Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Look Back in Hunger: This week marks my fifth anniversary on the restaurant-review beat. During these 260 weeks, I've had more than 1,000 meals out, at more than 600 different establishments.

Most of the time, there's been nothing very memorable about the experience. But there have been occasions that stick with me, and not just because the food was extraordinarily good or unbelievably bad. Here are four of my favorites:

* During dinner at one dimly lighted resort, I noticed a lone diner reading his newspaper while he ate. To make up for the poor lighting, he was leaning close to the candle on the table. When I glanced over a few minutes later, he was intently reading the bottom of a page--completely oblivious to the fact that the top had tipped over into the candle and was in flames. I shouted a warning, he jumped up, and a quick-thinking staff member doused the blaze.

* Then there was the memorable brunch at a Valley resort. We were digging into our main course, when we noticed an acrid smell. Then thick smoke came pouring out of the next room, which housed the desserts. We ran to see what was going on: Flames were rising from the center of a table laden with cakes and pies. Workers scurried past with fire extinguishers, and after a few tense minutes, they put out the blaze. It seems a server, trying to flambe a dessert, had lit up the tablecloth instead.

The elaborate dessert buffet was ruined. Still, what stays in my mind is that even while black clouds rolled into the dining room, not a single customer made a move to stop eating and flee to safer ground.

* At one of this town's premier restaurants, I watched a romantic dinner go down the drain. Romeo had brought his girlfriend for a quiet tete-a-tete. But right next to them was a table of obnoxiously noisy louts, wearing shorts in a coat-and-tie setting. So how did our skillful Romeo handle this? He decided to prove he could be even more obnoxious and vulgar than his neighbors.

He buttonholed the manager and began yelling, gesticulating and swearing. Just what he expected the restaurant to do wasn't clear, but the more the manager tried to mollify him, the angrier Romeo got. "You asshole!" he shouted, followed by a string of epithets. At that, a swarm of staffers hustled him and his mortified Juliet out of the restaurant. But even after the front door closed behind them, his muffled oaths still penetrated the dining room.

* It was summertime, and we were just finishing our main dishes in a tony restaurant. Suddenly, the power went out. Candles on the tables gave some small illumination, about enough for us to watch the sweat dripping down each other's faces. The manager opened all the windows, hoping to cool things off. But in August, all that accomplished was to invite in about one billion bugs to share the meal. After almost 40 minutes, just as we were ready to give up and leave, the power came back on. We stayed for dessert, thinking it was bound to be comped. Nope--management pretended nothing had ever happened.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel