The inexplicable reality of bad service in a bad economy

Note: This column appears in the 10/1 issue of The Glendale Star and the 10/2 issue of the Peoria Times

How fresh is the fish?

This is the question my wife asked to our server during our first night out together in forever, by Westgate, at an establishment that shall remain nameless to protect the identity of the incompetent.

We had waited about twenty minutes to ask this question, and were only graced with our waitress’ presence after she had apparently lost an argument with another server as to who was going to wait on our table, an ordeal that I was fortunate enough to capture out of the corner of my eye. As a result, she was forced to introduce herself, and did so thusly, with eyes to the ground and speaking quickly and softly so as to add to the general awkwardness: Hi my name is (unintelligible) and I’ll be your waitress do you know what you want?

No, miss –- the pleasure is all ours, I assure you! It was at this point when my wife asked the aforementioned question.

Now, this is a legitimate question. My wife is Italian, and we are both from back east. Being privy to the inner-workings of both Italian and east coast culture, I understand that there are no boundaries on fish-related inquiries. To ask the question “How fresh is the fish?” to a decent or Italian server is to establish a level of trust. You are in essence saying this: I have a general awareness of fish freshness, so don’t try and give me the week-old halibut you’re trying to get rid of. Your server, in return, now understands you mean business, and will treat you with the class, service and fish-freshness that you deserve.

Believe me I have been at many a restaurant where my father-in-law has asked this very question. How fresh is the sea bass? Many times the server will simply say: No. You don't want that fish. Don't you worry about it, I'll take care of you. There are no additional questions needed. The trust has been established. Sure enough my father-in-law will be served a flounder that was caught and gutted as recently as five minutes ago. This is, as I have come to understand it, the essence of being Italian.

So if asking this question in Brooklyn is appropriate, then asking it in a non-Italian restaurant you have never been to before that is contained within a landlocked state of hunters and carnivores is certainly appropriate. Expecting an appropriate response is quite another matter.

Our waitress’ initial response to this question was a blank stare that said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I am going to stare at you until you elaborate.” My wife stared back. It was a stare-off! Eventually my wife relented, and simply repeated herself: How fresh is the fresh?

“Oh,” said our waitress. “It’s, ummm (looking around on the walls, for evidence of the restaurant’s fish policies, I presume)…fresh. They cook it right when you order it.”

Oh, really? So it wasn’t prepared this morning and left sitting under a hot lamp all day, as if we had just ordered a cod sandwich at Arby's? Fantastic! We’ll have the salad.

What amazed me was not the fact that she associated the promptness with which a fish is cooked with its freshness. (I wasn’t even sure this girl knew what day it was, much less what time the salmon arrived.) Nor was it the fact that she charged us $1 for more bread (!), or the generally awful service.

Because I was able to observe a lot during the lulls when our waitress was m.i.a., I was left amazed that a restaurant in one of the most popular and up-and-coming areas of the Valley, in this terrible economy, chose to operate so indifferently and carelessly. Believe me that this place will not be around in three months.

Another lease up for grabs. One less stop for the fish delivery truck. But don’t blame the economy –- hey, we paid our extra $1 –- blame incompetence.