Side dishes: a rant (and brief review of Home)
Please, oh please, chowhounds -- surely one of you can explain a phenomenon that's driving me a little nuts. Why is it that whenever we order a side dish at a nice restaurant, it never arrives? Tonight it happened at Home (see my comments on the restaurant below), and it's also recently happened at Bacar, Noi, and Palatino. And those are the places I can remember!
At times it seems related to the phenomenon of waiters refusing to write down your order (which drives me nuts: you don't have to show off for me by implying that you can remember everything, and when you come back to the table saying, "You had the monkfish, right?", I'm definitely less than impressed). But other times, waiters write it down, but the sides don't show up. (At Bacar, when we mentioned the forgotten side, the waiter eventually brought it -- but after we'd finished dinner and our plates had been cleared. We didn't eat it and had it taken off the check.)
Which leads me to wonder: do restaurants actually not want to serve sides, because of the cost of their preparation? (It can't be the price of the ingredients -- we're talking brussel sprouts, spinach, and, tonight, macaroni and cheese.) If so, why offer them at all? Do the restaurant computer systems make ordering sides difficult? Is ordering side dishes so rare that it makes it hard for waiters to remember?
Or do I have some kind of incredibly bad karma?
p.s. About Home: Other tables got bread, but we didn't. The Caesar salads we ordered were pretty good, though with a bit too much parmesan for my taste. My girlfriend quite liked her roast chicken, though she felt its accompanying potato puree was a bit salty. I ordered the Niman Ranch steak medium rare and just wasn't impressed: the meat was stringy and cooked more than I would have liked; a steak knife would have helped. The fries were okay, and the drinks were good. We didn't have dessert (I know, I know, the pastry chef is supposed to be great, but...). I'd give the service about a C. Between forgetting our bread, forgetting our side dish (the waitress acknowledged she'd forgotten to put in the order), and double-charging us for a drink, we weren't exactly blown away. Nice atmosphere, though.
Sometimes the horse needs to be kicked. Not with spurs, not flogged, just kicked. If you're eating in a restaurant which is known for top level service and you suffer from the invisibility factor, here's some advice: 1. Speak up, 2. Smile, 3. Be friendly and upbeat. If this fails, vote with your tip percentage. 10% is a good slap for forgotten orders, auction style plate delivery, empty water glasses, etc.. If you become a regular customer you can become a "bend over backwards" category customer by tipping well and thanking the manager for good service.
On the subject of "sides", bring it to the attention of the server immediately, and go with the flow. The breakdown can occur in so many places in most systems that you shouldn't take it personally. Your order is entered on a touch screen system, one of the most popular brands is called Squirrel. A squirrel is a cute little animal, but is not known for its great reliability. The next obstacle is the printer or printers, which run out of paper, run out of ink, get mysteriously unplugged, and are generally the weakest link in terms of breakdowns. The human side of the kitchen equation starts with a person called the expeditor. He is sometimes a sous chef, occasionally a poor bloke hired just for this particular form of torture. Sous chefs work more hours than anyone else in most kitchens, get all the blame, and an occasional crumb of credit. Full-time expeditors get a percentage of tips yet work in the kitchen making them a rare breed. They are generally hired because they can relate to both front and back employees. Some restaurants allow waiters to talk to cooks directly, which is a recipe for certain disaster. The next person who you may run into is called a food runner. He is not skilled enough to be a waiter, but knows how to put a plate down without landing it on your lap. Some food runners have better instincts than waiters and some don't give a damn, and are just happy to done with the back breaking work of bussing tables. All in all your side dish is important, but is only as likely to appear on your table as the weakest link in the kitchen will allow.
re: k. gerstenberger
Oh, the side-dish problem! We have encountered this many times, and Mr. Smith has devised a system which seems to work 80-90% of the time. He is accutely sensitive to the injustices of service personnel, but he's also kind-hearted enough to give them as much help as possible to give us the best service. What Mr. Smith has devised is this ordering style:
"I'd like the flaming tuna with a side dish of the flaked leeks. I'd like it on the side, but I'd like it to arrive simultaneously with the entree, please. Please don't bring it before or after. My wife would like the puff of fluff, and bring her the snite soup before her meal please".
Even if it's obvious, he never leaves any guessing as to when he'd like things brought. To a less than savvy server, this usually prompts them to at least repeat it back to him, if not to actually write it down. The really professional waitstaff always seem to appreciate the clarity of these directions, and he usually gets very good service. I, when dining solo or with another woman, have employed this strategy to great effect, so I know it just isn't a case of restaurant sexism! I think the key is to make your requests memorable enough to the server, so that it stands out in his or her brain. Don't take it personally -- we've lost many a side dish in our dining adventures here in SF and other places. Try a little proactive meal scheduling with the server, and let us know if service improves for you. Of course, with really good waitstaff, this shouldn't be necessary, but you never know, right?
Thanks slowfoodie for the breakdown of restaurant backroom ops. Interesting!