Friday, January 30, 2009

It takes a village to comp a disappointing dinner

I'm something of a rarity - a guy who spent a number of years in a penniless traveling rock band yet never took a shift in a restaurant or a bar (discounting some time washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in high school).

I was lucky - when I started playing rock music, I had decent income as a college lecturer and freelance journalist. You would be surprised how long I managed to keep some kind of college teaching load while still disappearing for as long as two weeks at a time on the road (it was all about co-teaching night classes that met twice a week); and traveling only goosed up my career as a journalist, introducing me to new publications, new mastheads to crack.

However, all of my fellow band members at one time or another stocked a bar or slung hash or flipped pizzas. I also love to eat out, and so respect those professions (and professionals) who make it possible. All these things make me pretty easy to wait on - I tend to be patient and gracious. So I have had a lot of good customer service experiences in restaurants and bars, since I usually enjoy being there so much and try to make my pleasure known to the people making it possible (and then tip them at least 20 percent).

But nothing I had ever experienced before quite matched what happened last night.

I was dining out with my wife and child. Having a five-year-old tends to end finer dining experiences, at least since I left my travel editor job in New York (when baby Leyla snoozed through some of the greatest restaurants on Earth, where I was being paid to eat, rather than the other way around).

Leyla likes to eat out, don't get me wrong, but she is looking for one thing only - a tasty plate of chicken nuggets. McDonalds will do (I know, I know ...), but her favorite by far is a local family restaurant sports bar type place called Krieger's, on Clarkson Road just south of the Highway 40. Not that she would know it by name or location.

As part of her joy in eating out, whenever I first started taking her to a bar or restaurant, as Leyla became gradually verbal she would crow, "Oh yeah!" This entered the family lexicon as her name for a bar or restaurant - an "Oh yeah." There are "Daddy's Friend's Oh Yeah" (Senor Pique's on Manchester, owned by my friend Angel), "Daddy's Other Friend's Oh Yeah" (the late, lamented Bastante, owned by Aaron Whalen), "The Downtown Oh Yeah" (The Tap Room), and "The New Oh Yeah" -that would be Krieger's.

The girl slipped on an invisible patch of ice, last night, approaching The New Oh Yeah. Her mother was holding the girl's hand and managed to keep her from hitting the cold, hard sidewalk. We then told the young girls at the reception stand that they needed to spread some salt out front, that temperatures had dropped and it was started to freeze. I guess we mentioned that Leyla had almost wiped out.

We were seated and ordered some food. Leyla had the usual. Her mother ventured into something new, a blackened tilapia. I was stuffed from lunch (the delicious buffet at India Palace, Highway 70 and Lindbergh), but was presented with a downturned lower lip by the little girl when I said I wasn't eating dinner, so I got a pizza, something I could take home for lunch the next day. I ordered the barbecued chicken pizza; it was delicious.

Mom, however, wasn't loving the blackened tilapia. Too salty, she said. Too much of that lemon pepper that also has salt in it. When the pretty young waitress asked how things were going, Karley politely said she wasn't enjoying the fish and wished she had ordered her usual (a turkey melt). The waitress wanted to substitute a dish for free. I said, "Come on, look, she's eaten almost all of it, it's okay," and we would have thought that was that.

When the girl came back with the box for my leftovers (I actually had showed discipline and didn't scarf down the pizza), she stunned us by saying her manager had taken care of the entire bill. "You guys are in here all the time," she said. That is true, but still it was a crazy generous gesture, to pick up the entire bill. We asked to see the manager, Mark Marion.

He came out. Big man with a kind baby face. He said, "You guys are regular customers. I want you to enjoy your food - I don't want to lose your business." I pointed at Leyla and said - "You're not about to lose her business." And then he said, "I heard she almost slipped outside. I didn't want you to have a bad experience with us tonight."

The fact that Leyla's near slip had been communicated to him specifically and had registered with him made me oddly emotional. This is the way it's supposed to be, I felt. We got a little community going here. It takes a village to comp a dinner and keep the little kids from wiping out on the ice.

I'll never forget Mike Marion or that pretty waitress eating Skittles or The New Oh Yeah, which actually cares about my little family, my little kid.


Tilapia pic from a food blog.

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