1. Deafening Music. Music has come to intrude on the dining experience in ways that would’ve been unheard of even a decade ago—and yes, that’s a service issue. Twice in the last few months I’ve watched dining patrons request a change in the music: Once at Bastille, where the waiter agreed the shrill soundtrack was an unusual departure from its usual Gallic standards, and changed it; and once at Le Petit Cochon, where the diner objected to the loud alt music, the waiter replaced it with loud jazz—and the diner got up and left anyway. Likely, the problem she thought she had with music style was really a problem with music volume. Why don’t restaurants get this? (These ones do, fyi.)
2. Disjointed Dinners. The latest thing in Seattle dining is the arrival of food when it’s ready—not timed to coincide with, say, when your dining companion gets her food, or even in what order the courses are supposed to arrive. It’s happening all over town, most reliably in places with (hard-to-time) wood-burning ovens, and it can render dinner a spectacularly awkward affair where one person eats and everyone else stares longingly. Sure, they can share it. Sure, they can lavish all their attention upon it like card-carrying connoisseurs. Sure, they can wait patiently for theirs to come. Only that’s not how most of us want to enjoy dinner with our companions.
3. Mystery Meals. Once upon a time, a diner knew what s/he was ordering from the description on the menu. (For a time at the verbose dawn of Nouvelle Cuisine, a diner over-knew what s/he was getting, down to the herbs sprinkled on the garnish.) That day is gone, replaced by a new minimalism in menu description that leaves preparations vague and arcane food terms undefined. Take my friend who recently ordered the Gojira burger at Tanakasan, only to discover when it arrived that it had no buns. Instead it came enclosed in the cabbage-stuffed Japanese pancakes, okanomiyaki—a novel bit of fusion the diner should have been told about in more than a mention of the Japanese word. Would that, as critics often grumble, constitute dumbing the menu down? No one’s asking for kindergarten-level descriptions. Besides, better the menu seem a little dumb than the diner, who the restaurant has forced into a position of ignorance. Diners frequently tell me that they feel intimidated when restaurants throw around the names of Italian cheeses or Spanish fish (or Japanese pancake-bun-substitutes) as if they were obvious—so intimidated they won’t even ask their waiter for illumination. Which argues against the reason restaurants give for being minimalist in the first place: To pique the diner to engage the waiter into the kind of mouthwatering description that makes sales. Instead, it widens the snob divide that makes a certain kind of restaurant an unapproachable parody of itself.
4. Waiter Withholding. Similar to the last, but somehow more disappointing, is waiters neglecting to tell diners important stuff about the menu set-up. I’m thinking now of our waiter at Aragona, who forgot to inform us that the platos principales were sharable proteins and the arroces were sharable rice dishes—leaving one of us to slog through a huge rice platter as her dinner. Sigh. How hard is it to remember to share that critical intel with the diner—particularly in this age of small-plates, vegetable platters, and shared proteins?
5. The Social Media Slam. A few weeks ago I reported that when the owner/chef of Art of the Table disapproved of the actions of some of his customers, he posted the experience on Facebook and Twitter—thereby igniting a roaring debate on the use of social media as a diner-shaming device. This is happening across the country, from the restaurateur who tweet-dissed her customers about their food ignorance to the celeb chef who tweet-dissed a couple for bringing a wailing infant to his restaurant. Does the latter chef have a point? Possibly. Is Twitter the place for him to air it? Hell no. Passive-aggression should never be mistaken for customer relations.