The composed salad tasted of Spring, the Turbot special was sumptuous and buttery and the first glass of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene unexpectedly and delightfully dry. I would gladly have ordered a second, but the offer never came.
Nor did a check-in after the food arrived, a smile of any wattage, or any indication at all that we were welcome in the restaurant at 8 p.m. on a slow-ish Thursday evening. Just the check at the end. Was it something we'd done?
Just a couple of nights before, we'd spent a chatty evening at our favorite neighborhood spot a few blocks a way. During the meal, which we spent sitting at the bar, the bartender e-mailed me a funny YouTube video she'd been showing me on her iPad, the chef and I chatted about a server who'd left – but with whom I'd just been exchanging Facebook messages, and we left with full stomachs and big smiles. And it wasn't just us; the same warm glow of welcome and hospitality was shone over everyone who walked in the door, whether they were regulars like us, or had just stumbled in off the street. As I've said to the owners on several occasions - we come for the food, and we come back and back and back because of the people who work there.
The same goes for my favorite taco dive a few blocks further down. There's a language barrier, but a lot of goofy smiles have gotten us through for years. The staff knows we're easy customers - never fuss if there's a wait, and always show our great delight in the food - and even if they can't get to us to a table swiftly on a bustling Friday night, they let us know they're glad we're there.
Perhaps that's a give and take I take for granted. I walk into a restaurant, smiling and assuming I'm in for an excellent evening. Plenty of people stroll in, just waiting for the staff to muck up, so they have the chance to vent the frustrations of the day and think for just one moment that they're in control of the world. I can only imagine how it must feel to take the brunt of that, night after night, and I hold members of the service industry in tremendous esteem for doing it with smiles on their faces and without a soupçon of customer slapping.
It was the indifference, I think, that unnerved me. If someone's having a bad day, it's often evident and it gives other people a chance to empathize. This was just - blank. What food do you want? Here it is. Now pay. I don't need a stranger to validate my existence, but I have this wacky notion that part of being in the hospitality industry would be to at least acknowledge a customer's existence.
Next time I'm in that neck of the woods and looking for a bite to eat, I might stop for a second and take a peek at the menu in the window to see if the Turbot is indeed the day's special again. Even if it is, chances are that I'll just shrug and keep on walking.
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