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Mandatory Waiting Period

Restaurants need some time before being seriously evaluated

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Last week, I had dinner at a new place that looks like it will have a bright future.

The menu is straightforward and focused, service is amiable and efficient, prices reasonable. And what they do focus on, they do very, very well. It's been open for about a month now, and business is hopping. The quality of the food speaks for itself, and there's been good word of mouth--but matters had to be helped along by a recent positive review in the morning paper. The owners admitted their surprise at being reviewed so soon after they'd opened, but they were happy campers.

A long, long time ago, in that newsroom far, far away, we used to have a guideline that a restaurant needed to be open for six months before it would be reviewed. The logic was simple: Six months would give the place the opportunity to shake itself out. Restaurant reviews are tricky things in any case, much less when done at the nerve-wracking beginning of what has been an expensive investment of money and time. Nothing is fully familiar and a habit--from kitchen equipment to supplies to flow. The front- and back-of-the-house staff has yet to develop the dynamic tension which will come in time.

The fact of the matter is that I am not keen on restaurant reviews in general, although I've done scores of them in years past. It takes so little to have a disastrous impact--a server or cook may have had bad news at home and be distracted, or a vendor may have not come through with a product. There are 100 things that can happen which have nothing to do with the intent or the skills of the house. Besides, each diner is his own best critic, or should be.

For months now, I've been looking forward to the opening of another restaurant fairly close to home, noting the repainting of the exterior, the new signs, the repaving of the parking lot, as I've passed by on the way to or from someplace. I've spent lots of evenings and dollars and moods over many years in the same place during its previous incarnation, which has added to the expectation.

It opened at last about a month ago, and I gave it a week before trying it out--not to review it, since I don't do that, remember, but hopefully to inaugurate a new and convenient haunt in a place offering types of food of which I am particularly fond.

The first night, the hostess seated me, as chance would have it, at one of the two tables I customarily had in the old days. The warm and fuzzies started immediately. And wore off in the next 20 minutes as servers darted back and forth without stopping, because my table, apparently, was in uncharted territory. I did get lots of water from a very nice busperson. When I flagged the hostess down, she was concerned and had a hurried staff consult with several people, returning herself to take my order, once we'd established the fact that I had not yet been given a menu. Shortly thereafter, I had an iced tea and an appetizer in front of me and, a few minutes later, a napkin and silverware.

The place wasn't busy, so I felt OK about reading the book I had brought with me. Never travel without a book--ANYWHERE--but NEVER settle in to read a book at a busy restaurant. They need to turn those tables, after all, and it ain't a library. I'm a fast reader, but still, several chapters in, I was wanting to consume something more than elegant strings of words. When I was able to make eye contact with the hostess, she came over and was shocked that I was still without my meal. Another consultation followed with the assurance that it would be right out. Another chapter passed, and still no meal. By this time, I'd been at the table for nearly an hour, and when I caught her attention again, I asked if they could just box it for me to take home. THAT happened rapidly. When I got home, I found that what I unboxed was not what I'd ordered. The food was OK; I was hungry, and I chalked it up to new restaurantitis.

A few nights later, I went back with poor Andrew in tow. We were seated in a booth way off in the South 40. The thought did run through my mind that given my previous experience when my table was in sight of the kitchen entryway and in the flight path of every server in the place, our Elba-like seating didn't bode well. On the other hand, we were one of only two parties in the place, so I figured we wouldn't be lost. I was wrong. Our server explained that approximately half the items on the voluminous menu were unavailable for personnel reasons, but we still had plenty of choices. We had lots of time to deal with personal and global issues. When the food finally arrived, we did the dance of procuring silverware and napkins and, once again, I set about eating something I hadn't ordered.

Last week, I dropped in again. (Don't ask ... I try to give a place my best shot.) It was only 7:30 or so, but the hostess and a couple of staffers in the lobby seemed tired and dispirited. This time, I was shown to a table in the middle of the main dining room, and, as I was the only guest in the restaurant, the service was much improved. I ordered soup and a beef filet sautéed with garlic and butter. We did the cutlery-napkin waltz again. I was able to doctor the soup into something quite tasty, and the garlic-and-butter flavors were quite pleasing despite the fact that they dressed fish rather than beef.

The rule at this esteemed publication calls for a three-month waiting period before reviewing a new place. Six months, three months, whatever--I hope it's a fair enough period of time for the shakedown this place needs. And maybe, just maybe, I will read that review before I go back.

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