Thursday, June 30, 2011

Anatomy of a Failed Dinner

So tonight I went to the Olive Garden--why is not important, but it was a combination of not being dressed properly to go somewhere else, wanting to eat a meal the rhythms of which resembled that of a real dinner but without requiring me to do a lot of thinking, and laziness.

It did not go as I had hoped.

Most of this was my fault, though in most of the offending incidents I could twist the facts enough to cast some of the blame on the establishment.

My main problem was that I was not prepared to concentrate on what I was doing and be 'in the moment' to the extent that it was necessary for me to be until it was too late, and my good time was irretrievably lost. Granted, I went to the Olive Garden largely because I wanted to think about other things and not have to pay close attention to the progress of my meal, but that is beside the point.

I was alone, which is unusual for me. My family went to Vermont for the weekend but I stayed behind because I had to work. This may, as it turned out, have thrown me off, because I have become unaccustomed to going out alone. My first disappointment, albeit it a mild one, came when I was given a cocky male server instead of the attractive, or at least young, lady I had been subconsciously expecting, and which is (admittedly sadly) one of the main reasons one goes to such places. I would have gotten over this disappointment easily enough, but the guy immediately began trying to manipulate me to buy a more expensive wine than I had been planning to do.

Being the kind of person who spends a lot of time getting in a stew over my various failures to broach the realm of high level drinking, the thought of getting worked over or embarrassed in wine etiquette and knowledge on the floor of the Olive Garden caused my ego to circle every wagon at its disposal (which unfortunately was not many). Immediately after dropping the menu he whips out a bottle of some cabernet and asks me if I would like a sample. I should have cut it off right there, because my intention was, as it always is, to order the house wine, as I am foremost a quantity-oriented drinker, and require at least two glasses to properly enjoy myself, preferably three. However, I agreed to try the sample, still imagining I would easily be able to control the exchange to my satisfaction. A glass was set before me and a small portion of wine was poured into it, I imagine approximately like they do in a real restaurant, though it has been so long since I have been to one that I forget. As I do not remember all the parts of the wine-tasting ritual exactly, I merely took it up and emptied it in a draught, which is anyway my impression of how Samuel Johnson and company dealt with their wine in the 18th century. It was tasty enough to me, enough that I made my first big mistake, which was to distract myself by trying to scan the menu to see what the price of it was.

It was $8.25 a glass, so I was not having it, and I thanked the man for the sample and said I would stick with the house wine.

He was uncertain about whether I would like the house wine--many people found it strong, even overpowering--and strongly encouraged me to try a sample of that before I committed to ordering.

I should definitely have refused the sample here but I still felt myself to be in command of the situation and regarded the offer as an opportunity to steal an extra mouthful of drink at no charge. Yes, I said, bring it on. He had to step away for a moment to fetch the bottle, which time I used to make a cursory examination of the menu.

At his return with the other bottle I had to confess that it was not very good in comparison with the wine that was $8.25 a glass, and my eyes began to flit over the menu again in search of a possible substitute, though I refused to succumb to the product he was pushing on me. I felt myself becoming more and more uncomfortable however and said, probably in an irritable voice, that I was going to stick with the house wine. I was now distracted however, and, though I did not realize it at the time, I became careless. I ordered fettucine alfredo when I actually wanted, and meant to ask for, chicken alfredo. Though there were four soup choices, I did not bother to inquire about what they consisted of, and quickly ordered minestrone, and when asked if I wanted a bowl of some sauce or other to dip my breadsticks in, said yes without thinking about it.

All of these distracted orders led to mild but frustrating little incidents which accrued to the point that I could not repair my mood and ability to enjoy the meal.

Campbell's minestrone soup, I believe, is made up of little chunks of beef, the little white noodle-like things that share a common shape with Sugar Crisps cereal, small carrots and pieces of potatoes and beans, etc. Anyway, a heartier version of that was what I was expecting. What I got was a meatless stew filled with enormous quantities of vegetables, such as crunchy beans and zucchini, that I don't like. This was not the fault of the restaurant of course, but as it represented an anticipated pleasure that failed to achieve fruition, it had the effect of lowering my mood, as well as my ability to resist further disappointments, the next of which came when the fettucine alfredo I had ordered arrived without chicken in it as I had expected. My inward overreaction to this disappointment was no doubt the result of its being the second dish within ten minutes to arrive which I had anticipated to contain meat which turned out to contain none, on top of the sting with which I was already agitated after my blundering during the ceremony with the wine.

At this point, especially as I knew that if I ate the meal before me without the chicken I was craving that the whole enterprise would be irretrievably ruined, I know I should have explained my situation to the waiter and requested a change in my order. However, I knew that technically I had ordered the plate they had brought me, it was a busy Saturday night, I did not want to come across as a dick when I was the one who had made the mistake, and so on. So I ate my plate of noodles, rather miserably, out of all proportion to what the circumstances called for, and though I had intended to have a full dining experience with dessert and coffee, decided before I had finished to just give up after the main course and get out of there.

When the check came there was a $3.50 charge on it for the bowl of sauce that had been brought me to dip my bread sticks in.

This was the breaking point. I knew that if I did not offer some official protest that I would have no inner peace for the next week. My immediate thought was to deduct the sauce charge from the tip, which would have reduced that sum to a quarter. It occurred to me that my waiter would likely have no idea why I was stiffing him in this way, so I thought to write a note on the blank side of the check approximating the substance of this post in explanation. But as that not only would have taken too long, but seemed weaselly, I resigned myself to having to declare my intentions, and the reasons for them, aloud upon the man's return.

I commenced by informing him solemnly, as I handed him the settlement of my account, that I would not be able to leave him a tip.

He was practically enthusiastic at the reception of this news and assured me it was no problem at all.

I asked him if he did not want to know my reasons for taking what seemed to me this rather momentous decision.

Not at all, he said, it did not matter, whatever I wanted to do was fine with him.

This obfuscation of my gravity and its intended effect annoyed me and I stated directly that I wished to tell him my reasons, at which he consented to hear them.

It was at this point that my most egregious failure was realized. No, they did not laugh at me--indeed, the $3.50 charge for the dipping sauce which I felt I should have been informed of was immediately struck from the bill, though the spirit was much more "please don't come back and shoot me, O.K." than submission to my overpowering will. Midway through my retracing of my various complaints with the entire evening's progression, I became incoherent and I could feel my voice quavering. I am in my 40s. And I cannot dress down, let alone dominate, the staff at an Olive Garden in New Hampshire without faltering. I had once imagined by this point of my life to be able to enter any establishment or social setting in the world and be able to hold my own with anyone present. This was ridiculous, obviously, but not being able to take control over my dinner at Olive Garden represents a serious failure of development, that at this point probably cannot be corrected. As I wrote in my novel when I was 25 years old: "He had sunk his head and asked how his parents, his schools, his country could have allowed such a boy as he to have drifted into that degree of useless and cowardly adulthood under its auspices." If anything, I have only gotten worse since then, though I acknowledge that that is my own fault, as anybody over a fairly young age--fourteen maybe--is responsible for directing his own further development.

I view this as a snapshot illustration of why our country is in such a mess. People like me who are reasonably intelligent and in the prime of life who should be helping to resolve some of the problems besetting us cannot command a simple situation in a forking fifth rate restaurant. It's very frustrating.

1 comment:

Virtual Memories said...

I'd have gone with a note on the back of the bill. In fact, I HAVE gone with a note on the back of the bill. My father's approach was not to say anything, but to leave the tip in pennies. Apparently, he carried enough pennies to accomplish this when necessary.