My Fish Nightmare

When I eat out, I have high standards for food and service because eating is an experience I relish.  I’m most happy when I walk out of a restaurant feeling satisfied with my food and with a little spring in my step from the amazing waitress who was so efficient, so friendly and absolutely pro.  Sadly, I rarely get both good food AND service and too often I am blacklisting restaurants and adding them to my I’m-never-going-back SPAM list.  One recent restaurant that I had to add to the list was one that my family and I had loyally been frequenting for the last 13 years.  As I mourned the loss of a food relationship that ended so abruptly I asked myself whether food or service was more important to me. After all, those are the 2 components that make up a diner’s experience and I realised the following:

1. No amount of great service can make up for bad food.

2. No amount of good food can make up for bad service.


1. If food is mediocre but service is absolutely amazing, chances are I can look past the food hiccups.

2. If food is amazing but service is bad, the food had better be 3 Michelin star quality otherwise I’m out the door.  There is a price to pay for mind blowing food, I understand that.  But try blowing most people’s minds away with your food, it’s not easy. Otherwise, there would be many Michelin star restaurants in Vancouver.  There isn’t even one.


Okay, I’m realising I may be starting to sound like a food snob.  But I grew up in HK where the restaurant industry is so cut throat due to sky high rent prices, everyone had to deliver superior food and efficient service if they wanted to survive.  It when was only when I left for the US for school that I realised HK was unusual.  Everywhere else, people CAN afford to lag a little bit, hiccup here and there, or slip.  And they do.  A lot.  However, I’m not unreasonable. If the service is efficient, friendly and warm, it makes all the difference and suddenly I am much more understanding about my slightly overcooked salmon. However, flip it around and if the food is great but the service is rude and unfriendly, it is a given I won’t be coming back.  After all, I am spending my hard earned money. I’d like to give it to people that make me feel good rather than those that leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I was deeply saddened by the sudden death of our favourite restaurant. They serve the best fish in Vancouver and possibly the best grilled calamari I’ve ever had.  In fact, I remember my first time eating there.  Actually, go back even further and I remember when my parents first discovered it.  It was in my senior year year at Tufts University in Boston and they told me they had found a new fish place that had just opened up in our neighbourhood.  I was a bit skeptical because I found the name uninspiring.  But after I had my first meal there I realised what all the excitement was about. The food was incredible. Fresh seafood cooked simply but perfectly.  How can you beat that? When my sister and brother come to town it’s on the top of their list for places they have to eat at, twice if their itinerary permits.  It was definitely our favourite restaurant in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, that all changed last week.  Dad and I went to have dinner there one night and we arrived at 6:11pm.  I know this for a fact because I paid for the car meter with the PayByPhone app.  The small restaurant was packed and we were happy for the owner. We’ve known him for a long time and have always wanted him to succeed so that selfishly we can continue to enjoy the grilled fish (sometimes blackened), house salad with creamy dressing and grilled calamari that we love.  Did I mention their yellow rice?  It goes so nicely with the fish. And the garlic butter sauce I always opt for just validates that seafood prepared simply is exactly how it should be enjoyed.

With only one waitress working at the restaurant that seats about 20 people, she wasn’t able to get to our table to take our order until 6:38pm.  Normally they have 2 servers but that night they only had one.  We ordered the grilled calamari over house salad with creamy dressing, like we always do for an appy, and I ordered grilled trout with rice and garlic butter sauce for my main dish. The waitress was young and she was clearly stressed (that’s me being understanding) by the juggling she had to do to serve the packed joint. She was abrasive and immediately I was unimpressed.  Our appetizer arrived at 7:04pm and our mains at 7:25pm.  As we waited for the food to arrive I got more irritable when I thought about how long the food was taking.  I called the waitress over to follow up on our food.

“I just want to follow up on our food, it’s almost been an hour since we sat down,” I said.
“The restaurant is full and we only have one cook in the kitchen,” she responded curtly.
“I realise that but I’ve been here before when the restaurant was full and there’s always been one cook in the kitchen.  We’ve never had to wait this long,” I told her.
“You’re not the only one eating here, you have to be considerate of others eating too,” she responded rudely.

I was flabbergasted at her attitude.  I’m sure if she had been apologetic it would have appeased me immediately.  Often as customers, we just want sympathy.  It’s not difficult to turn around a customer especially when it’s in a restaurant the customer’s been frequenting for a long time.  After all, customers want to have a positive experience and it is up to the servers to ensure that in addition to the food, the customer experience is efficient, comfortable and pleasant.  Our waitress’ lackluster attitude void of sympathy or charm was anything but what a server is hired to do, aside from bringing your food to the table. She left us with a lasting impression when she said sarcastically before walking away, “Next time, if you don’t want to wait, just order take out.”

After our delicious meal, I went over to the kitchen to thank the owner and chef for our food and to share our horrifying experience with our waitress.  The server is an extension of the restaurant’s brand and I wanted to share with him that her attitude did not reflect his brand and would turn customers away rather than get them to come back.  I started off by saying that our food wait was unusually long and took almost an hour.  I wanted to lead up to the server’s attitude which I thought was the main issue but I struggled to get there as the owner was snagged by my comment about the wait time.  He started to get defensive.

“Look at the restaurant!  We were full tonight!” he exclaimed.
“I know, but you can’t tell a customer that when they ask why the wait is so long.”
“Yes I can!” he said defensively.

His body actions were getting hostile, his voice louder and then he looked away refusing to look me in the eye.

“You did not wait an hour, ” he said as he looked for our chit to prove it.
“It may have been an under an hour but it also took half an hour for your server to take our order,” I said.
“The only reason why I raised this was to share with you that despite what is going on in the kitchen or at the restaurant, no server should tell a customer that you should be considerate of other people eating at the restaurant or that we should order take out next time,”  I said to him earnestly.

After all, we considered him a friend.  As loyal customers, I thought he would appreciate my sincere feedback which was purely to help him succeed.  Yet he was clearly not open to criticism and could not handle my feedback. The situation got so awkward that I almost felt compelled to apologise.  Wait a minute, why is the patron apologising to the owner?  I had been extremely polite and merely wanted to share what I thought he would find useful.  In the 13 years as a patron here, this was my first time to ever voice a complaint.  Did this make me a bad customer? My brother owns Vien, a restaurant in New York City, and he works hard to ensure that every customer leaves satisfied.  He will go to great lengths to turn around any unhappy customer because he knows the power of word of mouth marketing and social media.  He encourages customer feedback and never takes it lightly because he knows it is the pulse of his business.  I thought I was doing him a favour.

In the end, the owner mumbled a thank you and looked away.  Dad had been tugging at my shirt from behind so I finally surrendered and walked away completely puzzled and disappointed.  I thought he would appreciate my feedback and that he would be turned around by our loyalty to his restaurant and our long friendship. Yet the unexpected happened and before we had walked out he was officially on my SPAM list.  He sealed his fate when he called Dad later that night to explain that the kitchen had been busy during the time when I chose to talk to him. Fair enough.  But where was his apology for his rudeness? When Dad explained that I was just trying to help him because we thought the waitress’ attitude conflicted with the customer is always right philosophy he said immediately, “I don’t believe in that philosophy.” And that’s when I shut the lid, locked it, pushed it into the hole and then shovelled dirt all over it until it was buried and unseen. He’s right, the customer may not always be right but if you want your restaurant to succeed you have to treat your customers as if they are.

There is a new restaurant in San Francisco paving the way for the future of restaurants.  Eatsa is a fully automated self serve quinoa restaurant that requires no waiters or person behind the counter to take your order.  Perhaps that’s the way to go?

What’s your take on this?  Is food or service more important to you? Have you been disappointed by a long standing relationship with a restaurant?

– SS

  1. Pingback: Blackening Spice

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