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Citizen Cake and the Single Diner

Tonight I had the most frustrating meal I have ever had as a single diner.
I am alone in SF on a Saturday night so I think of places I have not tried where a single diner can eat at the bar, usually my favorite kind of place. So I choose Citizen Cake.

I love Elizabeth Falkner, I loved her when I was a waiter at Rubicon and she was there, and I will love her forever. However, Citizen Cake I could have done without.

I was excited to hear that John Mark was the bar manager, I loved what he did for Café Rouge in Berkeley and was excited to see what I have been missing all of the years at Citizen Cake.

I called and was placed on hold for a long period and then finally disconnected with. I waited 20 minutes called again and asked if there were concerns for the single diner. I was told the bar is available first come first serve, as expected.

I got to the Cake, realizing it was a theater night and I might have issues getting a seat. I recognized the hostess, who couldn’t care less and seemed put out by my wanting a seat by myself. The theater rush moved fast though and I was at the bar before I knew it. The bar itself is much higher than the stools, which makes it difficult for even the average to taller than average diner to eat comfortably.

The bartender was a young, short dark haired guy. He was busy and it seemed I sat for a long time before he or anyone acknowledged me. I finally was asked what I would like. I order from the white list a glass of the mourvedre. I was surprised to see a white mourvedre and ever more surprised when he poured me a glass of a bright red Lirac. He came back a few minutes later to ask if I liked it, I corrected him on his mistake and he stated that the mourvedre was actually a rose did I still want it. No problem I say, and he poured my taste, I then sat there ignored for 10 minutes while he cleared checks and seats. The rose was OK. I blamed it on brushing my teeth an hour earlier and the slowness on the fact that he was alone during a theater rush exit.

The hostess then sat a couple next to me; of course everyone knew them and fawned all over them. They got the attention that I wanted, 10 times….

By now they too were waiting, but suddenly they were eating and I was still trying to get an order in. I was kind of surprised that the price point was as high as it was for a café, but what the hell, right? I mean if Rachel Ray likes it so should I, please kill me for saying that. The couple is offered a special drink the bartender makes for them, he tells them it is on the house, they actually comment in private that they do not care for it.

I finally got my order in, $10 for an app of a squash salad and $29 for a steak. I also ordered a $35 bottle of a win I love, Hortus, a wine from the Laungdoc. Obviously John Mark’s style. But where was John Mark? The bartender, now part of the stream of fawners over the couple next to me, inform the couple that John Mark is unexpectedly out of town and that he is swamped because of it, well thank god for that, I thought service was always this spotty.

My food arrives; the squash salad is just that, although the fresh mozzarella is amazing! Now I have a family with 4 children sitting next to me ordering root beer floats, hardly what I would expect but more power to them. The couple next to me and I share a laugh over it.

The could has there 1st course cleared and is now offered an intermezzo of cantaloupe aqua fresca, which I love. My first course is cleared and I seem to be waiting a very long time. I am offered an apology from the bartender, but no intermezzo… I see it going out to other tables too, I feel so left out…..

My steak comes and so does the faux Languielle knife, at $29 for a steak in a café, give me the real thing or a wooden handle, thank you very much. The steak is perfectly rare as ordered, it comes with fingerling potatoes, that were obviously made earlier in the day and sat (a bit stale) blue lakes and wax beans float on the potatoes and a crostini slice with a dollop of horseradish ice cream with sea salt flakes on it (something I have made myself and been given a lot of crap for). I like it, not kidding, it was good. My couple next to me is done and is offered a special sorbet before the order dessert.

My plate is cleared; I offer the rest of the wine (more than ½ a bottle to the bartender) asks for a macchiato and then check.

I then drink ½ my coffee and toss a card down $100 for dinner for the single diner. I get up and walk out as I turn into the window from outside the bartender is pouring the couple two glasses from my bottle of Hortus, I feel dirty. I want to be part of the couple, kind of suxed for the single diner tonight! Orson where are you when I need you? Rosebud is not a sled it is a nice word for the way I was treated tonight.

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  1. My sympathies! I recently had a similar experience, watching a table next to me getting the meal I wanted. In my case, I was the one who gave them the remainder of my wine. I've only eaten at CC once -- I thought it was overpriced and the service was hipper-than-thou and have no desire to go back, except maybe for dessert.

    1. What would you have preferred the bar tender do with the rest of your bottle of wine?

      5 Replies
      1. re: Bay Gelldawg

        And why give it to him after you felt you were being ignored all evening?

        1. re: babette feasts

          Good point, but what else to do? Force chug the rest down? Drop a butt in the half filled bottle? Pour it into your plastic bag lined pant's pocket? I think FF wanted to show the bartender some kindness and hope he would then pass it along to the next single diner he was planning to ignore

          1. re: Bookmark

            Can't you take it with you? I always thought you could....

            1. re: babette feasts

              In a brown paper bag or under your coat.

              1. re: Bookmark

                I spoke too soon. Excuse me. A Googling shows that Ca now has a recork law on the books. Seems a Ca restaurant can now recork, put the bottle into a spl one-use sealable bag, give the patron a detailed receipt noting the wine(bought w/ a meal) being taken 'home' and you are free to leave w/ the partially consumed bottle of wine in plain sight until you get to your car, when it needs to be put into the trunk.

                That said, I can just imagine the smile on Mr Happy's (the bartender's) face when requested to do so and of course happily complying!

                Ah, just leave it w/ the SOB!

      2. Wow.
        That is outrageous treatment.

        As a chef/restaurateur I always make sure that if someone is getting the VIP treatment that everyone around them gets a little something extra too. Nothing is worse than making a guest feel like someone else is more important to your business than them.

        I also always VIP single diners... they are so used to getting shabby treatment that they tend to become regulars.

        You may want to consider writing a letter. A good manager would be shamed at how you were treated.

        1. You know, Danny Meyer wrote in his book "Setting the Table" (a must-read for anyone remotely interested in restaurants or hospitality), that the single diner should be your most important customer. To paraphrase, he said the single diner has made a special effort to come to your establishment simply to enjoy what you have to offer. There is no other motive for them to spend their time & money - no business to be done, no social event to celebrate. That's why he & his restaurants go out of their way to welcome every single diner they get. They see it as an opportunity to "strut their stuff" for an appreciative and attentive audience. It's really too bad that more restaurants don't "get" it.

          Perhaps someone should show this posting to Elizabeth. I think the bartender and host could benefit from the feedback. Maybe you can leave the people at The Cake a copy of the book :)

          1. I agree that the service you experienced was not up to par, but you seem more bothered by the fact that you didn't get any of the freebies that the couple next to you got.

            1 Reply
            1. re: LAfoodfiend

              From what the OP noted, other tables were getting the intermezzo as well. There's also something to all of that when the service you're getting yourself isn't quite up to par; it highlights the fact that the restaurant is capable and aware of what goes into making a dining experience a good one for diners, and they're not doing in the your case. To me, it wouldn't have been about the freebies (indeed, I don't know that they were freebies and it may be a mistake to presume that they were) it would just have been about the fact that the bartender or servers were not offering the same level of service.

            2. Sounds like you got trapped in the SF Sat night frenzy or something.

              90% of the bad experiences (service and/or meal) I've had in SF happened on a Sat. evening at a nice or hip places.

              It starts with the reservations (calling around) and parking (ever try to find any spot - paid or street - at 8 p.m. on a Sat) and finishes up with a whacked out busy staff. This doesn't mean it's okay but that's what I noticed. Add in the theater crowd and being a single diner and it sounds like a semi-doomed evening, although it could have happened to a couple or a group just as easily (and it has). At least your food was good.

              BTW, I've notice that if you park by 7-7:15 p.m. and get seated by around 7:30, you're WAY better off. 8 p.m. seems to be witching hour for restaurants on a Sat. and hell seems to break loose. Staying in or going to a neighborhood or dive-y place is better Sat. option...Sunday dining however usually goes nicely...people with kids are usually at home.

              3 Replies
              1. re: ML8000

                Decent and sometimes innovative product but Citizen Cake reeks of attitude. It's a bit too snippy for my tastes whether I'm dining alone or in a group.

                1. re: BP71

                  FF, thanks for the great posting. I really do feel your pain. Thanks for the warning.

                  I agree. Trying to 'single it' on a Sat nite, even at the counter, was brave/foolhardy/asking for it! I feel your pain.

                  Bay and LA need to re-read the op, and maybe, not so much w/ this op, sometimes minor 'reading between the lines' is called for.

                  I've never dined at CC expect for weekdays/nites and those times were w/ dates/others and just so-so. Food and service were just OK and certainly not 'must return soon' OK. In the Bay Area, w/ all it's great dining, it's CC's loss not mine.

                  I once brought along a $50 CC cake to a friend's dinner party. Very nice to look at. Nice, but not $50 nice. Kinda bland. I now bring along a boxfull of Bakesale Betty's wonders. A lil' cheaper and much, much tastier. Easier parking too except on a Sat nite! Eyes really light up when the box is opened!

                  1. re: BP71

                    You know what you're saying makes sense...CC had mega attitude (bordering on being down right odd and cold) even at the old location behind Rainbow Grocery. I don't go to the new place in Hayes Valley mainly because I rarely hang there and rarely need a cake.

                2. FF I can totally relate. I've gone to eat dinner there twice (once solo and once with a friend) and have changed my mind while standing in line at the hostess station. It was around 5:00 p.m., so no theatre crowd, just surly hipsters that seem too busy to flash a smile. Come on, this is supposed to be top-notch customer service. I've also bought desserts from the bakery, which are okay, not spectacular, although the lemon tart was awesome. I bought a cake from CC for my mom's birthday last year and was a bit disappointed, not much flavor. This year I'll order cakes from Tartine like I have in the past.

                  Dining alone in SF can be tough. You do feel left out and ignored sometimes but not always. My best solo dining experiences have been at Blowfish, 2223 and Sauce. Jeez, it sounds like I eat out alone a lot. :-(

                  1. Citizen Cake is actually one of the few restaurants on my list that I tell friends NOT to go to, primarily because of the snotty service. I went to CC when I used to live in Hayes Valley and could just walk there. I went twice, once with visiting relatives and another time with just one friend. The first time we sat at the bar and the second time we sat at a table. Both times the hostess at the door ignored us. While at the bar, the service was slow even though we were the only ones at the bar at the time, and the second time at the table the hostess kept coming to rush our meal. Because of those two experiences, I've always never gone back and told friends not to go. I recently considered possibly checking it out again but given your feedback, I may wait awhile longer. There are just too many other options out there to subject yourself to this kind of attitude. Oh, and one time I just went to the counter to buy a brownie and, despite there not being a line, had to wait a long time before someone noticed me to offer service. And after a bought the brownie, the guy at the counter didn't even say thanks. It's these small things that really sticks with customers, I feel.

                    1. I totally feel your pain. Like you I dine alone - many times because of travel, other times, because well no one around at that moment. I have avoided CC for reasons such as these.
                      I am sorry you were treated like Rosebud, no one should be.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Beehive

                        I'm also a frequent single diner. I really appreciate rule #15, from the list of rules printed on the back of the menu at Max's Opera Cafe: "[You get a free drink on us] ... If you are a single diner and are greeted with the expression, "Just one?"

                        1. re: ssfire

                          I have a different CC experience to report. I've gone there as a singleton for brunch many times in the past several years and often had wonderful, and always good, service, both at tables and at the bar. (And their brunch is quite good.) Of course, the brunch crew and/or vibe may well be largely or entirely different, and I may by now be like the Fawned Over Couple in OP's narrative (I don't have any special connection with anyone involved in the restaurant other than having become a regular in the usual way), but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend CC's brunch for a single diner. (No, I've never tried having dinner there as a singleton.)