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Bad service in the Twin Cities [Moved from MSP board]

I've noticed a pattern of bad service in the Twin Cities and have been meaning to comment on it for a long time. Here are some recent examples:

On a visit to Travail, the restaurant lived up to its name: travail means both suffering and to inflict suffering or to torment, although I'm sure this isn't the experience the restaurant has in mind. From the moment we sat down at our table, our chef-server seemed intent on finding a reason to punch someone, anyone. He was not only brusque but also uninterested in offering details about the items on the chalkboard menu. Perhaps this is a shortcoming of the chef-as-server model: his mind was on the food, and we were distractions. Or maybe it's true that most chefs are misanthropes: Gordon Ramsay may be a great chef but I wouldn't want him to be my waiter.

At a late-evening dinner at Piccolo, we encountered the prototypical pretentious server. When we mentioned at the beginning of the meal that we would likely be ordering several courses, he balked. A minute later he returned and declared in no uncertain terms that 10:00pm was approaching (our reservation was for 9:00 but we weren't seated until 9:30) and that we were running out of options. There would be no opportunity for additional courses. Leaving aside the fact that restaurants should never discourage eager customers (especially in these tough economic times and especially before they've even begun their meal), there's a professional way to handle closing time considerations. Unfortunately, this guy had no idea how to handle them. An hour later, a table behind ours asked him for the wine list and he couldn't suppress a groan.

To make matters worse--much worse, because I think this is the Cardinal sin of service--he was condescending. He corrected one companion's pronunciation of a dish, not with grace or charm but with nearly vindictive relish. He also grew impatient with another companion's questions about preparations and his explanations were cryptic.

Remarkably, and to his credit, he must have realized how off-putting his demeanor had been because he apologized to us about 15 minutes into dinner. It's a good thing he did, because that had been the kind of service that can absolutely spoil a terrific meal. I know many people (myself included) who will give restaurants a second (and third) chance after eating mediocre food but are forever turned off by condescending service.

There are other examples, too: predictably stuffy service at La Belle Vie, gruff servers in tank tops at Craftsman, perennially uppity and indifferent service at Heartland, even moody cashiers at such pedestrian places as Turtle Bread Co.

I'm curious if my luck is bad or if other people have a similarly pessimistic outlook on service in the Twin Cities. (Full disclosure: I was once a server myself and was not immune to bad moods; however, the experiences I've mentioned go far beyond simple irritability). There are exceptions, of course. For instance, I've found the service at Meritage to be outstanding. I also know the risks of generalizing. Still, having lived in or eaten extensively in cities with better and "fancier" restaurants (Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Atlanta), I'm left with the impression that several Twin Cities restaurants are plagued by bad service. So much for Midwestern hospitality.

Your thoughts? Recommendations to prove me wrong?

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La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55405

Turtle Bread Co
120 S 6th St, Minneapolis, MN 55402

Meritage
410 Saint Peter St, Saint Paul, MN 55102

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  1. Wow...you seem to bring out... a certain... attribute in people.

    1. Service in the cities is notoriously terrible. Most of us have learned to take it in stride, and chalk it up to the fact that, at the price points we customarily enjoy, the waitstaff at a top-tier restaurant is likely to be outearned by a popular bar. As well, people here are reluctant to complain to the manager, which doesn't help.

      Actually, I would have cited Piccolo as an example of great service. They really went the extra mile for us on our visit. There is no excuse for any restaurant, least of which Piccolo, for taking reservations for a table to which it will not serve multiple courses.

      I can't prove you wrong, because you are probably right, but here are some counter-examples:

      The Modern: Servers have gone all out on several visits here. They always understand the menu (not that it's emphasis on local foodstuffs constitutes rocket science) and always deliver promptly and competently.

      Chimborazo: In the chef-as-waiter-as-owner vein, one gets the impression the man would give you his kidney if you asked politely.

      Heidi's: The new place opens soon, and I have no reason to expect anything less than stellar service.

      TSC: Service was knowledgeable and spot on. They absolutely nailed some tricky timing on platings while the resto was packed.

      Grand Szechuan: Went here for lunch on a Saturday at about 2. Ethnic restos usually succumb to empty restaurant syndrome at this hour, but they were ridiculously on top of our orders.

      2 Replies
      1. re: kevin47

        "Heidi's: The new place opens soon, and I have no reason to expect anything less than stellar service. "

        Please tell...

        1. re: jfood

          I believe last I saw they were likely to open in late November. Maybe December. Construction at the new place is what it is, slow with unexpected twists and turns. They have stated that they'd like it to be more of what they were doing at the old location. And I agree, their service has been outstanding and I would also expect more of the same.

      2. Those are the first negative words I've read re: Travail. Interesting. Wonder who your server was. Throughout a meal there, it's rarely, if it's ever been, a single person. Did he actually punch someone, even playfully? And if you didn't like their service, can't wait to hear your thoughts on V44.

        Worst service, notoriously bad, is / was Taste of Thailand on Selby. I stopped going there about 7 years ago. They have my favorite dish prepared my favorite way, and I will not patronize them.

        Best service I've ever had is Meritage. It's top end without feeling like ettiquette lessons, being worried about making an ass of yourself for using the wrong fork kind of formality.

        Maybe it is just you?

        2 Replies
        1. re: semanticantics

          Regarding Travail, the server didn't punch anyone (even playfully) and I don't think he would have. He just seemed agitated and annoyed. That doesn't make for a comfortable dinner. He attended to us until dessert; the woman who served us dessert was very friendly.

          Maybe I bring out the worst in people, but then again I've heard lots of people echo kevin47's sentiments. It seems that restaurant owners and chefs don't always realize that nothing ruins a dinner, and ruins it so memorably, like bad service (and I don't mean merely inattentive service). The meal I had a Piccolo was the best I've had in the Twin Cities, and had the server not apologized and allowed us to order what we wanted, it would have been his bad attitude and not the great meal that stuck with us.

          1. re: torchon

            Did you like the food at Travail?

            Since getting a bit into finer dining this year, I've got an oddly contradictory outlook on service. I expect quite a bit more out of people now, but also after having watched way too much food TV, particularly Gordon Ramsay (BBC, not FOX, thank you) based, I also have a better idea of what is going on and what it's like in the back of the house, and am willing to let some of the smaller things some people get in a twist about go.

        2. I would have simply gotten up and walked out of Travail. I'd not have paid a sou for that type of treatment.

          Not that they care, not that it will impact their bottomline or keep them awake at night but Hearland will never see me darken their doorstep after reading here their treatment of jfood. While an attempt was made by Hertland to make amends, it was too little, too late in my opinion.

          I think Travail will join Heartland on my Forget It List.

          1 Reply
          1. re: green56

            Good, I'm glad some of won't be frequenting Travail. I have had trouble getting seating there at times. The server your mentioning is probably Jeffery, he can seem to be brusque but if you interact with him he warms up quickly and will gladly discuss items on the menu. This may be off putting, so vote with your feet. After some interaction he suggested, let us taste, and opened bottle of wine for us that wasn't listed on the wine list.
            I think the food served there is inspired(Travail) and I am happy to have two great places on the north side(Victory 44). The Rabbit Cassoulet at Travail was one of the most memorial dishes I've had in a long time.

          2. I think service at Travail, such as it is, is an acquired taste. I don't think there is any latent hostility, though there is plenty of attitude. During a busy dinner service, it can be tough to discern which is which. I like it, but it's not the sort of concept that evokes a neutral response.

            It can be easy to infer contempt where none exists, but the best waiters are aware of this and make a particular effort to make the guest feel comfortable. That a resto with Travail's model can pack the house seems a testament to the fact that this isn't happening on a regular basis.

            6 Replies
            1. re: kevin47

              My one meal at Travail was marred by a combination of attitude and studied indifference to my meal with my friend. To be honest, the combination really turned me off to the place. My food was good, but the vibe that I got was not particularly pleasant. For my money, I'd just as soon go back to Victory 44 for the same sort of food. (For the record, all of my meals at V44 were before the split, so I realize that any new visit might have a different experience than the 3 very positive ones I had last winter and spring.)

              1. re: bob s

                jfood has spent 2 dinners at Travail and 10-11 courses and each and every person he interacted with was pleasant and professional. Each dish was plesantly explained, all questioned answered and he cannot imagine the opposite happening. Review is forthcoming as schedule and size has been an issue. And jfood loved the vibe, very relaxed.

                1. re: jfood

                  I'm glad you had a good time, I'm merely reporting what happened to me and can see how others may have had similar experiences. It was off-putting and put a dent into an otherwise nice visit with an out-of-town guest. The vibe was a little too relaxed for me - it seemed like we were being ignored.

                  I'm not saying I'll never return, but will only do so when I feel confident that the vibe won't conflict with the type of evening that I'm looking for.

                  1. re: bob s

                    And that is what makes these boards a great site. Different experiences and different expectations. Jfood has taken colleagues to several restaurants in MSP and it is always interesting to hear the different POVs from each on the drive back to the hotel.

                    1. re: jfood

                      Agreed! Great review of the food at Travail in the other thread, btw.

                      1. re: bob s

                        thanks b.

                        glad to take one for the team eating all food in one night. :-)