Friday, January 1, 2010

A Follow Up Visit to Parker's: Reflections on a Bad Experience

Parker's on Urbanspoon

I've been trying to write this post for some time now. The What The Fork incident that inspired it really torqued me off. I've been stewing/seething over it, trying to think of a way to turn it into a positive experience, to look for some deeper lesson, to not sound like a PO'd crank tossing verbal hand grenades from the anonymity of the blogosphere. I think I finally reconciled the experience, or perhaps rationalized it. So, for what it may be worth, here it goes-

The Incident:

Some time ago, in the not-so-distant past, I had a special occasion to celebrate. A particularly thoughtful friend had supplied me with a gift certificate to Parker's and the Secret Salad Fork hadn't been there yet, so a trip to Parker's was most definitely in order. A couple days before the special occasion, I figured I better call for a reservation. If you are in any way tuned-in to the food scene in Sioux Falls, you should immediately recognize that Parker's is the "it" place right now. Yes, Parker's can get busy and reservations are definitely recommended.

Unfortunately, getting a reservation for dinner was almost an insurmountable task, but not for the reason one would expect. I had a difficult time getting a reservation because NO ONE WOULD ANSWER THE FORKING PHONE. Parker's has an answering machine, but I am not sure why. A message was left, but alas, no call was returned. Under most circumstances, I would have ceased all efforts to patronize an establishment that presents such challenges to doing so. I really wanted to go, though. I tried again- no answer. After my last call, literally placed from a cell phone from across the street, went unanswered, I resorted to walking in to get a reservation.

But wait, it gets better (or worse, depending on one's perspective). As I patiently waited at the host station, the phone started ringing, Ha! The sucker should have known you can't actually call for a reservation, you have to walk in like I did. Wrong. I got to stand there and wait while Stacy answered the telephone and booked a reservation! This takes several minutes. While standing right there, trying to will my blood pressure out of the danger range, I am also intently noting the reservation that is being booked. It's for the date and time I wanted. And it's for a group! Now my vision is starting to blur. I just knew I was going to get hosed because lucky caller 13 actually got through to a live person and I was going to helplessly watch the situation unfold.

Finally, Stacy gets the reservation booked and has an opportunity to address the hapless walk-in, me. Sure, she'd be happy to make a reservation, but it takes several awkward moments to find the book wherein she just noted the reservation for the group that phoned it in minutes ago. Once found, and reviewed, it is noted that the restaurant will be particularly busy at the appointed date and time because several groups will be coming in. (No kidding. I was standing right here when it happened.) Perhaps I am interested in coming in earlier, for instance an hour, or so, earlier. What I should have said was, "No, thank you. It's a special occasion and I'd really prefer not to adjust my plans." Instead, I said, "That'll be fine." By God, I went in there to get a reservation and I was going to come out with a reservation. Of course, I then spent the balance of the evening running over and over this series of events making myself angry all the while.

Interestingly, when we presented ourselves for dinner, both the Secret Salad Fork and I shared the opinion that it didn't appear the good folks at Parker's had the reservation noted.

So, how was the food? Great. Get down there and try the duck before the menu changes. It's absolutely divine. That's all I am saying about the food, though. This post isn't about the food.

Overall, we didn't think the entire experience was so hot. We weren't shown to a table- we were seated at a "two-top." (I know that's restaurant lingo, but I don't need to hear it as a customer.) I want to be shown to my table. The aforementioned two-top was located in the front of the establishment, near the huge glass window which does a phenomenal job of transmitting South Dakota's extreme winter temperature to the inside. (It was chilly. Not intolerable, but chilly.) Service was okay, insofar as orders were accurately taken and food delivered. No fresh fish, which sent the Secret Salad Fork into a tizzy. The Secret Salad Fork loves fresh fish when dining out and failure to meet that expectation will generally immediately change the tone and tenor of the evening. No one comes by to refill water. Desert isn't that hot. The owner's oldest son is observed walking around chomping on a piece of bread.

We left. Well nourished in a physical sense, but spiritually unsatisfied.


After much thought, and several attempts to write this post, it finally occurred to me what my problem was and what are the take aways. My problem was that I was so put off by the whole debacle of trying to get a reservation, that I became hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight or error. I will be honest enough to admit that some of this still lingers when I visit Parker's. It put a burr under my saddle, a chip on my shoulder, a bee in my bonnet, and it's going to take some time to earn back my full trust. A great restaurant should leave a person talking about the food, but also thinking that the service was attentive without being obtrusive. The owners not only appreciated the patronage, but made the diners feel welcome. In short, a person should leave with a strong desire to come back. Soon.

What are the take aways? In no particular order of importance, here are a few thoughts:
  • You're only as good as the weakest link in the chain. A trip to a restaurant, especially one holding itself out as a premier fine dining establishment, should be a total experience. The food should be great, but the staff should be equally warm and engaging. Wait staff need to be more than delivery personnel. Parker's has spot-on, out of sight, insanely good food. But, if the front-of-house staff, including owners, cannot match that level, the experience is not what it should be.
  • Some things can't be fixed. Face it. People screw up. It happens. Reservations are going to get lost. A steak is going to get overcooked. These things can be remedied quickly. A round of drinks, a complimentary bottle of wine, free desert for the table, or even comping the whole meal can salvage a whole lot of goodwill lost through simple, or even big mistakes. Heck, even a simple apology can do the trick. A good server can tell immediately when a diner isn't happy with some aspect of the food and sweep in for the rescue with a fix. But how do you fix a crappy front of house experience? I am yet to have a server come up to me and say, "I'm having a difficult day and I've kind of treated you a little like crap tonight, so let me get dessert for you." Look, we all have those days, but certain people just aren't allowed to have a bad day at work. Brain surgeons and airline pilots immediately come to mind. But that also goes for wait staff, bartenders, maitre d's, owners, and other people who collectively make up the face of a restaurant. I don't care if your kid wrecked the car and lied about flunking her geometry final, you don't get to take that stuff to work and inflict any sense of it on the guests. If you aren't fully prepared to give a 100% performance, stay home.
  • Most people, if not the vast majority of people, aren't going to say anything about bad or sub-par service. Should I or could I have said something about the difficulty of making a reservation? Maybe, but I knew I had to blog about this and I wasn't going to blow my cover. Besides, I wanted to see if Stacy was going to ask me why I didn't just call to make the reservation. She didn't. (Okay, last rant about walking in to get a reservation. Doesn't that strike you as a tad odd? Who walks into a downtown restaurant for the distinct purpose of making a reservation for another evening? Who doesn't use a telephone to make reservations in Sioux Falls? Really? This doesn't pique your interest just a teeny bit? End of last rant.) Anonymity notwithstanding, I probably wouldn't have said anything anyway. Perhaps I am just overly passive-aggressive. Maybe I was scarred by the experience of watching a friend who was supposed to be treating me to dinner deliver an unreasonable tongue-lashing to a waitress for a series of minor faux pas. (Some people think a license to bitch is included in the price of the meal.) Maybe I just don't want to rat out a server to the boss because I am afraid he will spit in my salad next time. Maybe the owner doesn't seem too approachable. There is a very narrow tier of people between the jackasses who live to make a scene and the people who would rather suffer in silence. I think most people will not register a complaint- they just won't come back, or at least come back as often.
  • It's important to treat all people like they are special. I could be wrong, or perhaps am still under the influence of my hyper-sensitivity, but from the times I have been there, I would say the ownership-types at Parker's are pretty good at warming up to the friends and favorites (folks who dine there weekly or more, or who own insurance companies, for instance) and not so good at making the new faces feel like part of the in-crowd. If I was seated at a table nearby say a prominent local lawyer who has announced his candidacy for Governor, I bet I wouldn't get a fraction of the wit and charm that would be exchanged there. Granted, people will always have friends, family, and special customers that get treated a little better, but you have to try to treat everyone like they are special.
  • Answer the forking phone and return messages. I'd bet anyone a pound of fois gras that if I called The French Laundry in Napa Valley right now to make a reservation, someone would answer the telephone. I don't have any delusions that I would actually get a reservation, but at least I'd talk to a real human being, who would probably apologize for my disappointment and suggest a better time to try to make a reservation.
  • Don't list things on the menu if you can't serve them with regularity. One of the most interesting lessons I have learned somewhat recently is that expectations can be managed. Sincerely. If you list a fresh fish on the menu, you have created the expectation that a fresh fish is available every day. Gumbo is on the menu. Gumbo is available every day. If the fresh fish menu item is not available every day, you have failed to manage the expectation. For a whole lot of people, like the Secret Salad Fork, a few shrimps on a salad or in a pasta dish is not a reasonable substitute for a piece of fish. There are two clear fixes for this: (1) take the fresh fish off the damned menu and offer it as an extra special feature on the occasions you actually have it or (2) have plan B ready. If the plane flying in the Mahi Mahi from Hawaii crashes in the Rockies, good thing you have some halibut or salmon on hand. This isn't complicated stuff.
I know others gush about the service at Parker's, but for me, lately, the front of house just hasn't risen to match the caliber of the food.