Saturday, January 26, 2008

the case against calle ocho

NH surprised me with opera tickets for Christmas. The opera in itself was a fun experience (his first time).

Dinner beforehand was rather another story. He made reservations at Calle Ocho, where a friend of ours had apparently enjoyed a buoyant and delicious evening or two. We arrived, and although we felt a bit over dressed in our opera attire (NH wore a suit, I wore a blue jersey dress over tights and heels), the place was pretty gorgeously designed and we were excited for our meal. Our waitress was sweet if a bit dull and wore a lovely pink top, which I complimented right off.

Things went well until we didn't order drinks with our dinner. After that, it was pretty much as though we'd fallen from grace. Having lost the monetary value of the tables that surrounded us (and really, there weren't that many-this was dinner before an 8 PM show) the waitress no longer deemed NH and I worthy of her attention. Her demeanor was suddenly, and obviously, colder. I sensed the reason right away, and over mediocre entrees (as with many trendy places, Calle Ocho likes to pile all of the dish's components on top of one another, this doesn't work so nicely when you stack mild salsa, lobster mashed potatoes and salmon) NH revealed that he two had noticed the change.

Now, it's not like I don't understand why tables who order expensive alcohol, or at least overprices bottles of fizzy water, are more valuable than those who don't. I can do the math, and I have handfuls of friends who wait tables, so I know the plight of a New York City waiter at least secondhand. On the other hand, a tip is a tip. Shouldn't a waiter make the best of any situation, especially in a half-filled restaurant? I can't help but think that it would have been smarter for the waitress to maintain her high standard of service, earning a generous tip on our slightly-smaller bill. We would probably have consumed less than 40$ of alcohol (the approximate cost of one pitcher of sangria, which would be too much for us anyway), so she would have lost a maximum of 8$ in tip money. This was an extravagant gift meal and NH and I try to be generous tippers, so she could have made most of that back by at least remaining friendly and treating us like guests rather than huge inconveniences.

By the time dessert rolled around, the waitress didn't even bother to ask if we wanted the menus, she just thrust them at us and wandered away without a word. My blood began to seethe, but it was already seven, so we ordered coffee and dessert without complaint and waited. The coffee never showed, and ten minutes after our desserts landed (both acceptable but not great, both involving rapidly melting ice cream), she deigned to appear and point out that our coffees had never arrived. At that point, we ordered the check. She, of course, hovered for it like a vulture.

The food could have been fantastic, and at this point, I would not have remembered. Luckily, it wasn't great so I wasn't left feeling that we missed an awesome experience by not scoring better service. I left Calle Ocho with a sour stomach, but worse, feeling utterly dejected. Our meal cost a lot and we deserved decent service, regardless of what we ordered. We treated our waitress like a human (becoming rare in the city, I know) and she treated us like a bad paycheck. Worse, we knew that if we tipped badly, she would feel validated in her choice to treat us badly.

In the end, we left her between 13-15% and left quietly. I would like to have spoken to the manager about her poor performance, but it wasn't worth ruining the rest of our night (we would have been late for the show). What would you have done?

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