Get a group of frequent restaurant-goers together, and soon enough their note-sharing will reveal the small things that can diminish an otherwise nice experience. Are we talking #FirstWorldproblems here? Absolutely. Does that stop us from venting? Absolutely not.
In the restaurant of my dreams, the food is thoughtful, the portions are reasonable, the service is impeccable and the napkins are a non-issue. Realistically, I’d be happy to start with that last one.
(Now’s the time for readers who dine only in white-tablecloth, white-napkin places to move along to the next rant in this package — maybe the one about unhelpful restaurant Web sites. Your personal assistants will be able to relate.)
I’m not asking for much. A napkin should stay put on your lap and mop up threatening spots and spills, right? Maybe feel nice against your skin. These days, if a mid-range restaurant wants to roll its place settings in durable, colorfast fabric, the choice is 100 percent polyester.
But not just any polyester. Geek alert: The one we diners want in a restaurant napkin is called spun polyester, because its short fibers are woven into a cottony web that can trap droplets of liquid. The other stuff is called basic, or filament, polyester and is made of continuous fiber, akin to fishing line wrapped around a spool. That doesn’t leave much room for absorption, yet the fiber can play permanent host to food odors.
I’ve had recent run-ins with the basic poly. Those napkins slid to the floor and transported salsa drips to my clothes, remaining stain-free vehicles themselves. Infuriating. Some felt a little slick, and some smelled a little like old grease.
Why would any restaurateur opt for Plan B? Not to thin customer ranks, certainly. Basic poly napkins can cost half as much to rent than the spun-poly kind — and rental’s the name of the game for just about all restaurants that aren’t attached to hotels or facilities that do their own laundry.
It’s possible that some of my encounters were with spun-poly napkins that hadn’t been cleaned properly. Kristin Dempsey is vice president of sales and marketing for Baltimore-based Dempsey Uniform & Linen Supply, a business her dad co-founded in 1959. It washes a half-million pounds of linens every week. The company counts Chez Billy Sud and DBGB among its D.C. customers; I don’t think she was trying to win a Post account when she explained everything that goes into the maintenance of good-quality polyester restaurant napkins, such as the right surfactants to dislodge grease and the high-tech, high-speed machines that sanitize, dry and iron.
Bottom line: When any kind of poly napkin isn’t washed right, food fats and odors essentially will coat or infuse fibers for the long haul.
“I do a test for potential clients that works every time,” she says. Dempsey puts a drop of clean water on a clean napkin. “A properly washed spun-poly one should completely absorb the drop in well under three seconds,” she says. “The cleaner the fabric, the faster the water will absorb.”
I tried it at a strip-mall restaurant the other night. The water immediately rolled off, into my shoe. I’m thinking the next time I eat there, I might bring my own cloth napkin from home.