What’s for dinner? Sometimes, there’s really no point in asking

I’ll settle for this at any meal

My father ate the first restaurant meal of his life a day or so after arriving in America in 1928. This wasn’t quite the extravagance it might seem, as the restauarant was owned by his father and a friend who would later become my other grandfather.

The fare was strictly hye cuisine. I don’t think the place had a name, but it could have been called “Bulgur and” because the daily meal was always steaming-hot bulgur pilaf and whatever else Grandpa Bichakjian had decided to cook that day.

Lamb and beans, lamb and okra, lamb and . . . well, you get the idea. If you didn’t like the day’s special, you could always order something else, but only if you went to another restaurant.

Apparently, no one ever objected to this until my father arrived. Dad looked at his plate of bulgur and asked, “Could I see the menu?”

My father was still laughing at his own joke many years later when he told me the story. Grandpa’s response in high-volume Kharpertsi made it clear he didn’t appreciate his future son-in-law’s sense of humor, which may explain why my parents didn’t marry until several years after he was gone.

What brings this long-ago episode to mind is that Robyn and I were on an eating-out binge this summer while visiting family in New Jersey. For the most part, we had no fine-dining intentions. Restaurants were simply the easiest, quickest path to getting fed.

Unfortunately, way too many of our choices proved to be anything but easy or quick. Even when the food was fine, the service was often not good — and I’m being kind.

I understand that summer brings lots of young, inexperienced servers. But our normally considerable patience was strained again and again as we ran into difficulty making simple orders.

One young fellow almost had me convinced we’d wandered into a Monty Python skit. Robyn asked him whether the fish in the fish tacos was broiled or fried.

“OK, so you’ll split an order of fish tacos?” he replied.

No, she explained. We didn’t want to split anything. She just wanted to know if the fish was broiled or fried.

“So you each want an order of fish tacos?”

Robyn told him to forget the tacos and just bring a broiled fish sandwich. I ordered one, too. The waiter repeated the order for us just to be sure he got it right.

“That’s two broiled fish sandwiches,” he said. “And a fish taco appetizer for each of you.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but yes — things actually got worse from there.

Even when we got what we wanted, we were stranded again and again by servers who vanished from sight the moment we drained the last drop from our water glasses.

Occasionally, the service was so amateurish as to be humorous. One evening, I ordered pastitsio at a Greek diner. The server, who obviously wasn’t Greek, asked, “What’s that?”

Never mind that it was one of the night’s specials. I patiently described the dish and she agreed to “ask the chef.” She returned to inform me that “he’s out of that thing you ordered but they have the other one — you know, the mouse one.”

I considering explaining all about moussaka, but I don’t eat eggplant and she clearly wasn’t interested anyway. I settled for a turkey sandwich.

Am I crazy in thinking that people who own restaurants should at least familiarize the wait staff with what they’re serving?

Maybe Grandpa was right about menus after all. I’d certainly be happy any time with a plate of steaming-hot bulgur.

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  1. Marash Girl August 25, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Love this post. It was reminiscent of my father's early arrival and his stories about restaurants, AND about my own experience in Middle Eastern restaurants where they don't even know what Tahn (Irrahn) is! If I persist, they bring out the bottled variety, complete with preservatives!


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