Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, we’ve got more stories of truly great restaurant customers. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
I work in a fairly upper-class restaurant in Australia, where all waitstaff are required by law to get the same minimum wage as everyone else in the country. As a result, our tip culture essentially boils down to “Tips are not expected, but you can leave a tip if you think you received good service as a nice extra bonus.” The restaurant I work in is fairly nice, and I am proud of our good food and service, so we do often get tips, but they’re rarely more than a few dollars. Certainly never more than 10%. So basically, any time you get a big tip is an unexpected delight. And I can’t speak for other places, but tips in my restaurant are generally shared by the whole waitstaff working that night since we don’t have assigned sections or tables. The way we work is basically “whoever is free does the thing that needs doing.”
So the other night I’m taking an order for a table of eight. It is a busy Saturday night and we are packed. I recognise two of the customers at the head of the table, they’ve been there before, but not quite enough to become regulars. I assume they’ve brought their friends with them tonight to enjoy this restaurant they like! We’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. X.
Now, like I said, our restaurant is a lil on the fancy side, so we have two menus: a six-course degustation menu, and the regular a la carte menu. Seven of the eight customers order the degustation menu. Customer number eight, he decides he wants to order from the a la carte menu. One appetizer and one main. Fair enough, happens all the time. People decide the degustation menu is too much food for them and back out. HOWEVER.
As with all clients who do this at a table where everyone else is having the degustation, I ask him whether he would like to eat his main course at the same time everyone else’s main course is brought out, or whether he would like to eat his main slightly earlier. I explain to him that for a table of 7-8 on a Saturday night, in my experience, it usually takes around 90 minutes to get through the first four courses and onto the main course. I warn, he could be waiting some time for his main. On the other hand, it’s no problem for the kitchen to cook it earlier and bring it out while the others are having their third or fourth course instead. He waves me off and tells me it’s fine, please bring his main out with all the others. I ask if he’d like a share plate to share food with his friends who are eating the degustation menu. Nope. Okay.
Time passes. The first four courses go out smoothly and the table is waiting on their mains. It has been approximately 90 minutes, as I predicted. However, about five minutes before the mains are scheduled to be done, Customer Number 8 decides to haul me over to his table and summarily dress me down and yell at me for the mains taking so long to come out of the kitchen. “What’s taking so long?! This is simply unacceptable. I’ve been waiting for an hour and a half! Terrible service!” And so on and so forth.
I make all the standard profuse and polite apologies and tell him that the mains will be out very shortly but I’ll go check on them again for him, etc. I go back to my station though after checking in on the food status in the kitchen, and my fellow servers clamour around me because they heard it all go down and want to know if I’m okay. I shrug them off, because at this point there’s literally nothing I can do about it. The food is on its way and will be ready when it’s ready. Also, he WAS warned. Also, to be bluntly honest, on my scale of customer assholery, this one barely even rates.
Less than a minute later, Mrs. X excuses herself from the table and follows me back to my station and apologises profusely for her friend, saying that he’s always like that and she’s very sorry and we’re doing just great and the food is lovely and everyone else is having a great time! Aw, excellent. I thank her and think nothing more of it.
At the end of the night, someone else takes care of the bill for their table because I was busy waiting on another table. The waitress who took care of the bill later informs me: apparently, not only did they tip 10% (again, reminder that that is a lot for a tip in Aus), but Mrs. X had also left an extra $40 on top of that tip that she left “just for me” all because her friend had shouted at me! NICE. Yeah, I’ll take that.
For years, I was a regular at a very nice small fine dining place in San Francisco (the Brazen Head). The owner had started there as a waiter and was attentive to even the smallest details to ensure his customers were happy — including the music. He told me he carefully chose instrumental music with particular soothing themes. I told him that while I loved his restaurant, I was certain nobody paid attention to the music and it had zero effect on the (again, great!) dining experience.
And thus we decided to make a bet. I would compile a CD of music from 70’s porn films and he’d play it on loop all night while I sat at the bar getting sloshed. If anyone complained, I’d tip his bartender 100% of my check. If no one did, my tab was comped and he was on the hook for the bartender’s (same) large tip.
I won. The bartender took the CD home as a souvenir, and despite the staff begging the owner to repeat this every now and then, he wouldn’t do it.
When I was 19, I was working my way through college as a waitress at a 24-hour diner in Bakersfield, California. Anyone from California knows that Bakersfield is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad place. I had lots of awful customers but some great regulars.
One guy in particular was a retired sheriff’s officer named Jack who would come in most days to grab coffee at the counter and bullshit with the waitresses. We’d formed a friendship and he’d often catch my eye to ask which part of the counter was my section before sitting down. We shared terrible jokes to make each other laugh while he drank a $2.50 cup of coffee with free refills. Often he was my favorite part of the night.
It was pretty well known that I lived across town and one night I was telling another waitress how my car had broken down so I was bummed at having to take a cab home since no buses ran that late. Jack overheard me and started asking about how much a trip like that would cost. I told him I wasn’t sure since this would be the first time I’d done it but I was expecting around $30.
Jack looked around the mostly empty, late night restaurant and offered me a bet. He said he didn’t think a cab could possibly cost that much. He told me cabs shouldn’t cost more than $15, especially late at night. He offered to bet me whatever I wanted and I said “a cup of coffee.” He asked if that’s all I was willing to bet and I joked that if I had $30 rides home each night, the coffee would be all I could afford. We both laughed. That night the cab ride home cost me $27.75; it was basically all my tips for the night.
The next night, Jack came in and sat at my counter section. He asked about my ride and proclaimed cabs bullshit for charging me so much. Then he asked for his free refill. I turned to get the coffee pot, and when I came back Jack was gone, but $52.50 was left under his coffee mug.
While I was in college, I worked part-time at a small pizzeria doing kitchen prep. It mainly consisted of making pizza dough, dinner and pizza sauces, cooking pasta, slicing meat for sandwiches and pizza toppings.
One day someone answered a call from a concerned customer who wanted to speak to the chef. Since they didn’t order pizza and most of our food was pre-made (frozen or canned), I was the closest we had to a chef.
The customer was very polite and asked me if we had an open window in the kitchen. I didn’t understand why she would ask, but I still answered. “No. There are no windows at all in our kitchen.” The customer then asked why there was a leaf in her spaghetti. This really caught me off guard for a few seconds, before I realized that a bay leaf was left in the sauce. “We normally pick this out when the sauce is done cooking, but we must have missed it.” In the most polite way possible, the customer was still questioning me about it (this was before the internet days, so I couldn’t say “just google it”). I tried to explain what a bay leaf is, but she still wanted to drive back to the restaurant “to get to the bottom of this.”
When she came by, I took out a bay leaf from a jar and showed one to her. Her eyes grew while she held this magical dry leaf in her hand. “Really? That’s such an innovative way to cook! I really have to look up some Italian cookbooks!” We gave her a few leaves in a bag just to make her happy. She walked out smiling like she had just learned our secret recipe.
Once, my terrible ex-boyfriend and I, accompanied by fifteen of his horrible friends, went to a typical Sunday Brunch in Long Beach. Bottomless mimosas, brunch food etc. I’m vegan and I was driving a whole lot of these idiots back home after said brunch so there wasn’t much on the menu for me, I stuck to water and took on the impossible job of trying to dissuade this group from getting their umpteenth pitcher of shitty champagne and orange juice. They were loud, obnoxious, rude and completely took over the back patio to the point the hostess stopped seating people back there because of what I assume was a horde of rightful complaints. By the end we had five waitresses chipping in trying to handle the absolute chaos that ensued out back, how they didn’t just kick everyone out is a measure of patience I aspire to. I was mortified and did everything in my power to control this group, who had now degenerated into inbred ass-wipes.
Check comes around and of course everyone has separate cards, everyone wants to pay for their own meal to the penny and NO ONE can do such simple math as adding up their share of the bill because they’re three sheets to the fucking wind. I see my opportunity and pounce. Being the sober friend I announce I’ll do my duty and tally everything up for them. They agree with cheers and a few more chugs.
Tally it up I did.
I arranged each card in alphabetical order with a corresponding written list of alphabetical charges on the back of the receipt. At their demands I wrote to the penny the charge to each card—and including an extra 20% tip of the total bill onto each and every card, on top of the included gratuity.
I broke up with my then-boyfriend that night.
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu? Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.