As printed in the Presidio Sentinel, San Diego, July 2010

I’m not sure whether it’s my parents’ depression-era heritage or a natural…um, thriftiness, but if there’s a discount coupon that applies, I don’t leave home without it.

That’s what brought us to a newish Chinese/Japanese cafe in Hillcrest, with a coupon for one free entree with one paid. Service: sweet and warm. Menu and cuisine: good to better. Bill: Whoops! How did the total seem not merely un-discounted, but more than twice what both entrees cost?

Glad you asked. When the waitress asked whether we wanted white or fried rice with each entree, we naturally assumed this accompanied the entrees. The rice, we were surprisingly informed, cost an additional few bucks each. And then there was the tax, which was applied to what the entire bill would have been without the one-free entree. GOTCHA!

A few weeks ago, more than 40 of us reserved a celebration lunch at a popular Mission Valley spot, expecting to be … expected. Yet management provided only one waitress for this crowd, and after an hour of not yet ordering, we two left.

We stopped nearby at a reliable Mexican chain, in which no more than three tables were occupied. The host desk was unattended and nobody showed up, until one harried young man straggled over to say someone would be with us shortly (but alas, not him!) Nothing doing. After another considerable wait, we left.

Just down the street, we next tried a respected Asian restaurant , which, we could see, had a half-full dining room. “Two of us,” we begged, gnawing by then on our knuckles. Sweetly, the hostess said the wait would only be twenty minutes. We left.

We drove around the corner to Denny’s, where, though it was busy enough, we were seated right away, served in short order (got that?) with warmth and efficiency, and had a pretty good lunch.

Now, I have been accused of being especially crabby about restaurant service, and it’s true that there are two eateries I’ll never return to – one, because the proprietor failed to acknowledge or greet me after I’d patronized his establishment every week for three-four years (patience is my sole virtue); another lost my regular business for handling a minor request in a rude and dismissive manner. Bye.

(Note that, except for Denny’s, I haven’t named names. But I will identify them to Presidio Sentinel’s sales staff, who should immediately sell them reputation-saving advertising.)

Having handled publicity, event production and public relations for numerous restaurants over the years, I’ve come to various conclusions about this industry – which right now is experiencing some tough times (and, therefore, a good time to a) issue coupons and b) mind their service.

Lesson #l in restaurants : everything counts. I mean, everything, from the obvious need to prevent this column’s experiences from happening, to whether the waitperson says “you still workin’ on that?” instead of “may I take your plate,?” to the condition of the bathroom, to exquisite personnel training for handling problems that arise. Cuisine and presentation are just the start.

My next-best lesson is that I’ll never own a restaurant. This is an industry at the mercy of “charisma.” Hard to quantify, hard to qualify. An expert and conscientious restauranteur can do everything right – and it can still go wrong, and a customer can be lost. Too much salt, (too little salt), yesterday’s flowers, one, just one tough cut of beef, a waiter’s even brief, disdainful glance, any and all misrepresentations or misleading expectations.

I’m certain I’m not alone in my lack of forgiveness; for better or worse, there are just too many restaurants (competition) to welcome me, and, given that things go well, to whom I will always remain loyal. Until, that is, the first “GOTCHA!”