Peppercorn's Grill
Hartford, CT

One of the first things that we did when we moved to Hartford was to scour the local papers for reviews of good restaurants -- especially popular ones that had gotten consistently good reviews. So far, in the Good Restaurant Experiences Arena, we're 0 for 3. There was Hot Tomato's, a place where Avery's mom has eaten many times and has always had excellent service...except for the one time we went with her. There was the Civic Cafe, where despite paying nearly $100.00 for dinner for two, the service was deplorable. Food great, service deplorable. I have always maintained that I would rather have just-good food and excellent service rather than excellent food and just-good service. There's something about rationing one glass of water throughout a 1 1/2-hour meal (because you just know that they're not going to refill it) that causes me way too much undue tension.  

And then there was Peppercorn's Grill, which is in a class all by itself at this point. Peppercorn's is a charming little Italian restaurant that had gotten stellar reviews of both it's food and service. Since it was only a few blocks away from the Bushnell where we were going to see Les Miserables last Friday evening, we decided to give it a try. It had been closed for a couple of months due to a fire in their kitchen, so we were surprised to find out that it was open when we called. Upon arriving, we discovered that only a couple of hours before, they had literally just opened for the first time in two months. Stupidly, we thought "what good timing!" instead of "uh-oh."

Even though it had just reopened, the place was already full. We got a table for two, were provided with water and a plateful of bread, and got our menus. As the minutes ticked by, we looked at the menu, decided what we wanted to eat, decided what we wanted to drink, and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually we stopped one of the waitstaff who happened to be walking by, who finally got our waiter to at least make an appearance at our table. We finally placed our order and when we did, let the waiter know that we were trying to get to an 8:00 show, and asked if he could possibly keep in mind that we wanted to be done by 7:20 or so. Warning Bell # 1: when the waiter's response to that request is a smirk, and eyeroll, and a sarcastic "I'll see what I can do", there may be trouble brewing on the horizon.

We got our appetizers fairly quickly, and they were quite good. After the appetizers were finished, however, there was a lull in the conversation. There was a lull because we had said everything that we could think of saying about our respective days at work. We had said everything we could think of saying because we were abandoned, literally abandoned, by the waitstaff. For a lo-oo-ng time. As I glanced around the restaurant I noticed that even though it was full, no one was eating. Other people were desperately looking around. We were getting tense, and there was nothing to do but drink ice water, which was served in those tall, thin "I'm a Modern Restaurant Glass" glasses that don't hold but 5 ounces of water. The ice water soon ran out and the white-shirted woman who poured us the water when we first sat down seemed to be under orders to not pour water for any established diners -- only for new diners. The established diners had to get water from the grey-shirted waitstaff. I started thinking desperately: where is our grey-shirted waiter? Where is Avery's Old Fashioned that he ordered 10 minutes ago? Why can't the white-shirted lady pour us any more water? She's just standing there! And I'm thirsty! Not to mention we ordered our entrees 25 minutes ago! What if we don't have time to eat?

We started summoning other waitstaffpersons, as we thought that perhaps our poor waiter had fallen down a well or perhaps taken ill. When our waiter finally came back with Avery's Old Fashioned, he said to us, "Sorry, I was taking care of a party of 15." Warning Bell # 2: When your waiter blatantly doesn't give a shit about you, you can just throw having a good time out the window. We asked him how much longer the entrees would be. He said he would check and disappeared again. This time we managed to get the attention of the maitre'd and asked her if we could plee-aa-se have some more water as we were dying of thirst at this point (remember, we're having a heat wave here on the East coast) and could she be a dear and check on our entrees as we were going to a show at 8:00 PM and our waiter was oh, we don't know, hiding somewhere in the restaurant in the style of Where's Waldo?

She was mean. She put her nose in the air and informed us that this was the staff's very first time "on the floor" after being away for two months, and they have a new computer system, and the kitchen is backed up, and perhaps she could give us some dessert on the house since we had been waiting so long. When we brought to her attention that we hadn't even gotten our entrees yet, she responded "And what time is it? 7:05? And you're going to the Bushnell? For an 8:00 show? You have PLENTY of time for DESSERT." <Insert her turning on heel and stalking away here> Eep. Definitely an Eat Dessert On The House Or Else situation. At that point, we were looking for more of an answer like "20% off the total amount of the bill." For Christ's sake, some people don't even order dessert.

<I happened to notice a party of two that had been sitting without any attention whatsoever for a good amount of time, just like us. I watched the gentleman grow more and more silently annoyed until he eventually gave up, threw money down onto the table and stormed out. Just like in the movies!>

So the minutes continue ticking by, and finally our entrees 7:15. We ask our waiter (Oh, he is alive!) for the check even before he can set the plates on the table and start inhaling the food. The maitre'd comes by and asks how everything is. We glare at her, hunched over our plates as we shovel the food into our mouths. She makes the correct assumption that we won't have time for the Dessert on the House (we told you!), so she wants to give us a gift certificate for desserts instead. (Enough with the desserts already! How about paying for our drinks or one of our entrees?) Avery then tried to be nice to her by saying that it's not so much that the kitchen was backed up, it's just that if we were informed at the get-go that things were running slow, it may have made us feel a little more sympathetic. She has just snottily started her "We've been closed for two months" speech  when I all of a sudden notice that the asparagus that was supposed to be in my Penne and Asparagus dish is missing. And what are these mushrooms doing here? Is that green stuff...spinach? Blech! Where's the cream sauce? The meat tastes like....salted...cod? I know I would never order a dish like this, but in my haste to eat before we had to run I didn't even notice until I was halfway through.

At that point Avery said to the Maitre'd, "I don't mean to be obnoxious here, but wasn't this dish supposed to have asparagus and crispy artichokes?" The waiter (who happened to be walking by the table -- how convenient now that we're about to leave) and the ever-snotty maitre'd both say "Yeah." Mr. Waiter adds, "There's an explanation for that too." "We reverted back to the old menu" they both say in unison. Warning Bell # 3: When the restaurant serves you a dish totally different from the one you ordered and doesn't even bother informing you of that fact, it's time to get the hell out of there and never go back.

 To this day that whole entree issue still bothers me. I mean, it's one thing to have erratic and inconsistent service after being closed for two months (I'll give them that, even though the thoughts that run through my mind are along the lines of "but this waitstaff has done this before...what, did they lose their motor skills after not working for two months?") but it's quite another to know that you will have slow service and neglect to inform people of that fact, or get them a drink on the house, or at the very least keep their water glasses full! And serving someone a totally different dish than what they ordered? That's just inexplicable, especially at a restaurant with entrees in the $20 range. As for the multitude of excuses we heard? News flash! We don't care! We don't care that you can't figure out the new computer system! It's not our problem that you've all forgotten how to wait tables! We don't care that you just reopened! Ever heard of a test run? As long as I'm paying close to $100 for a dinner for two, I DON'T CARE!

As we were getting up from the table, the maitre'd brought us a gift certificate for exactly two desserts and two coffees.

Excluding gratuity.