I recently visited a restaurant out in the sticks of Southwestern PA. It is apparently a local favorite and a novelty because of its location. If you saw my Instagram Stories from that night you know the place. I’ll admit I had low expectations going into it. I looked up the menu prior to driving to this place to find the usual Italian American dishes on the menu with your choice of chicken, veal or shrimp. It wasn’t building my excitement for the meal.
As someone who grew up in the sticks of Northeastern PA, finding good restaurants was rare. When we did find a good restaurant, usually the chef would leave for better things or it closed due to being not what the locals wanted. The restaurants that survived were the ones that served the same bland food and basic dishes.
I was at this particular Southwestern PA restaurant for a small celebration for friends. I had to have my nice game face on, even though I was told by the guests of honor I could be inappropriate if so necessary. Later I found out they didn’t even pick the restaurant, but out of town family picked it with knowing anything about it. So I really tried to behave and hold back some of my judgement of the food. However, it started to become difficult for me as the meal progressed.
I arrived early to dinner and decided to get a drink at the bar. The bar had two bartenders who kept walking away from the bar. It took me a few minutes to get served and then it took me a few minutes to close out because every time the bartenders returned they were swamped. I got a whisky mule and it wasn’t bad but probably light on the whisky. It was served to me in a mule cup with a vodka logo.
Joining the group at the dinner table, our server for the evening was very friendly. She was also very attentive. She also didn’t seem to know how to serve. Many times ahead served our food crossed with the person next to me so she could serve us both at once. Twice I cleared my space to the left then she served me on the right. The main course she literally put on top of my silverware. This didn’t ruin the night. It was just unusual.
Now the food. Oh the food. I said I wasn’t going to take pics, but I just couldn’t resist. And look at the pics below. It’s not disgusting looking, but certainly not very exciting either. It has been years since I had a meal so lacking any seasoning other than salt or MSG and looking so boring that I did not quickly make at home. We started with fried zucchini and a bruschetta topped with roasted peppers and cheese. Both not bad, but better without the red sauce. My soup was a wedding soup, mostly spilled due to the weird serving habit. It was loaded with egg drop as a wedding soup should, but really didn’t have much of a taste. I’m glad I got the soup. If I got the salad, my main course would have arrived before I finished eating it.
My main course was the crown jewel of this dinner. There is a line from Goodfellas “I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup.” I felt the same way. I will say I probably set myself up for disaster. I thought with a friend how could they mess up veal parmesan, but this was after I already ate the flavorless marinara sauce. So I am served my main course, this time with the plate placed on top of my silverware. After I moved my plate, I looked at my meal with some disappointment. I’ll start with the positive that in front of me was a decently sized breaded veal cutlet. That’s about it. The marinara was the same bland dipping sauce from before. There is a strong possibility it was from a can and only heated up. It was covering my veal and my pasta. The melted cheese was a cheaper mozzarella if not a mozzarella and provolone mix. Lastly, my vegetables were boiled or steamed. I believe they were fresh since the green beans and carrots were not cut, but they were seasoned only with salt or MSG. As an aside, I know the restaurant had seasonings and garlic because multiple times they brought out a dish to other diners with so much garlic and could be smelled across the restaurant. So I pretty much ate only the veal and a little of the veggies.
This dining experience left me thinking about a couple things.
- Why don’t you write a bad review?
Many people ask me why I don’t often talk about the bad meals that I have eaten. I’d rather focus my time and resources writing about and promoting a restaurant I truly liked, whether they asked me to visit or I just want to see them succeed for the benefit I keep getting to enjoy their food. I generally feel like it is a waste of time to write a bad review. If a restaurant is bad enough, natural selection will cause it to fail on its own. Now I don’t wish failure on most restaurants. There was an owner or a chef that put a lot of effort into opening that restaurant and creating that menu. My taking time to write a bad review is only going to cause that team to be hurt faster. A restaurant might still be trying to work things out or establish their flavor when I tried them. Usually if I have a bad meal at a restaurant that is new, I will try to go back at least once, especially if other people really love it there. The thing I also try to remember with some restaurants, especially well known establishments, just because I didn’t like that meal, other people must still like it if they have managed to stay open for years and years.
- What should you do at the restaurant when the food is terrible?
So I’ll start with the food. If the food served to you isn’t what you asked for or is not cooked as expected, I believe you should ask to have it corrected within reason. You are paying for that meal. The example I like to use is specifically if you tell the server you are allergic to a specific item, the restaurant agrees they can prepare the meal without it or tell you it’s not in the dish and it arrives with that item you are allergic, then yes send that dish back. The within reason to me is for how you ask meat to be cooked. If you asked for meat to be cooked to a temperature and it is slightly above or below, I do not believe it should be sent back. However, if you asked for rare and it arrives well done, then send it back. To me, there is a line between not very good and inedible. My meal the other night just wanted very good, but I have had in the past a dish taste so bad it’s been sent back or thrown out if it was takeout. Just be reasonable if you need to send it back.
- What should you do at a restaurant when the service is terrible.
First and foremost, at most restaurants, your server is working multiple tables, dealing with many customers (some of whom probably are complete pains in the ass), and they are usually getting paid something like two dollars and change an hour. Servers make most of their money on tips. If the restaurant is really busy, expect to wait a little longer. If the kitchen is slow, it’s probably not your server’s fault. Even the other night, my server might have done things kinda weird, but she was friendly and attentive all evening. One the other hand, there is a restaurant I stopped going to because they consistently hired staff who did not serve or check on the table even when the restaurant was empty. The staff would instead hang out with friends who would visit them at the restaurant. In this case, I left a lower tip, still not nothing but not a good tip. The server still eventually brought me my food and drinks, but not doing your job because you don’t feel like it isn’t acceptable.
- Should I ask to speak to the manager?
Really use your best judgment here. Did you just end up waiting a little longer than expected, but the meal was warm and tasty? Don’t talk to the manager. Did your appetizer arrive after others at the table got their main course? Did your food arrive an hour after ordering? Did the server pour the food in your lap? Yes probably talk to a manager if they have not talked to you already.
I know some people probably won’t agree with some of what I said and that’s fine. But bad restaurant experiences do happen. Just remember sometimes, it really might not be as bad as you think. Other times it might really be ask bad as you think so you some judgment before overreacting. Other times, it might be as bad and you’re going to have to get through it.