Commentary

Stuart Warner: I'll Have It My Way — The Value of the Dining-Out Experience

A local pub's signature cocktail made my way.
A local pub's signature cocktail made my way. Stuart Warner

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A local pub's signature cocktail made my way.
Stuart Warner

A nightcap after an evening at the theater in downtown Phoenix seemed like such a cosmopolitan thing to do one recent weekend night. So my wife and I stopped at our favorite pub for some relaxing libations and a light supper.

I selected one of the bar’s “signature” cocktails: whiskey, Cointreau, orange juice, lime juice, and cinnamon.

“But,” I asked the waiter, “could you leave out the cinnamon?”

His lips tightened. “The bartenders don’t like to leave out any ingredients,” he said. “It’s a hipster thing. But I’ll ask.”

Whoa, I never thought I’d write words Phoenix and hipster in the same column … Phoenix and hip replacement, maybe, but never hipster.

The waiter returned shortly, again looking as if someone had just swiped his tip. “No, they won’t do it,” he said.

I sighed. There aren’t a lot of other late-night choices in downtown Phoenix, so there was no point in leaving. “Just bring me an old-fashioned,” I said. “Do they make that?”

So much for the customer always being right.

I had a similarly disappointing experience at another Phoenix establishment in April. It was one of the city’s most acclaimed new restaurants. We were with a couple from New York. She’s a media executive. He’s school administrator who used to work as a chef. Word of this restaurant had reached Manhattan. I hoped they’d be impressed.

We arrived there 12 minutes before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night.

“I’m sorry, we’re a little early,” I said to the hostess. “I have a reservation for four at 7.”

“We’re seating on time tonight, sir,” she replied in a voice that took me back to the rigors of third grade.

“But …” I started to reply, waving at several empty tables.

“We’re seating on time,” she interrupted. “You may look for a seat at the bar.”

O-kay.

There were plenty of seats at the bar, too. The bartender, quite chatty at first, brought drink menus. The New Yorkers and I ordered cocktails. My wife hadn’t made up her mind.

When the bartender returned with the three drinks, my wife looked at mine and liked what she saw.

“I’ll have one of those, too” she said.

The bartender stopped smiling.

“It would have been much easier to make two of them at once,” he snorted.

Before we could trouble him further, he added, “Why don’t you try it first?” His tone implied that the bourbon cocktail might be too strong for a woman.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” replied my wife, the daughter of a bar owner.

He scurried away, failing to bring her drink until after our table was ready.

The food was as good as advertised, but our treatment by the staff made the experience less valuable than the high price we paid for it.

Which is the point of this column.

I’m not trying to trash the food scene in the PHX nor the service … I’ve found both generally to be excellent since moving here almost five years ago.

The point is that dining and drinking out is much more than the quality of the food and beverages.

You pay for the total experience.

That’s why I was so impressed with this essay I read recently by Felicia Campbell in Saveur magazine.

Before she became a journalist, Campbell was a soldier in Iraq. Army food was everything that she had expected it to be. Tasteless. So she was delighted when a small restaurant run by locals opened on the base, even though the soldiers had been warned about dealing with Iraqis.

We pick up her story there:

“So I was nervous as I stood in line at The Club, my weapon slung over my back like a messenger bag, but I was also tired of eating tasteless rations. When I got to the front and saw the handwritten sign that simply said “$2” and handed over the money, I didn’t look up at the owner of the brown hands that passed me a Styrofoam plate lined with thick, soft, warm flatbread topped with half a chicken. … I wrapped pieces of meat in the pillowy bread that was stained with grease from my fingers. I ate and ate, the flavors of cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and turmeric, cloves and allspice, pepper and rose hips striking my palate, many of them for the first time.”

But something was missing, she realized. A great meal is to share.

“I suddenly longed for someone to sit and eat with me. The next evening I asked three other girls in my platoon to join me; we had spent little time together until then, but that marked the beginning of many nights we spent at The Club. We’d devour the chicken, followed by a packaged cake bought from the shop …”

Now that’s grasping the significance of the full dining experience.

In fact, Phoenix New Times Managing Editor Amy Silverman and I were so impressed that we hired her as our food editor.

We believe that she, along with food critic Patricia Escárcega, and our other freelancers will continue to bring you this kind of complete coverage of the burgeoning food scene here.

I confess that, after reading how Felicia consumed all those Middle Eastern spices, my palate is not nearly as daring as hers. But my taste standards remain resolute on one spicy issue: no cinnamon in my booze.

In fact, I went home and tried to replicate the downtown Phoenix pub’s signature cocktail the way I wanted it: 1 1/2 ounces of bourbon, 3/4 ounce of a cheaper brand of triple sec than Cointreau, 3/4 ounce of orange juice and 1/2 ounce of Rose’s Sweet Lime Juice, shaken over ice and poured neat into a martini glass.

Drank it alone on my patio. Had a damn fine time.

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Stuart Warner was the editor of New Times from 2017 to 2019. He has been a journalist since the stoned ages of 1969, playing a major role on teams that won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is also the author of the biography JOCK: A Coach's Story.