chefs -- including Frank Bonanno of the aforementioned Mizuna, Matt Selby of Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake Street) and Sean Yontz of Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street) -- against each other in an Iron Chef-like format, with members of the media and Johnson & Wales University faculty serving as judges. Tickets are $40 in advance, $45 at the door; visit artopia2002.com or call 303-777-6887.
On March 4, chef Victor Matthews will host his first Champion de Cuisine from noon until 6 p.m. at the Hospitality Expo at the Broadmoor Hotel (1 Lake Avenue, Colorado Springs). Matthews, who is brilliant and probably a little crazy, owns the Black Bear Restaurant in Green Mountain Falls (10375 Ute Pass Avenue, in case you're in the neighborhood), which is too far away for my tastes. Eight chefs -- most from the southern part of the state -- will join in his competition, creating dishes based on secret ingredients that will be revealed as they go along. Although it's all a little exclusive and doesn't involve any chefs from Denver (Cook Street School of Fine Cooking chef Michael Comstedt is one of the judges, though), the event still promises to be a wild ride for foodies.
And I'll bet no one will be asked to leave.