It took weeks, but we managed to plan the perfect night out with another couple. It involved driving into Kentucky to a restaurant everyone assured me was “just the best,” getting sitters so we could enjoy adult conversation, and finishing off the evening with a play we’d all enjoy. It had all the hallmarks of a memorable night. If only we had known why it would become memorable.
Our “double date” happened on a brisk December Thursday. I took off work a little early since we’d need time to make our 5:00 reservation. The only detail I was unsure of was whether or not our friends were meeting us at the restaurant or our house.
“Are the Johnsons coming over here first?” I asked to discover this last detail.
“Well,” my wife answered (I use this term loosely), “we need to leave a little early because the restaurant told me we might get in a little early if we get there a little early. They say you need to allow and hour to and hour and a half to eat before the play. Because of when the play starts, they’re going to be here at 3:45.”
“So . . . yes?” She rolled her eyes at my need for further clarification.
Our friends arrived and we piled in our car for a completely uneventful, though windy, drive. It took us just one wrong turn and a little over an hour. We parked halfway between the playhouse and the restaurant and stepped into the frigid air. The wind tore the breath from us as we made our way to the inviting door of the restaurant, immediately grateful for our reservation once we stepped into the crowded building.
We did make it marginally early, but weren’t called until slightly after our reserved time. None of us were overly concerned, mainly because we had great company, conversation, and no children with us. The hostess led us through the throng and into a surprisingly vacant central seating area, finally arriving at our table.
The table was a small, but not too small, round table nestled in the corner of an interior wall of the main seating area. It was a table that would hold all the food you wanted but still provide an intimate enough space for quiet conversation. It gave a nice view of the restaurant while being slightly secluded. It was perfect. We remarked on our luck as we settled in.
“This is the perfect table!”
“I know, right? It’s so warm and inviting. I think I’m going to like this place.” If only.
For a moment, it was an optimal situation. The table was excellent. The conversation was better. Our salads arrived with such amazing presentation that our friend, and avowed and lifelong carnivore stated, “Now that’s a good-looking salad!” And it was a good salad. I took my first bite of the delightfully crisp and fresh mixed greens.
“I pronounce this evening a success!” I declared as I prepared a second bite of delicious roughage. Suddenly, without any warning, the evening became suboptimal.
A woman (I assumed the dining room manager) came over with two others and unfolded one of the large trays used to set the smaller trays of food upon before serving them on the table. Except they took our salads and bread from the table and placed it on the large tray. My mind was just working out that this seemed slightly backwards when the woman spoke.
“We need to move you to make room for a larger party,” she said. We just stared blankly at her. Finally, one of us (who knows whom) said, “What?”
“We need to move you to make room for a larger party.” We watched as the two helpers carried our salads out of sight.
“We had a reservation,” I said, but somehow we were already following her away from our perfect table.
“We needed to move you to make room for a larger party,” she said as she retreated from us. We shivered in the cramped booth against a ridiculously drafty window. We craned our necks and stared longingly at our table from which we had been so unceremoniously dragged.
“What just happened?” I asked while I stared at the second bit of salad still skewed on the end of the fork in my hand. It looked less appealing in the atrocious lighting of the Bermuda Rectangle. Conversation returned slowly, but with a hard edge. The misery was palatable and coated everything with a film of disdain. We kept glancing back at our table. our empty table. Our empty table in the middle of a completely empty section.
With great, heated anger that was unable to compete with the icy air blowing through the excuse for a wall, I pulled out my phone and called the restaurant. I called the restaurant in which we were currently losing all warmth.
“Thank you for calling,” a voice finally answered, “Could you please hold?”
“Why not?” I replied. I covered the phone with my hand and said, “They asked if I would hold. I said, ‘Why not?’ This gives me a chance to count to ten or something, so that’s good, right?” Our friends looked amused. My wife looked slightly alarmed. I heard a click on the phone.
“Thank you for holding. This is Sally, how may I help you?”
“Well, Sally,” I said in what one of my co-workers describes as my Phone Voice, “I have a question. It may be a little strange, but it’s a very important question. Sally, I cannot stress how imperative it is I receive a truthful answer. Is that something you can do, Sally?”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Thank you, Sally, I’m sure you can. Here’s my situation: I have a pretty large party coming in and I’m a little, ah, worried that there might be someone already sitting in a spot big enough to seat my party. What I want to know is, would ya’ll be willing to move the other people out of our way even if they had, I don;t know and totally hypothetically, a reservation?”
Silence. Probably nervous silence, but definitely the absence of an answer from Sally. It was only for a beat though, and she quickly recovered.
“We would never do that, sir. Every customer is important and we would never do that. I think it would be rude.”
“Thank you, Sally. You have been so extremely helpful.” I grinned as I slipped my phone back in my pocket. Now my wife looked definitely alarmed. I motioned for our poor server who had to keep up with us as well as her original section across the restaurant. Fortunately, the center section with our table was still empty.
“I know none of this is your fault,” I explained, “but we would like to see the manager.” For some reason, she didn’t seem surprised.
Our food arrived before the manager, but we were all off our appetite a bit. Our conversation now centered over the simple fact that there was no way we should get a bill for the food. We also agreed that, at this point, they should probably pay us.
The same woman who asked us to move finally showed up.
“Funny thing,” I told her, “I called the restaurant and asked if you would do something like this. I asked if you would move someone with a reservation for a larger party. you know what? I was assured it would never happen because every customer is important.”
“You are important.”
“Then prove it by making this right.”
“How can I make it right?”
“By moving us back to our table. Take us over there to that perfect, empty table.”
“I can’t do that . . .we have another party . . .”
“We had a reservation. As I told you, I already called and checked and was told this would;t happen because ‘every customer is important.'”
“You are important.”
She left only to return a few minutes later with the absolutely strangest compensation. “OK, here’s what we’re going to do,” she said, “We taking ten dollars of this entrée, half off of this one and another five dollars off the rest.”
“No,” we said.
“No. That’s not enough. It doesn’t even make sense. We should be sitting over at that completely empty table. That perfect table. You know, the one we were sitting at? Instead, we are here in the Bermuda Rectangle freezing to death. You see my friend here? He loves steak. He was born to eat steak and yet his steak is sitting there useless and not getting eaten. Please get me whoever your boss is. Get us whoever told you to move us. Bring that person here to explain why we’re not at our table. Get that person to tell us ‘were’ important.'”
“You are important.” She left again. Believe it or not, throughout the entire exchange (and the ones that came after), I was completely calm and polite, on the outside anyway. Let’s just not discuss what was going on inside, ok?
She returned. Alone.
“Every customer is important,” she started, “The meal is on us. You don’t have to pay. Would any of you like a free dessert?” I very nearly completely lost it.
“No, we do not need a dessert to finish off the meal we didn’t eat. Why would we want that?”
“I’m sorry, sir, it’s just that every customer is important -” I held up my hands to cut her off.
“Look,” I said, “I get it, but that statement is a lie. If we were important we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If we were important we’d be sitting over at our table finishing a nice meal which we would gladly pay for. I have been calm. I have been polite, but I swear if you so much as begin to tell us we are important one more time, a line that I believe I have just explained is patently false, I will lose my temper, I will yell, and I will cause a scene.”
To her credit, she held back the tears I really hadn’t intended to provoke.
“I understand,” she said, “I do hope you’ll give us another chance someday.”
“Why would anyone in the history of ever do that? I don’t care to pay to be treated so poorly.”
Finally admitting defeat, she left. We called our server over and handed more cash than would have been a tip. “You shouldn’t be punished because you work for morons. It’s not your fault. You were actually pretty great.”
Then we walked out past our lonely empty table in the completely vacant middle section.