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TABLE FULL OF TROUBLE <br> WHEN DINING OUT TURNS INTO A PITCHED BATTLE, NO ONE WINS

Some people dine in a restaurant; others dine on a battleground.

You ought to read my mail!

In fact, you're about to. As restaurant critic for The News, I've heard from hundreds of customers through the years who are unhappy about the way they've been treated. All they wanted was a decent meal in pleasant surroundings, poor devils. A respite from the day's cares, an escape.

Some respite; some escape. Yes, it's true that a few of the letters I get are whiny and a few are unreasonable, not to mention nit-picking.

But an awful lot of them ring true.

Here are some examples of both types. You decide which is which.

We did not make these up.

Remember, please, that incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Broadly speaking, restaurants commit Four Deadly Sins: 1. bad food; 2. small portions; 3. rude service, and 4. filth and other unpleasant environmental conditions.

We've spared you the small-portions and bad-food complaints, because they are so subjective. And we've edited the filth complaints severely -- this is a family newspaper. But even though we've kept them anonymous, the victims are real.

The offending restaurants' names are not given, either. To protect the guilty? Maybe. Restaurateurs, you know who you are. (Or you should know. It's interesting to see how the same restaurants keep turning up.)

So stop snickering, readers, and start thinking. Ask yourself what you would have done if you had been wearing these people's napkins. (Hint: Screaming, yelling or fainting probably would not have helped in these dire cases. And neither would -- as you will see -- calling the cops.)

Just to start you thinking, when it seemed appropriate we asked some of the area's best-known restaurateurs and food experts -- those most definitely not connected with the places where the incidents took place, please note -- for some of their thoughts.

We entered the restaurant through a very dark foyer and my husband accidentally stepped on a big dog's foot or tail -- whichever. It startled all of us, with the dog yelping the loudest and bringing his owner immediately to our aid. (He owned the restaurant, too.)

We patted the dog and calmed him down, and not long after the owner seated us, we heard another loud yelping. Yes! It was the same dumb dog being stepped on by yet another unsuspecting customer.

By the way, what's a live dog doing in a restaurant anyway?

Good question. John Kociela, director of the Erie County Department of Environmental Health, the agency responsible for restaurant inspections, has this to say:

"Dogs are allowed in restaurants only if they are guide dogs. In fact, no live animals are allowed."

With the exception of fish tanks, we would presume.

After the waitress arrived and gave us menus, I asked to have the swordfish grilled without the honey mustard sauce -- no substitutions, just leave it off. Her reply: "Choose another dish."

She said she had "absolutely no communication with the chef" and could only write down "sword" on the order. I did order it anyway and she stood there and watched me scrape off the sauce. I believe that any restaurant where the waitress has absolutely no communication with the chef is not a 3 1/2 -star restaurant.

We agree, and so does every restaurateur we talked to. "Talking to the help is vital," one owner said. Our sympathies to the waitress. And our advice: Choose another job.

Two more examples of bad judgment, not quite as venal:

On all other occasions when we dined at the restaurant, my wife was presented with a single red rose, a very elegant gesture to top off an evening of gracious dining. Much to our disappointment this time, the ladies in our party left empty-handed.

I discreetly mentioned this to the server and he stated the restaurant no longer did this because the costs were getting too high. He was evidently not aware that I had just seen a rose presented to the lady at the very next table. When I pointed this out to him, he became a bit flustered and insisted that she had probably taken it out of the bud vase.

But as we left, we saw three different couples waiting at the coat room -- and each lady was carrying a rose.

And ...

The major problem was, we asked for more rolls. The waiter asked us how many we wanted! In all my travels around the world and in this country, I never had this question asked before.

After taking a poll, it turned out that three of us wanted another roll. The waiter then brought out two rolls because that was all the chef would allow.

Whoops -- here's another problem:

Our server served the main dishes brusquely and hastily. I was the last one to be served the lobster tail dinner I had ordered. The lobster fell off the plate onto the table. She quickly picked it up with her bare hands, put it back on the plate and wiped the tablecloth of the spices, etc., that stuck to it.

"Sorry," she said. Then she disappeared.

"I would tell the server that you paid for lobster on the plate, not lobster on the table," said John Kociela.

"But my first concern is the picking up with the bare hands -- as long as, that is, the surface of the table was clean.

"The waitress should have used something else -- two clean forks from another table, maybe, or gone back into the kitchen for a plastic glove."

The occasion was my in-laws' 40th wedding anniversary, so my husband ordered a surprise anniversary cake. At the time we were seated, we noticed that (a Buffalo Sabre) was seated next to us with a party of six.

We waited patiently for a slowly arriving dinner and could not help noticing that our waiter was giving the Sabre's table a lot more attention than ours was receiving.

And needless to say, the cake was forgotten by the waiter and we weren't even offered a refill on our coffee. We asked for the check and received it 15 minutes later.

The whole evening was still bothering me the next day, so I tried to reach the manager, but no one ever called me back.

John Tronolone of Oliver's thinks this is a very sad story. "They were looking forward to the celebration and then it was ruined," he noted.

"But I would have tried to take care of it early in the evening when I saw what was beginning to happen. I would have asked to see the maitre d' and said, 'I understand tonight is busy, and I kind of feel we're being ignored. I'm a little bit nervous because we are supposed to have a cake.'

"Then, if nothing happened, I'd get upset.

"As far as not getting the call back, that is terrible. It only takes a minute or two to return a call."

Only three tables were occupied -- the waitress was more interested in sitting down at the other tables and chatting. We waited 20 minutes for our order to be taken, and for some water. There was another long wait for the meal, and when my elderly father inquired when it would arrive, the waitress said, "Hey, I don't cook it."

After waiting for our check and paying it, she proceeded to tell us that she had given us the wrong change and had my father fish out various dollar bills from his wallet. At no time was there an apology.

Enough is enough. We left without leaving a tip, because for the first time in all my years of tipping, usually at the 20 percent range (I was a waitress at one time myself), no tip was deserved. When we reached our car in the parking lot, the employee chased after us demanding to know why we had not left her a tip. We just drove away!

We say hurrah, but we wouldn't leave it at that. We'd report the incident to the manager, because this employee is ruining his restaurant.

That, incidentally, is just what this reader did:

I ordered the Hot and Sour Soup, and when the waiter went to serve it to me, he dropped the entire steaming-hot bowl of soup onto my lap. I felt certain that I had been scalded and reacted accordingly.

The only thing the hostess/owner ever did, after inquiring if I was all right, was to give me an ice-filled napkin that I myself requested to apply to my thigh.

The following day I received telephone calls from people who were in the restaurant, inquiring as to the condition of my leg and if she took some money off the check. (She didn't.) I never heard from the owner at all.

Bob Malott of Sequoia agrees that the situation was handled badly. "I'd ask the customer to get up and bring her into the kitchen and ice her down," he said. "I'd get her out of the dining room immediately, that's for sure.

"If the situation looked serious, I'd call an ambulance, too.

"Of course, I'd comp the whole meal for everyone at the table and apologize profusely. Obviously, I'd take care of cleaning bills and follow up the incident with phone calls."

Without shifting the blame, however, we have another comment: The patron should have spoken up (after she got the ice) and told the owner exactly what recompense she wanted.

Another day, another restaurant:

When we entered, there was no host or hostess to greet patrons. It took half an hour to receive our drinks. When we were served our $35 bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, the waitress spilled wine while pouring.

The mornay sauce appetizer was made with fake crabmeat; canned mushrooms were used in the sauce. The steak was served bloody rare though I requested medium, and when it was returned to me it had been microwaved.

When we aired some complaints with our waitress and asked to see the owner -- the check was $300 for four of us -- we were informed he was engaged in a problem on the third floor. After 45 minutes of waiting we were told he had gone home for the evening.

Rather than wait any longer, we told our waitress we would be having an after-dinner drink at the restaurant next door until someone in authority could speak to us. And suddenly it turned out that the owner was there after all. Actually, he had been standing at the side watching the situation develop.

It was at this point that six police officers entered the restaurant to force us to pay our bill.

"The owner should have been there immediately," says Don Warfe, of Just Pasta on Bryant Street and at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. "And the fact that he wasn't means he deserved a letter like this.

"I certainly would have bent over backward, and if the customers were that unhappy with the meal, I would have waived the check.

"He could have said: 'We're only human. I'm sorry we slipped up tonight. I hope this means that you will try us again.' "

We say: Boil that wimpy proprietor in his own olive oil (extra virgin, of course). Don't go back, and tell all your friends.

My husband and I arrived at 6 p.m. to join our friends in the barroom, where there is one round table for five or six people. They had arrived at 5:45 and had ordered two drinks each. When we got there, we ordered another drink. We waited to order until 6:30 because my sister was late.

Our dinners came and we ordered coffee. We paid the bill and the waitress asked us if we wanted more coffee. We leisurely sat and drank our coffee. The waitress kept asking us if we wanted more.

At exactly 7:45, the owner came over to our table and started screaming at us and asked if we were going to order more food. He then shouted to us to get out and that we were the most inconsiderate people that he knew, as he had people waiting for tables and how could we be so inconsiderate?

I was embarrassed and flabbergasted and said we'd never return. He said he never wanted us back again. My husband asked if he could finish his coffee first, and the owner said, "Go ahead, you've been sitting here for three hours anyway."

We quickly got up and left in humiliation. My husband and I are in our 50s and dine out at least twice a week, and this has never happened to us before.

There's a certain amount of insensitivity on both sides here. Why did the husband ask to finish what appears from the letter to be his 22nd cup of coffee?

But of course, the real fault is the owner's. Talk about lack of communication! Why didn't the owner talk to the waitress? The classic way to get people to move from a table is to stop giving them coffee. (Also clearing the table of all silverware.)

But many restaurateurs are cooler than that. They ask if they can buy the customers an after-dinner drink at the bar, maybe. This guy is a dolt.

What to do? Leave immediately.

Don't go back, and tell all your friends.

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