Restaurant Horror Stories

Our food critic shares her worst encounters

Relaxing at a table in a restaurant on the beach, my three companions and I celebrated on a Friday night, munching appetizers, unwinding with drinks and gazing beyond the palms at a fiery sunset fading into the cold, gray waters of the gulf. Our server apparently decided out of the blue that I wasn't relaxed enough. From behind, he grabbed me hard and began massaging my shoulders. I nearly jumped out of my chair with surprise — and annoyance, as I ordinarily don't allow strange men to touch me.

My tablemates were too stunned to say anything, and watched in motionless fascination as I attempted to disengage from his grasp. When I finally found my voice, I shouted: "Excuse me! Bug off!" Then I turned my water glass over trying to escape him.

Some servers are as dense as chocolate paté when it comes to treating customers well. Practically everybody I know has a restaurant horror story, and some of them are pretty extreme. People doused with hot coffee, diners charged for meals they didn't eat or order, those whose food was contaminated by sneezing restaurant workers and even people who have to fight off a server's amorous advances between the soup and the salad.

A young waitress at a fancy Tampa steak house earned my ire because, with every course, she interrupted our meal with a nasty scolding.

"Now, why didn't we eat our salad?" she inquired. Or: "Gee, you hardly touched your potatoes — why don't you take another couple of bites?" Since I was a restaurant reviewer dining anonymously, there was no way I could explain that if I polished off every morsel I had to taste in order to evaluate the food, I would resemble one of those huge balloon characters that float down Fifth Avenue during the Macy's Thanksgiv-ing Day Parade. She must have failed Etiquette 101, which says what someone eats is too personal a topic to discuss politely.

A manager once claimed I had insulted his wife after I complained about the food at a nationally respected hotel chain's breakfast buffet. The coffee was cold, the doughnuts had disappeared and the rest of the pastry was stale, but when I asked for my money back, he refused, saying I had hurt his wife's feelings because she had arranged the buffet. It took six months of letters and phone calls before the recalcitrant hotel management finally reimbursed me. And I never did get an apology.

Some servers are famous for greeting their customers with a snarl: "Whadya want?" is all you're going to get in the way of pleasantries.

Maybe that's better than the server who, at a high-end downtown Tampa restaurant where a WP staffer was dining with friends, disagreed with the political opinions expressed around the table. Uninvited, he interjected his own views into the conversation.

Then there is the waitress who talked on a cell phone all the way through the meal, with her cigarette hung limply from her lip while she slung food at us. Or the server at a Sarasota Amish restaurant who, when informed that the fare was inedible, replied, "Does that mean you don't want to take the leftovers with you?"

I've even suffered through kitchen chores performed at my table. At a north Tampa restaurant, a dining companion and I ordered creme brulée. The dessert was not finished because it needed its sugar crust caramelized with heat. Rather than doing it in the kitchen, out of our sight and smell, the waitress dropped two unfinished desserts on the table, whipped out a hand-size blowtorch and did the nasty job right there, complete with sizzling sound effects, spitting fire and smoke. This would have been cool if, for instance, we had been sitting in a high-school chemistry class.

At least it provided some entertainment. We didn't know what to make of an extremely personal conversation inflicted upon us by a server at a St. Pete Italian bistro. We were sitting there minding our own business when the server suddenly interrupted our conversation with a monologue about his life — how he takes care of his 2-year-old son alone, parenting problems, etc. Then, without waiting for a reply, he would quickly walk away.

At least he was paying attention. That's better than all the servers who have left me high and dry — without water, without wine, without a bill, without dessert, with dirty dishes littering the table, missing silverware or sipping cold coffee. They just do a disappearing act, leaving the customer to stew ineffectually at the table.

It's terrible when you're stewing at the worst table. The staff at one of Tampa's most luxurious restaurants once penalized my party for a fashion faux pas. One of our party was an angst-plagued teen who had been persuaded at the last minute to join us. She was not badly dressed, just mismatched. But hey, it drew a penalty from the Fashion Police, who seated us at the worst table in the house, directly in front of a double set of patio doors. Every time the doors opened, a cold gale set our clothes and hair flapping, and extinguished the candles on the table. Ouch!

Even perfectly dressed patrons sometimes end up at the sorriest table in the house. When that happens to me, I make it a habit to immediately ask for something better, sometimes with less-than-stellar results: Once, I moved twice in 10 minutes in a virtually empty restaurant after the hostess showed me to A) A dark table farthest from the door and next to the bathrooms; B) A table with my chair facing a disgusting bus tray full of dirty dishes. On the third try, I scored a decent spot.

More recently, a hostess at a trendy St. Pete eatery tried to seat me and a guest at a cramped, two-person table facing a noisy bar, even though there were dozens of better tables sitting empty in the main dining room. When I asked for a better table, she said, "We don't usually put two people at a table for four." That night, she did.

Of course, the solution to such difficulties is for the restaurant staff to consistently practice courtesy, good manners and consideration for the diner. And if you happen to be the unlucky victim of poor service, speak up, ask for the manager, and detail your objections. If you still are not satisfied, show it in your tip.

A more drastic protest: Stop patronizing the restaurant altogether.