Earlier this year, my father, sister, and spouse went out to celebrate my father’s 91st birthday on a Saturday afternoon. We chose a restaurant in Palo Alto that we enjoy very much, and it was quiet, with only a few tables taken.
The four of us – who don’t get together as a group that often – were having a wonderful time chatting. The conversation was lubricated by the fact that the same location had, back in our childhood, been the site of one of the first examples of what became known as the “food court” phenomenon. When my mother simply couldn’t bear the thought of cooking, we trundled over there. From where we sat in the 21st century, I could still see where, in the 20th century, the Chinese food, the hamburgers, and the Mexican food had been served. And I still vividly remember exactly where the candy stand was, with its colorful rock candy and other delicacies.
In fact, we were having such a great time that it was a while before it dawned on us that, even though we were in a restaurant, we hadn’t been served our entrees. It was kind of like that feeling you get on an airplane when you think you should have landed by now, and then the pilot comes on and announces your descent. Indeed, our food arrived a minute or two later, and the festive conversation continued.
Then the trouble started. After we’d eaten, the manager came over to our table and apologized for how long it had taken us to get our food. They were short-handed in the kitchen that afternoon, he explained, and apologized for not informing us of the problem. I dismissed his concerns, saying that we’d barely noticed and that we were having a good time. Even so, he insisted on comping our meal – giving it to us for free. Now, I understand the concept of not paying for a meal that you don’t enjoy – overdone, underdone, whatever. But why should I be comped for a meal I do enjoy? I tried arguing with him, unsuccessfully.
Fast forward to last Friday. While my spouse was off on her annual mother-and-daughters getaway, I went out to dinner with my friend Bob to another favorite restaurant, one of those chains known for its fresh fish. On the left side of the menu was a list of all the aquatic treats that were fresh, and it included Maine lobster, which I love, but don’t often splurge on. Having decided on that, I didn’t notice that the list of entrees included a stuffed lobster.
What happened, I believe, is that I ordered a lobster and the waitress thought I said the lobster, which, especially in a language as linguistically complex as English, can turn out to be a big mistake. But I subscribe to the Arthur Bach theory of restaurants, as so deftly
explained by Dudley Moore in Arthur: “A waiter works on the same principle as Santa Claus. You ask for things, and he brings them to you.:
When the entrees arrived, I sent mine back. I had a short discussion with the waitress, apologizing for the fact that even though English was my native language, sometimes I wasn’t entire successful with it. She insisted it was her error. To her credit, even though whole lobster wasn’t on the menu, she ordered one be steamed up for me. That’s a pretty daring thing to do, because you risk other diners saying, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
It was delicious, right up until the moment she said she’d be removing it (along with my dessert) from the bill. My current response to statements like this is “¿Que?”, patterned on the Spanish busboy Manuel in the old British TV series Fawlty Towers. His English was so bad that his response to almost everything was “¿Que?” These days I’m using it far too frequently, like Herman Cain for President: ¿Que? … The Colts are 0-6: ¿Que? … Comping me for a meal I enjoy: ¿Que?
If you’re going to comp someone, comp someone you’re in danger of losing as a customer, not a regular. I have a feeling, however, that comping gives wait staff a power that they don’t normally have in that transactional relationship. I bet it galls them to comp someone nasty, because that’s the person they really don’t want coming back. As Dear Abby once wisely said, if you want to understand someone’s character, watch how they treat people who can’t do them any good. When something goes wrong, and the customer is pleasant about it (as I always try to be, having been a busboy, also back in the 20th century), comping is their way of saying thank you.
But I still don’t like free food. Why? The economics of it offend me. First, if I like a restaurant, I don’t want it going out of business because it’s comping too many people. Second, when I do pay the bill, it means that I’m not only paying for my food but the food of the other people who got comped that month. And third, it’s really hard to figure out what the tip should be on an invisible tab, especially for something that’s not really on
the menu and for someone who flunked out of business school.
But the waitress was the one printing out the bill, and it was the one place she had power in the relationship. I had to take my free food and like it, dammit.