Question for diners: How do you approach the new fast casual dining concept that more restaurants seem to be embracing? I’m talking about restaurants like Pizzeria Fondi, which require you order at the counter, then find your own table. A server shuttles the food to you. Sometimes they come by to check on you, sometimes you never hear from them again after they drop off your food. Sometimes you pay at the beginning of the meal, sometimes you pay at the end of the meal.
My most recent experience with a hybrid restaurant was this week at Blazing Onion, which opened in Gig Harbor’s Uptown shopping center in September (we reviewed four restaurants at Uptown, including Pizzeria Fondi, recently. Read the story here).
My problem is that I feel like I don’t know what to expect anymore as a diner at these kinds of restaurants. And the experience has left me baffled. And here’s why…
As a diner, I know what to expect at a sit-down restaurant. I know the protocol of tipping based on service. I know the protocol for asking my one and only dedicated server for something if I need it. At a fast food restaurant, I know to order at the counter and wait for my food and I probably won’t talk to a staffer after that unless there’s a problem. I know these unwritten covenants because, like you, I’ve been doing that for years at restaurants.
Then come along these new hybrid restaurants. Let me detail what happened at Blazing Onion this week to explain why I’m so perplexed. We walk in on a busy night this week, and we’re asked to put our name on a list by a hostess in the lobby. So we wait in the lobby for 20 minutes, then when called, we wait 10 more minutes in line to order at a register and pay for our food with a credit card. There’s a tip line on the receipt. Like most diners, I award a tip based on the experience. How can I decide how much tip to give before I’ve even set foot into the dining room? I left the tip portion on the bill blank, intending to leave a cash tip on the table at the end of my meal (more on that in a bit).
We leave the register and get our sodas from the self-serve fountain and we’re instructed to find our own table. We scan the packed dining room and find a booth. Then, we’re told if we need something to put a “stop” sign up on our condiment caddy.
I clearly need to give Blazing Onion another try to be fair – they only have been open a few weeks. But if I were a diner on a first visit of the restaurant, I don’t know that I would go back. Many things went wrong: The bacon was left off a burger. The fries were cold (they brought another batch when I complained). The bottom bun on my burger had grown soggy from sitting too long. The side of dressing we ordered didn’t make it to the table until we asked not once, but three times. The burgers were very, very pink in the center, even though we weren’t asked how we wanted them prepared. We waited 30 minutes for our food, most of it cold when it arrived.
To their credit, the staff really tried to fix the problems. They offered us a free sundae, and a gift certificate, but I politely declined (News Tribune staffers dine unannounced and on the company dime, we are forbidden from accepting anything free). They tried very hard to accommodate us. And by they, I mean several people. Because we didn’t have a dedicated sever, we had four or five people dropping by to help whenever we put the “stop” sight on the condiment caddy (several times, ahem). That is a big problem. We had so many people running around on our behalf, we wound up with four sides of dressing by the end of our meal because we had complained to so many people about not getting it. It was confusing and chaotic. It left me feeling bad. I’m sure it left the staff feeling bad.
As a diner, I was just left scratching my head. The restaurant is a small chain with two other locations in Mill Creek and Snohomish. On appearance, it seems well put together – it’s certainly an attractive restaurant with dark wood paneling, a modern color palette, and a sports bar-esque atmosphere with flat panel tvs and cushy booths. They serve premium liquor, and beer and wine. The ingredients obviously are well sourced – material on every table indicates the beef is Painted Hills Natural Beef. The cheese is Tillamook. The veggies were crisp and fresh. I think their intentions are in the right place, but they need some work on execution. And as a diner, I just don't know what to make of the whole thing.
I’ll be back later this month or next to give them another try, though. And, a note to the staff. In the chaos of staff trying to accommodate and fix our meal and after a 90-minute dining experience (longer than most sit-down restaurants, I might add), I completely forgot to leave the cash tip on the table. My apologies to you hard working people who tried to make it right. I dutifully will give a tip on my next visit. And by then, I’ll have to figure out how to resolve the whole tipping quandary. Give at the beginning when it’s more convenient while paying with a credit card? Or wait until the end and leave cash based on the experience? Sigh.
Diner questions: 1. What do you think of hybrid restaurants of this kind? What would you have done about the tip and the scattered service? 2. Do you ever go back to restaurants that fail you miserably on a first visit? If they offer you a gift certificate, are you more inclined to return?