There is an unfortunate side effect that comes with a career in the hospitality industry: It can be difficult to enjoy yourself while dining out.
Thankfully, it’s only on occasion, but it probably happens far more frequently for those of us who work in restaurants than it does for the general population.
Whether it’s a celebratory dinner at a fine-dining establishment, or a quick lunch with friends at a fast-casual spot, we cooks and servers can easily get mired in noticing service or cooking missteps when we’re the consumers.
The opening salvos of a meal often determine whether I’m going to pick on everything that follows. Did a hostess just hold an index finger in the air, with her head down, while on her phone, as we approached her stand? Girl, no. Did a server just crouch, or sit down, next to me, casually placing a hand on my shoulder before listing the specials? Not cool. After that, all bets are off. Unless something spectacular happens later in the meal, I’m probably going to be making a mental list of even the smallest sins.
Here’s the rub. You have to try, as hard as you can, to keep these thoughts to yourself, lest it spoil the experience for your fellow diners. This is literally the cheapest polyester napkin I’ve ever seen, one might think. You manage not to say it aloud. Save it: There might be more disappointments to come.
I know this sounds mean-spirited. It’s involuntary, though. Again, the goal is not to let it affect your friends and family. Is everything on the $21 cheese plate just a different shade of brown? Do those shades of brown match the brown butt-ends of lettuce you found in your salad? Is this sauce broken? It’s possible. But keep that lip zipped, miss.
Don’t say the trout is overcooked. Don’t mention the veg is underdone. Don’t bring up the lumps in the potato puree (“That’s how you know they’re house-made!” someone at the table will always say.)
It’s a challenge! Challenge yourself to find everything good about the meal, ambiance and service. “He’s super friendly,” you might say about the squatting server. “I just love those light fixtures — look at that chandelier!” you might coo. Be honest without waxing negative.
It’s difficult as a restaurant worker to enjoy spending your hard-earned money to dine out. Whether it’s a hamburger or gyros joint, or at the hotel restaurant downtown (my god, the restroom was so far away from the dining room that they had to appoint someone to show me the way) — you have to try to let go of your prejudices and just let the meal unfold. Don’t dwell on the reality that “this is costing me four hours of my net pay,” or “next Tuesday, all my wages are paying for this chewy, overdone calamari.” Concentrate on the fact that you’re with your companions, which is a treat you enjoy far too infrequently.
Then, there’s that special, rare occasion when everything goes right. The food is spectacular, the service is stellar, you picked the restaurant, and all your friends give you kudos — and rightfully so! It’s worth slogging through the other three subpar meals you had dining out this month, and worth the money you’re parting with. You go home with that warm-tummy feeling, full but not overstuffed, and everyone keeps congratulating you for days afterwards — simply for making a good choice for the group.
Ninety-percent of the time when we dine out as industry workers, we enjoy our meals just fine. Almost no matter what, that meal beats the hell out of snarfing down a half-cup of cold leftover cheese grits on a 6-minute break, out back in the rain under a dripping awning — which is just about exactly how we get most of our sustenance. That, and a tiny, 10-for-$10 frozen pizza baked in 20 minutes in our own kitchen at midnight. Virtually none of us go home and make homemade pasta after work for ourselves. But we do love to dine out with you, our friends and family.
They say doctors make the worst patients. In that same way, cooks and servers can make the worst diners. Just know that when we’re out with you, we’re trying to enjoy your company, the food, the atmosphere and ourselves. So if I mutter “I can taste the flour in this gravy,” give me a pass, just this once.
I’ll try to be good after that.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.