WHEN, FROM time to time, Courses has considered the restaurant business from the service end, so to speak -- talking about reservation policies and customer responsibility, intrusive electronics, even such sticky wickets as whether chefs should cook dishes to their own or their customers' specifications -- we've been impressed with the courtesy readers and restaurateurs both have brought to the table.
But the more time we all spend in restaurants (figures from a survey for Tysons Foods suggests that the average American ate 131 meals in a restaurant last year),the more personal interaction we're exposed to, both directly and indirectly; and this time we're considering the delicate problem of a customer who may appear to restaurant staff or patrons to be somewhat eccentric. The question was raised recently by the difficulties experienced by an out-of-town visitor who dined at several different establishments around the metropolitan area during the course of her trip and who wrote to The Post after she returned home.
Each of the notes described an unsatisfactory but slightly strange conflict with a waiter: one who didn't tell her that the shish kebab she ordered was served with rice and gravy, foods to which she says she is allergic; a second waiter who merely pointed toward the restrooms when asked where they were; and a third who declined to write down her order for a cheese omelet, instead relaying it verbally -- and then left the order in the kitchen for someone else to fetch.
She writes that once she had to "raise her voice to get waited on," though it isn't clear how high or how insistently. She does not seem to have demanded her money back, although all three managers said that any unhappy diner would have had his or her bill taken care of as a matter of policy "even if she'd downed the whole dish," as one longtime pro put it. "We're very, very attuned to customer relations." But obviously, something went awry: The staff brushed her off, and she was not a satisfied customer.
Admittedly, her complaints seem a little unusual. Most people who have food allergies automatically detail them to the restaurant staff -- and in the case of the shish kebab (actually, "brochette of tenderloin"), the menu description points out that it is served on a bed of rice with diavolo sauce. Few diners expect to be personally escorted to the restrooms, either. Still, she might be merely inexperienced or ill at ease. What goes for ordinary in Washington may be overwhelming to strangers.
So ultimately, there's some fault on both sides. The customer should have complained there and then, not gone home dissatisfied. On the staff side, there has to be almost infinite allowance made. Even when customers may seem annoying, eccentric or time-consuming -- hard of hearing? nervous? abashed by the crowds? perhaps an unfamiliarity with English -- waiters should go with the flow until they're bending over backward. It's part of the job. If a customer becomes truly disruptive, the manager should then pick up the tab again (sorry, but it's worth it for everybody) and invite him or her to leave.
What we're wondering now is whether you've been in a situation where you observed an unruly or rude customer and thought the staff over-reacted; whether you thought the offender should have been asked to leave because it discomfitted you or affected your own service; or you admired the way the entire situation was handled. Please write to Courses at Weekend, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20071 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the more usual front, we're happy to point out that several regional restaurants are among those the National Restaurant Association is honoring for their community outreach programs. The First Monday program of the Austin Grill chain, in which one-third of the proceeds from a monthly dinner are donated to charity, last year raised nearly $75,000 for 64 organizations (each Grill branch gets to pick its own beneficiaries). So far this year, the program has brought in more than $45,000 for food banks, shelters, kids' camps, disease research and so on. (This is serious corporate policy: The Cambridge, Mass., Austin Grill donated 50 percent of its first four nights' sales, more than $7,200, to similar groups there.)
J.R.'s Goodtimes caterers in McLean (8130 Watson St.; 703/821-0547), owned by James R. Wordsworth, has been recognized for its youth development programs: building Little League fields and offering its corporate picnic facility as a camp that has served 5,500 children. And two Baltimore restaurateurs, Mary Ann Cricchio of DaMimmo's Italian Cuisine, who has led the Little Italy Restaurant Association into greater community involvement; and Martin Resnick of Martin's Caterers, who has adopted two inner-city schools where students earn dinner "dollars" for good citizenship and academic achievement, also get a tip of our hat.
On Saturday, as part of the Arts on Foot celebration around the Pennsylvania Quarter downtown, some of the neighborhood's most popular chefs, among them Jose Ramon Andres of Cafe Atlantico and Jaleo, Alison Swope of the Mark, Benjamin Paz of Austin Grill, Amanda Boucher of the Palomino Grill and Patrick Bazin of the Occidental Grill, will be cooking/demonstrating/tasting between noon and 5 on the main stage at F Street between Seventh and Ninth streets NW.
And now, gentle readers, Courses is going on vacation, and you're on your own for a while. Eat well, drink thoughtfully and share with good friends.