Cafe Reviews

Havoc Your Way

Sometimes, you just know that things aren't going to work out. Maybe it's the body language that clues you in, when your intended won't look you in the eye or respond to your requests. Perhaps it's the tone of voice that's telling of demise -- when it's short, exasperated and bothered by your very being. Certainly, you've got no doubts that all's lost when even the most basic conversation dissolves into pointless arguing.

But by then, it's often too late. You're committed, with little option other than to walk out. You really don't want to give up, though, because when the relationship is working, it's good. And besides, you're really hungry.

I'm referring, of course, to the agony of being stuck in a bad relationship with an incompetent restaurant server. It's co-dependence with you on the losing end -- even if you withhold your tip, your server holds the ultimate power over your life for the next hour or so.

Such is the story at Pinnacle Peak's new Cafe Isabelle. There's no question my youthful waiter and I don't hit it off -- he doesn't even bother to pretend. A clearly inexperienced hostess doesn't help matters, cramming us into a table we don't want with an excuse so poor that even she stammers. The only way the service at this cute cafe could have been worse, in fact, is if the waiter had treated me as poorly as he treated my dining companion.

It's sad, because the food at Cafe Isabelle is topnotch. Unfortunately, poor service seems to be the routine these days.

The problem, I think, is that the staff at this new Cafe Isabelle hasn't yet graduated from the restaurant's casual, sandwich-and-a-soda beginnings. Open since the spring, the Pinnacle Peak restaurant is a more upscale offshoot of the self-service salon Cafe Isabelle in Gainey Ranch. Dinner is a new addition at this location, and the transition hasn't been entirely smooth -- witness the luncheon sacks of potato chips displayed on the service counter when we're paying $19 for a steak.

Consider the confusing service hours and menu choices between the two Isabelles. At lunch, the Pinnacle Peak shop mimics its twin with gourmet soup, salad and sandwich offerings. Yet, though the sign on the window at the Pinnacle Peak shop says it's open at 8 a.m. for breakfast, it actually opens at 10:30 (the Gainey Ranch cafe does have breakfast beginning at 7:30 a.m., but ignore the notation on the menu that says pizzas are served until 5 p.m. -- the place closes at 4). The hostess answering the phone has to apologize that even she can't keep up with the schedule.

She does know that the small restaurant doesn't take reservations, except for parties of eight or more. Arrive before 7 p.m., or after 7:30 p.m., though, and there should be no problem being seated (what occurs in this magical half-hour window, I don't know -- I never see any changes in traffic level).

We figure we're safe with a 6:30 p.m. meeting time, and we're right -- the place is mostly empty, with about a half-dozen tables for four available. After standing ignored and in lonely embarrassment at the podium for several minutes, we're led to a claustrophobic table for two next to a salad cooler/display case. But no, we can't have a larger table, our hostess tells us, because they're all reserved. With a "no reservations" policy, I query? In mere minutes, she swears, hordes of parties of eight will be converging, and she'll be pushing all the tables together.

Hmmm. Policy is policy, but staffers don't need to lie. By the time we leave almost two hours later, not a single large group has shown up.

The glow of the salad cooler makes reading Cafe Isabelle's menu easier in the softly lighted, candle flickering room. And we've got plenty of time to absorb the offerings because no one ever returns. Bread? Water? Wine? Anything, please? There must be a certain skill involved when servers can so adroitly ignore customers, skating within mere inches of contact, then spinning away, not breaking their gaze as they march past just out of polite calling distance, finally asking, "Oh, have you been helped?", then trotting away, never to be seen again. We become very familiar with the rear end of another server, who manages to cater adjoining tables, presenting his posterior to us but never an order pad.

Finally, we finagle water from the hostess, and things spiral downhill from there. A diet cola takes two requests until it arrives after our appetizers, and water refills never materialize. When dinner finally shows up, my dining companion is given the wrong entree (tenderloin). He's told emphatically that's what he ordered; our server eventually admits that it's not, and then informs us he'll have to wait another 20 minutes for the correct dish (pork). We can't wait, so to compensate for the mix-up, the server offers me a complimentary glass of wine and ignores my companion (fine with me, actually, but my companion feels otherwise). We order the correct item to go, instead, and are charged full price.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet