One of the things that has been so nice to see in Mobile over the past couple of years is what can only be described as an explosion of new and exciting places to eat.
While I wasn’t born under an Azalea bush, I’ve been intimately acquainted with this area for more than 30 years, and can remember the days when things weren’t quite so inventive. Once upon a time the Quarter Pounder with cheese may have passed as haute cuisine. We’ve come a long way since.
That’s not to put down our tried-and-true culinary warhorses. I can’t live without regular trips to Dew Drop Inn, Heroes and Osman’s, to name a few. But particularly downtown, things have gotten really interesting. I’m sure there’s never been a time in the past 50 years there were as many restaurants inside the Hank Aaron Loop as there are now. And that’s not even counting the cool food trucks.
I can also remember a time when Red Lobster may have represented the culinary flagship of Airport Boulevard, but it too is now peppered with fine locally owned restaurants and small regional chains that have added a tremendous amount to what Mobile has to offer food lovers. I even had Filipino food in Spring Hill the other day, and though I really had no idea what it expect it was fantastic.
My curmudgeonly friend David Rasp — who owns three restaurants in this city — often jokes that if you don’t like someone you should encourage them to go into the restaurant business. The point he’s making is the hours are long and it ain’t always as easy as it looks. Making a great steak at home may not necessarily translate into being able to run a quality restaurant without developing a substance abuse problem or getting to know a bankruptcy attorney on a first-name basis.
But while competition may be getting tougher and tougher around town for those who dream of running a successful restaurant, it’s that kind of competition that makes for a great “food town.” Think about the truly amazing food cities — New Orleans, Chicago, New York or San Francisco, for example — bad restaurants don’t last very long.
I know when I lived in New Orleans, even the smallest hole-in-the-wall place needed to have a drop-dead good po boy or gumbo to survive. It was easy to walk into a new place and have lunch and tell if it would die quickly. Even if it was good survival wasn’t guaranteed.
This has to be as close to a culinary Renaissance as we’ve had in this area, and that’s a great thing. But — and as you know, there’s always a “but” — I’m not so sure the explosion of restaurants hasn’t made finding good wait staff more challenging than coming up with a better way to serve tiny radishes.
More than a few times lately I’ve visited newer restaurants and had service that was flat-out bad. Like get-up-and-leave bad. I’ve waited tables before, so I get that it’s a tough job and when you’re “in the weeds” sometimes things aren’t as great as you’d like them to be. But at least people in the weeds are trying. Lately I’ve been a couple of places where it seemed like not only had the wait staff not been trained properly, they may not actually have ever eaten in a restaurant before. (For the record, since I mentioned them earlier, the Filipino restaurant had impeccable service.)
Sometimes service can be bad enough to piss you off. Other times it’s so bad it becomes a show. I experienced the latter this past weekend.
Things were already kind of sketchy when we got to the restaurant and it took 15 minutes to get a glass of wine and even longer to get a TV behind the bar turned from “CSI: New Orleans” to the Auburn/LSU game. (Rookie move guys. It’s Saturday in September.) But once we got to the table things really got out of control.
The waiter had to be reminded several times about a bottle of wine, and then the person who brought it was unable to open it. She also brought an appetizer earlier and knew nothing about it, explaining that she was “new.” Throughout the meal the waiter would swoop by and just grab things off the table including a half-finished bowl of soup. As I tried to finish my dinner he walked up, reached for my plate and said, “Can I take this for you?” I replied, “Only if you want to get stabbed.”
Even so, it was all more mildly entertaining than irritating. Frankly it was so off the charts I was enjoying it. We saw one waitress sobbing behind the bar and wondered what that was about. Then we got to eavesdrop as the table next to us called over a manager and asked for a different waiter (our guy). Our waiter then offered the coup de grace by dumping an entire martini on top of a young woman at another table. She was not mildly entertained, nor was her boyfriend.
As we left I walked by another manager apologizing to a table for bad service, so the issue seemed rather systemic.
At another place a few weeks ago we had a waitress just set a bottle of wine down and walk way and she didn’t return for more than 30 minutes. That may have been the least of her issues.
I’m sure when I waited tables at Tony Roma’s (the place for ribs!!!!!) there may have been times my customers weren’t completely satisfied with my efforts. One guy consistently left me less than 20 cents as a tip. That could have been a sign. So I get that everyone has a bad night.
But with so many new restaurants coming into the market, those burgeoning Bobby Flays out there may need to spend as much time on the service end of things as creating a fantastic menu. It would be a shame to see some really fantastic restaurants not make it to legendary status because their staff isn’t up to snuff.