Tuesday, January 10, 2012


S0... after the surprise party about which I wrote yesterday, we had arranged to go out for a birthday dinner with our friends Sharon and Donald, and had chosen Campanile because it is on La Brea, not far from the gallery where we planned to end the festivities of the day. It had been quite some time since we had last eaten there. We do not go out to eat very often these days and, when we do so choose, we do not usually opt for the more expensive restaurants. We knew that dinner at Campanile would set us back a bit; but after all it was Ellie's birthday, no?

Well, it's no pleasure to write bad reviews. Does it contravene the Buddhist principle of Right Speech, I wonder, to write negative comments about a dining experience? Is it important to tell the truth? Or better to remain silent? In this case, "The Buddha Diaries" exercises the right to tell the truth. So here goes, our "Fawlty Towers" experience...

The first sign of trouble came with the choice of wines. Our waiter dutifully--as required, I'm sure--recited the list of excellent wines "we have just recently tasted," sparing us never a hint of raspberry or peach, nor the lingering aftertaste of chocolate flavors complicated with tinges of coconut. I tend to respond negatively to the pretensions of the wine connoisseur, but this was pretension carried to absurdity. We resisted the temptation to giggle and inquired, politely enough, about the cost of these elixirs. Two hundred fifty, three hundred dollars a pop. The least expensive of the house recommendations, as I recall, was a mere one hundred and twenty. We consulted, instead, the wine list and found, buried amongst its more expensive siblings, a merlot that would have sold in a decent wine shop for, say, fifteen plus dollars, but retailed here for more than forty. Ah, well, it's an expensive restaurant...

Okay, we ordered. Salads and--we were thankful for this, because pasta plates are generally more than we can reasonably eat--appetizer portions of a variety of pastas. The salads arrived, a bit precipitously we thought, in the hands of a pair of sub-waiters, who had no idea which one of us had ordered what. A game of musical salads ensued, which would have been amusing had this not been, I remind you, an expensive restaurant. Incredibly, exactly the same performance was repeated with the arrival of the pasta dishes...

A sous-manager arrived at our table to inquire if everything was to our satisfaction. We exchanged glances across the table: the food was for the most part fine--not great, actually, but okay, except for Ellie's salad, which she had to send back because it was so salty that even I, a salt addict, could not eat it. But should we tell the truth, or go ahead and enjoy our meal? We decided, unwisely, on the truth. This, we believed, would surely be what a good manager would want to hear, in order to improve things for other patrons in the future. We started to explain. Now a full-fledged manager arrived, as if summoned by telepathy. The two of them listened to our remonstrations--polite enough, on both sides. Not a huge deal. They nod, we imagine gratefully, and leave.

Next thing we know, our waiter is at our table-side in great distress, wanting to know why we were so dissatisfied with his service that we had complained to management--and incidentally creating a scene that was acutely embarrassing in the presence of fellow diners at the neighboring tables. Did I mention that this was an expensive restaurant? That the manager had passed on our complaints to the waiter--this was not about him, but about restaurant policy and training--and left him to return to publicly question us was, we thought, ungracious and inappropriate in the extreme.

Do I sound like a snob? I hope not. But I do want to be treated honestly and with respect, for both my intelligence and my pocket-book. We could not but feel sorry for the poor waiter, whose part in this whole fiasco was a relatively small one. And in a less pretentious eatery, obviously, there would not have been an issue. A supposedly sophisticated restaurant in a major urban center like Los Angeles, though, should surely have handled this matter with more aplomb, and would have made some effort to compensate for their patrons' less-than-gratifying experience. When time came for dessert and we declined, our waiter told us after the fact that this was a pity because they were going to "to buy us one." He might have mentioned this when he brought the dessert menus. No consideration, either, when the bill came. Had I been the manager, I would have insisted on some concrete gesture of apology. A deduction for the wine, for example, would have allowed us to leave feeling we had been treated with concern for our patronage.

Is all this important enough to have explicated in such detail? Looking back at what I've written, it all looks a bit trivial in retrospect. But it seems to me that a good restaurant that asks high prices for its fare should want to maintain its reputation, for both the quality of its food and the graciousness of its service. That, after all, is what we customers pay the big bucks for, and what brings us back again. If I were Campanile, I would consider it a gift to be taken seriously enough to warrant such a write-up.

Also, a stone for the day...

Soon the telephone
will ring. Soon the niece
will arrive from England
at the airport. And the bird
perched on the eucalyptus tree
will take flight, soon,
into the California sky.


Anonymous said...

beautiful poem to end a less then perfect birthday dinner description.
We are lucky to have many restaurant choices that not returning to an annoying one is easily accomplished.

happy birthday Ellie, thanks for stopping by on your birthday night.

hugs, Stuart

Faith said...

Ah, this brings back memories from 20+ years ago of a dinner at one of Boston's finest and most expensive restaurants (paid for by a business associate of ours, as a celebration of some good news). When our main meal came, all three came out at once, on huge plates with silver domes atop. Our waiter bore two of them, the maitre d' brought the third. They set them down before us, and with an unspoken signal between the two, in unison they raised the domes from our plates with a grand flourish -- only to find that my meal and my husband's were swapped. A gasp from the waiter, a panicked swap of the plates and a profuse apology followed on as quickly as they could make it happen. They were mortified, we were amused. But as you say, that's the sort of thing one expects in a fancy, expensive restaurant...