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Counting the Severest Critics of All

Contrary to what most restaurateurs would like to think, their toughest critics are not professional restaurant reviewers but ordinary diners.

When I eat out, for instance, it is my friends who are the least forgiving and invariably find more to complain about.

One acquaintance to this day holds a grudge against a noted Los Angeles trattoria for an unpleasant pasta sauce he was served four years ago.

Another frequently bad-mouths a place where he swears he was lied to about the ingredients of a fish stew in 1982.

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And one of my oldest eating companions will never ever go back to any establishment that has treated him rudely.

Then there’s James D. Higson of Newport Beach. This is an especially persnickety diner who has gone to the trouble to assemble a “Restaurant Acceptability Worksheet.”

Some of his criteria are quite reasonable. He expects reservations to be scrupulously honored and he expects waiters’ eyes to be “constantly scanning tables.”

He dislikes preciousness and abuse of foreign terms on menus, and he disdains “whimsical ingredients in amateur juxtaposition” on the plate.

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Higson also favors an “imaginative wine list, yet conservatism in size and price.” So far so good.

But then he offers his ideas about how a restaurant should look: “carpeted, upholstered and draped; no tile unless bistro; warm woods and soft colors; tableclothes and napkins; real flowers and bouquets everywhere; no open kitchen.” (There go half of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, and probably Newport Beach.)

He finds unacceptable any waiter named Boyd or Kevin; and he states unequivocally, “No Asian food.”

He wants the owner on the premises, preferably in the kitchen, with the owner’s wife “out front in classic tradition.” (He apparently assumes that the owner of a restaurant is always a man.)

He disdains establishments that are “attractive to conventioneers, senior or junior yuppies.”

And he prefers waiters “who look as if they (are) seeing children through college by their profession.” (He must be a very big tipper and think that other diners are too.)

Most of these criteria are so specific, and in some cases so provincial, that I wonder if there are any restaurants in Southern California that Higson can stand. I wonder if the poor guy ever goes out to eat.

And I wonder if the restaurants he refuses to patronize have any idea of how passionately (if sometimes unreasonably) one of their ex-customers has judged them.

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Still, it should give restaurateurs pause that somebody who is not (I assume) professionally involved in the restaurant business would feel strongly enough to write a set of standards (reasonable or not). And it ought to serve as yet further proof to them of something I have long maintained: that it is their customers, and not the folks who write about them in newspapers and magazines, who are the severest restaurant critics of all.

UNDRESS CODE: Responding to an item in this column a few months back about restaurant dress codes, Frankie Marx of Burbank has written to share a dress-code anecdote.

Some years ago, she says, at the long-gone Mediterranean on La Cienega Boulevard, a couple sharing cocktail-lounge space with Marx and her brother was told that their dinner table was ready. As the woman in the couple stood up, wearing “a very pretty white lace pant suit,” the waiter murmured that such attire wasn’t allowed in the dining room. No problem, replied the woman, excusing herself and disappearing into the ladies’ room. She returned, having shed her trousers and replaced them with what Marx describes as “a very mini-dress"--to the powerless consternation of the management and the great pleasure of the other diners. “So much for the dress code,” notes Marx.

EVENTS: A five-course dinner and the wines of Trefethen are featured at Magdalena’s in Bellflower, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25. Price is $65 per person. . . . Famed barbaresco producer Angelo Gaja and his wines will star at a special reservation-only luncheon at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara Oct. 27. The price tag for this one is $35 a head. . . . Thirty-five dollars will also buy you a five-course lunch Oct. 30 at Trattoria Sostanza in West L.A.--not just any lunch, but the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Celebrity Servers Luncheon, at which such TV stars as David Nelson, Lance LeGault, Donald Craig and Don Yesso will carry the trays. (And guys, remember: Scan those tables constantly ). . . . Also on Oct. 30, the Parkway Grill in Pasadena hosts its fourth annual Fall Food & Wine Festival, with such restaurants as Beckham Place, Maldonado’s, the Panda Inn, Shiro, La Toque, the Original Sonora Cafe and Chez Melange participating. Tickets are $45 per person before next Friday and $50 per person thereafter, and proceeds go to the Huntington Memorial Hospital’s Rehabilitation Center. Call (818) 397-5464 for more information.


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