For years, Bertucci’s was one of my go-to places. Among its attributes: good food, reasonable prices, and an environment where a person who didn’t feel like getting takeout could dine alone and feel comfortable.
So much for #1 and 3.
Having risen late on this Saturday, I’d skipped lunch in order to complete errands and tasks at the house. As the afternoon faded into evening, I decided that an early dinner was just the thing. Since Bertucci’s, which is barely a tenth of a mile from my hotel, routinely sends me texts with discount deals, I figured I’d stop there.
The restaurant wasn’t crowded. Unsurprising shortly after five o’clock, especially when everyone is probably still eating leftover turkey. The hostess seated me. Nothing out of the ordinary.
This was about to change.
The waiter, who was probably in his thirties (translation: old enough to know better), opened with, “You’re all alone?” When I confirmed that I was, he continued, “On a Saturday night? Oh, you poor thing!”
I assured him that I was fine. The irony was that as I’d debated whether to eat in or get takeout, the fact that it was Saturday night, a/k/a “date night,” had actually entered my mind, but I’d brushed it away because Bertucci’s was such an easy place. I’ve had bad solo-dining experiences, such as the restaurant on Sanibel Island where I waited for half an hour, only to be seated (alone) at a table set for six, in the middle of the restaurant. But Bertucci’s had never been that kind of place.
Clearly, controlling the meal was going to be my job. When the waiter brought Bertucci’s famous rolls and seasoned oil, I pointed out to him that one of the perks of eating alone was that the rolls were all mine (even though he’d only brought two). Unconvinced, he withdrew to get my wine.
I perused the menu and pulled out the scratch-off card I’d received on my last visit (in the company of two male friends). The card required me to scratch off the prize in the presence of my waiter, which I did. I won $5 off an appetizer. I ordered something called “arancine di fontina” which, as it turns out, are risotto balls filled with cheese, lightly breaded and fried, and served with chunky tomato sauce. For my entrée, I chose grilled salmon, requesting that they substitute a salad for the spinach. (I asked for asparagus, but they didn’t have it.) I also asked that the salad not have onions or peppers. Then, with wine and rolls, I settled in.
A few minutes later, he came out with the salad in hand and asked if it was all right if he brought it now. Unsurprisingly, sliced red onions graced the salad. I said it was fine to serve the salad now, but I’d like one without onions. He retreated, returning with an onion-free salad; I don’t know whether it was a different salad or if someone simply removed the onions.
I was barely halfway through my salad when he brought the arancine. Odd bit of timing, but there you are. I didn’t comment on this point, but he apologized and said that he couldn’t seem to do anything right, and he apologized for offending me. The apology felt rather like the situation where someone over-atones in the hope that you’ll tell them how well they’ve done. I told him I wasn’t offended; I didn’t mention the fact that he’d called me “ma’am” even though anyone remotely skilled at kissing up knows to call any woman, regardless of her apparent age, “miss” rather than “ma’am.” Even without that bit of information, he offered to let me speak to a manager. It was as though he felt that if he flogged himself enough, I wouldn’t do it.
As I started on the arancine, I hoped they had the sense to hold back the salmon until I’d finished my appetizer. No such luck: I’d barely eaten the first of the five arancine when the waiter trotted up with my unadorned salmon and roasted potatoes. (Seriously. Not so much as a sprig of parsley.) My displeasure must have shown, because he reminded me that I’d asked not to have the spinach. I acknowledged this and explained him that I’d rather not have the entrée until I’d finished my appetizer. As he took it away, I wondered in what state it would return: cold, or overdone from sitting under heat lamps.
I took my time finishing the arancine. No sooner had I swallowed the last morsel than he returned again with the salmon. The roasted potatoes emanated heat, which was encouraging, but the salmon was barely room temperature. Clearly, someone had simply left the plate to sit on a counter until it was called for. I tried a couple bites. Hopeless. I told myself that cold salmon was quite fine, but I couldn’t sell it. In the hope of salvaging something in the meal, I cut into a potato that would have benefited from another five minutes in the oven.
At which point, I gave up.
The waiter came back to see how everything was. I told him the salmon was cold and that I was finished, that he should just take it off my bill and bring me a check. He consulted with a manager, a young woman who offered to make me a new salmon either to eat in or take home, or maybe to give me dessert, but I wasn’t interested. She took both the entrée and the appetizer off the bill, but I was still charged for the wine which was, after all, the best part of the meal. Somewhat meanly, I tipped on that sum only, gathered my belongings, and came back to the hotel. Some might have said I shouldn’t have tipped at all, but it seemed fair. After all, the bartender didn’t screw up.
From the moment the waiter lamented my solo status, I knew something in Bertucci’s culture had changed. I’ve eaten at that restaurant alone many times over the past twenty-plus years, and not once has anyone said anything remotely like that. I might have overlooked his inappropriate pity if he’d handled the meal service properly, but no such luck. When he brought the arancine, he said, “Here you are, my friend,” which seemed to me to be a bit presumptuous, but I heard him say something similar to another table and pigeonholed that as just his quirk.
But the problem clearly went far beyond the waiter with his odd mannerisms. Whoever ran the kitchen didn’t know how to time the courses, nor did he or she know how to handle such a minor point as a returned dish. If an entrée is brought back because it was served too soon, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the meal is going to get cold if it simply sits around the kitchen until the customer wants it.
This might be a good time to point out that I’ve had excellent grilled salmon at Bertucci’s in the past. This item been on the menu for years, and I’ve ordered it several times. Each time until now, it has been hot, flaky, and tender, with appropriately-prepared side dishes. So whatever the problem, it wasn’t with the salmon which, after all, is not a difficult item to cook.
I recognize that single female diners are probably the least appealing demographic in most restaurants. Legitimately or not, there exists a belief that we will not tip as generously as male diners. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a man receiving the service and cold food I experienced tonight. If he had, there is no way he’d have tipped on the entire bill. More likely, most men would have challenged the notion that they should even be charged for the wine. A female friend of mine once refused to pay for anything when three of us (all women) were served inadequately-heated soup. This normally gentle woman insisted that there be no charge for anything, and she refused even to leave a tip as we departed. I imagine that if she’d been in my place tonight, she would have walked out with a complimentary order of salmon and a serving of chocolate layer cake, and the entire experience would not have cost her a single dime.
The restaurant business is brutal. I know this. There are buildings in town where I can recite the lineage: “This used to be XYZ Restaurant, and before that it was ABC Restaurant, and before that it was 123 Restaurant, and before that. . . .” A restaurant that lasts five years is a success by nearly any standards. Until recently, I’d have bet that Bertucci’s would last.
When I went to Bertucci’s with my friends a couple weeks ago—also on a Saturday night—we were all quite surprised to see how sparse the crowd was. Now, I find myself wondering how many other former regulars had already turned away, and for what reasons. I know that I won’t be dining in again; I might get a takeout order, but that’s the extent of my future patronage.
Sorry, my friend, but you folks earned this.