Tom Sietsema: Lamenting no-shows and air kisses


(Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham)
November 23, 2011

A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and inbox:

Mark Medley has been in the restaurant business for almost 30 years and says he has never had so many customers fail to show up after making reservations. The general manager of the 28-seat Atlas Room on H Street NE reports that five of 15 reservation-holders “did not call and did not show” on a recent Friday night, despite phone prompts earlier in the day from the restaurant.

Medley estimates the small business lost $1,400 that weekend — the equivalent of a cook’s bi-monthly paycheck.

What further amazes the restaurateur is the cavalier attitude some diners display when confronted with their lack of manners. “I hate to pigeonhole,” he says, but the under-30 crowd thinks it’s no big deal. The way he sees it, “missing a restaurant reservation is like missing a doctor’s appointment.” His advice to customers: “Once you know you can’t keep a reservation, let us know in a timely fashion,” so that diners on a waiting list or walking in without a confirmed table can be accommodated.


(Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham)

Medley now keeps track of no-shows and their contact numbers and reviewing reservation sheets to make sure they don’t become repeat offenders: “my naughty list.”

* * *

A recent online chat participant, identified as Hungry For Breakfast in D.C., wanted to know “where to go for a good breakfast. Not brunch, and not croissants and coffee, but a good breakfast. Preferably in D.C., but we’ll travel for food!”

Putting aside the obvious (and generally expensive) hotel suggestions, I directed the follower to the light-filled Johnny’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill, where hot beignets, trembling spinach quiche, bracing espresso and meaty grillades with stone-ground grits provide fuel for the moving-and-shaking crowd. Teaism , with branches downtown, in Dupont Circle and Penn Quarter, is another nice way to wake up. I’m especially partial to the restaurants’ cilantro scrambled eggs with tea-cured salmon. What might be the single most decadent breakfast food in town, a dish billed as the Breakfast Club, appears on the a.m. menu of the Victorian-inspired Old Ebbitt Grill . Picture ham stuffed between French toast that’s swaddled in bacon, deep-fried and offered with syrup. Hand over $12.50 — and open wide.

* * *

After another chat member posted a complaint about watching some diners receive a lot more attention than others at Fiola , I heard from the Italian restaurant’s chef-owner, Fabio Trabocchi, who invited his patrons to send him such feedback directly. “We are striving for perfection in every category: food, beverage, service and hospitality,” he said in an e-mail. “If we miss the mark, I personally want to know about it, and I welcome any guest to get in touch with me” at fabiotrabocchi@yahoo.com.

The chat participant had reported “oo-ing, ah-ing and fussing over people there,” adding, “it annoys me because it’s so flagrant.” Trabocchi, the former maestro of Maestro, the late temple of haute cuisine in Tysons Corner, who returned to the area from New York last year, responded that “it is absolutely not our policy to treat anyone differently.” He playfully suggested that his family’s heritage is partly to blame: “We are European; as my wife would tell you, air kissing is a part of our custom with familiar faces! Please rest assured, we welcome old guests and new ones just the same.”

* * *

Timothy Sprehe calls me out for giving three stars to a restaurant, Et Voila! , that registers 87 decibels on a sound meter. That’s roughly the equivalent of a police whistle or truck traffic.

“How can you conceivably believe your readers can have an excellent dining experience there, and at other high-decibel restaurants, when they must shout to communicate with their fellow diners?” asks the Chevy Chase reader via e-mail. “Loud noise and fine dining are mutually incompatible.”

Food quality counts for approximately half of one of my star ratings; service and ambiance factor into the other 50 percent. In the case of Et Voila!, a tiny Belgian outpost in the Palisades, the high level of cooking and attentive wait staff outweigh the noise (which is a non-issue for those who dine on the early side). Different readers have different tolerance levels. I offer sound checks to help them decide whether to patronize a place.

In a follow-up missive, Sprehe offers the opinion that “designing a restaurant to add sound-deadening measures and devices that lower the decibel level is not necessarily a budget breaker. It can be accomplished quite economically if the owner has the motivation. That motivation comes in large part from patron feedback.” He ends his note with suggestions for his fellow diners. “If you eat in a restaurant you think is too noisy, ask to see the manager and state in no uncertain terms that the restaurant is too noisy and that you and your friends will not return until the noise level is reduced. Follow up with a letter to the restaurant to emphasize your
message.”

Sound advice, Mr. Sprehe.

Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com.

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