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Whenever I eat out these days, I am sadly disappointed in every aspect of my dining experience. It is rare to find a restaurant that delivers exceptional quality and service.

Here's a perfect example. Upon entering a restaurant on a Saturday night, I step into a puddle of sticky fruit juice that looks like it has been there for a week. Then the hostess leads me to a table in the smoking area after I specifically requested a nonsmoking booth. As I sit down to review the menu for 15 minutes, an apathetic waitress with a war-painted face saunters over to take my order.

Suddenly, utter chaos ensues. The table begins wobbling like a ship amidst a violent storm. The ceiling fan blows arctic air over my head, and a screaming baby throws her bottle on the floor. Out of the corner of my eye, two 5-year-old boys are participating in a french fry fight. At the other end of the room, a full tray of food falls to the ground with a roaring clatter. If this is what a typical dining experience is like, count me out.

As a general rule, don't expect to get precisely what you ordered. For example, if you ask for a hot meatloaf dinner, it may arrive cold. If you prefer filet mignon cooked medium well, you could easily get a raw slab of butcher-block meat.

Then there is the matter of appetite. You have to be extremely famished to devour everything on your gigantic plate. Restaurant portion sizes are grossly exaggerated and are usually too large for one's preference. You end up feeling like an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey. It's no wonder there are such high cholesterol and obesity rates in our society.

It isn't until your meal arrives that you begin to appreciate the comfort and value of a home-cooked meal. Take the waitress who hurriedly flings a coffee cup at me, and spills it all over my white shirt. Or the salad with brown soggy lettuce, crunchy tomatoes and pitted olives. The eating utensils are spotted with dried grease and the tablecloth looks like a wet finger-painted canvas.

My "mouth-watering" roast beef sandwich is the color of a pink flamingo. After I order something more appealing, I receive a boneless chicken sandwich on a chipped platter 30 minutes later. Studying it like a biological specimen, I slowly take a bite. Three crunches later, I nearly break my teeth on a sharp bone that feels like a one-inch lead nail. I finally give up and munch on stale potato chips, which have turned green around the edges. Not once did the waitress come back to ask me how everything was.

After gnawing on bits and pieces of this awful grub, I hungrily get up from the table without leaving a tip. Handing my money to the cashier without a word or smile, I exit the restaurant instantly.

I used to believe this only happened in fast-food establishments, but it is slowly creeping into reputable restaurants. Numerous times they have come up short in both service and quality. It makes you wonder how such places stay in business.

Don't get me wrong, there are still restaurants that deliver consistent hospitality and fine cuisine, but there seems to be fewer and fewer of them. Tomorrow night, I think I will enjoy a quiet home-cooked meal with my family.

AMY PIERCE is a freelance writer from Grand Island.
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