Ask The Salty Waitress: Is It Fair To Judge A Restaurant During Its First Few Weeks?

Hi Salty, New restaurant in my small (20,000 people) hometown, making real bbq, which no one else is doing, and doing it well. Just opened two weeks ago. We went to a soft opening lunch and it was fine but the most recent dinner was a disaster—didn't get seated until 45 minutes after our reservation, didn't get wait staff to stop by our table for another 20 minutes (and watched while four tables seated after us were getting waited on and getting their food), waited another long time for our food and then most of it was cold and many of our sides didn't come out until we asked for them, and then, finally, the bill, which we also waited an eternity for, was totally screwed up.

Though the owner stopped by our table briefly during the meal the place was clearly slammed and there wasn't really anyone around to talk it over with. So I just write this off to new place jitters, wait another month, and then go back not on a Friday night? Or is there anything constructive I could say at this point? I hasten to add that I did tip generously.

Thanks for your helpful column,Ann

Hi Ann,

I know how necessary a good barbecue restaurant can be, so I sympathize with anyone who doesn't have a smorgasbord of smoked meat places to get their fix. Hopefully this place gets its act together, for your sake and the sake of all other brisket lovers.

Now whether it's fair to judge a restaurant in its first couple weeks is debatable. On the one hand, it's open for business and charging real money. If a mechanic's shop just opened, and I took my car in, and they only fixed part of the engine's problem, I wouldn't chalk it up to a learning experience. Why should restaurants be any different? Because there's a more subtle dance to the service a restaurant provides. It's not just a matter of making a widget. That's why most real restaurant critics won't visit a restaurant until it's been open at least a month—and will go back multiple times.

A restaurant can take a few weeks to hit its stride, which is why the owners might try a soft opening. Soft openings are usually limited in terms of seatings or hours so the restaurant can set train its staff at a slightly slower-than-normal pace. But then when the restaurant opens for good, there go the flood gates. Everyone in town wants to check out the new place, and staff who are still learning the ropes (and the ordering system) get slammed by higher-than-normal traffic. The kitchen gets in the weeds, throw in a few late-for-their-reservations tables, and all hell breaks loose. It can feel like whiplash from the easy-breezy pace of the soft opening. (Keep in mind that a restaurant serving real low-and-slow barbecue can't just whip up another rack of ribs in 10 minutes when more orders come in.)

Did the owner and staff seem apologetic when you talked to them? A good apology can go a long way. If you felt like the owner realized how crappy your experience was and genuinely listened to your complaints, then there's a good chance they'd try to make changes. If they seemed unconcerned, that doesn't bode well. Whether you go back is, of course, up to you. You'll have to do the math: How bad was your experience, versus how good was the food on that first lunch? If you want to be cagey, do what I do—wait for your friends to go back in a couple weeks, then get their opinions.

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