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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Alan Richman And The Decline Of Good Service

Posted by Tony Perez on Tue, Aug 16, 2011 at 12:24 PM

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  • RAMONA ROSALES, VIA GQ

In the new issue of GQ, critic/culinary lightening rod Alan Richman has written one of the most bizarre restaurant reviews I've ever read. It's also totally engrossing, in a peer through the cracks of your fingers sort of way. I recommend reading the whole thing, but for those who want to get right to bitching about service, here are the cliff notes: Richman decides to review Long Island City's uber-popular M. Wells; it's the kind of lowbrow meets highbrow place that we're pretty familiar with in Portland. He spends a good portion of the article discussing his experiences as a critic and justifying his process over the years. He details several stand-out meals, but his third visit is a disappointment—the food doesn't live up to its reputation, and the service, about which he goes into great detail, is horrendous. Things take an especially strange turn when the restaurant's owner emails Richman accusing him of sexually harassing a server. From there, the piece turns into something of a rant (a not always fair or completely logical one) that ends with Richman bemoaning the state of the service industry. He blames hipsters, poor training, and finally himself:

Critics like me deserve some blame for the current proliferation of impossibly low service standards in so many casual New York restaurants. We tend not to censure lackadaisical conduct, thinking this is what customers want and that we would appear out of touch if we disapproved...I wish I had never been so forgiving in my reviews of New York restaurants. I should long ago have paid attention to this disastrous decline in service. Casualness in restaurants does not automatically make customers feel more relaxed. It often has the opposite effect.

My ruminations on the subject after the jump...

I tend to be pretty lax about service standards. I've worked in a lot of restaurants and I empathize with how difficult the job can be, plus my mother, a former waitress, has drilled that attitude into my head my whole life. It's become increasingly obvious to me, however, that Portland's collective front-of-the-house lags behind the excellence that's coming out of our kitchens. There are exceptions to be sure—I can point to numerous servers and managers that don't treat their jobs as just another gig (and I would argue that many of our bartenders are on similar footing as our chefs)—but often, relaxed and un-stuffy has been conflated with not giving a shit.

As someone whose job it is to evaluate the whole restaurant experience, to try and let Mercury readers know what's in store for them when they decide to splurge for a nice night out, I've struggled with what points to belabor. Even at some of our nicer restaurants, service seems too inconsistent to comment in a way that might actually be useful to others. For better or worse, I often avoid the subject unless it's a case of continued negligence or exceptional quality.

What say you, readers? Are our servers earning their minimum wage + gratuity? Is it useful and fair for a critic to harp on a particular instance of bad service, even when he/she acknowledges that any given night might be a crapshoot? Is Portland's relatively young/educated demographic, one that might view service-industry jobs as temporary, to blame for a lack of seriousness in the field?

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