Food with ‘Tude

2008.Mar.31 Monday · 15 comments

in Restaurants

“The… difference is that of attitude. But that difference determines who gets ideas and who does not. An apathetic or hostile attitude is the enemy of creative thought. Ideas, like people, flourish when they are welcomed and embraced.”

– Barbara J. Winter, Teacher, Author

Buenos Aires – I arrived about ten to fifteen minutes before the first of my friends. The third was to arrive later. No one else was in the restaurant, and the waiter cheerfully presented me with the winelist, and without waiting a heartbeat asked what I’d like to drink. I asked for a bottle of water. He gave me a look like cold, hard stare, a sneer if I ever saw one, and immediately collected my wine glass and started to take the winelist away. I asked for him to leave it, and he softened – “Oh, maybe one of your friends will have some wine…”. Excuse me, but I didn’t say I wasn’t having any, I haven’t even had a chance to look at the list, I just wanted some water. He didn’t return my wine glass.

Skip forward fifteen minutes… no, make that twenty… twenty-five… thirty… My first friend had arrived and we’d been chatting. And waiting. No one had come back to the table. There was only one other party in the room. The owner of the restaurant had arrived, with an unruly tyke in tow, the former snapping orders as she walked through the small room, and then seating herself at a small bar that fronts the open kitchen – the latter running around the room being… an unruly tyke. The waiter has paid no attention to us now, since bringing my water nearly half an hour earlier. He is now busily showing a chalkboard menu to the other party in the room. I catch the eye of the owner as she surveys the room, and she snaps, “What?” I ask for the menu, she hurls back, “Do I look like a fucking waiter, there’s one in the room, ask him.”

I turn to my friend, who has been to this place several times. He says, “She’s always like that, it’s why we rarely come here, even though we like the food…”. The waiter finishes with the other table, we catch his eye, and he approaches with two chalkboards – on one is the appetizers, on the other the main courses. They’re too big to display on the table side by side, and with deep sighs he switches back and forth between them. Look, I get the whole chalkboard equals today’s market fresh options mystique, but come up with a way that the waiter doesn’t have to stand there while you think about what you want – which just puts pressure on the customer to make a quick decision, and ties up his time that could be better served helping more customers, who by this point were wandering in, and also looking for attention. When we just order main courses, he makes his displeasure clear, “Oh, just that? No appetizers?” and another sneer.

Cafe San Juan - black pasta with salmon eggs and leek cream

The food was interesting. Not exceptional, not great, interesting… And I mean that in the whole blind date scenario “he/she’s got a nice personality” kind of interesting – well, hmm, no, it’s really the reverse – the food was pretty, it just wasn’t “all that”… A bondiola with caramelized potatoes was tasty, well, actually, the potatoes were – the bondiola (pork shoulder/neck roast) was so dried out it may as well have been packed for an expedition to parts unknown. A piece of grilled salmon smothered in a mountain of salad was at that “squeaky” well done point – you know what I mean. A “black pasta” was more grey, though in some ways that made it more intriguing visually, and was in a watery cream of leek sauce that offered up little in the way of seasoning – a good dose of salt helped.

I find myself wondering why my friends have been recommending this place. Are they (the restaurant, not my friends) having an off day? Is the owner’s attitude just a result of hormones from her pregnancy (oh wait, my friends assert that she’s always been like this). I’m perplexed. I’ve heard nothing but good stuff about this place – high marks for food and service – today is the first time I’ve been and the first time someone has mentioned the attitude problem. I don’t know now whether to go back and give this spot another chance… truly, I’ve heard so many good things about it, I love the room, I love the ideas behind the menu items if not the execution that we’ve experienced this day, the owner is a fellow expat making a go of living here in BsAs and apparently being successful. Is this just an emperor’s new clothes syndrome for one of the first spots in San Telmo, for that’s where we are, to give a shot at creative higher end cuisine – or did I miss something?

You might have noted I haven’t said where we were having lunch… I actually debated as I started this post not revealing it, figuring that I’m providing enough info that it’ll be recognizable to some, and, I’m guessing that the owner may read this blog… but in the end, I think I have to say where, and just offer up my unsolicited advice – watch the overcooking, check the seasoning before you send stuff out of the kitchen, and, more than anything else – drop the ‘tude. The spot – Café San Juan, Av. San Juan 450, San Telmo, 4300-1112.

So, do I give it another shot, or not?


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

GGinMP March 31, 2008 at 16:44

With so many great restaurants available (not to mention one’s own cooking), why waste a return journey on a restaurant that failed on so many levels?

dan March 31, 2008 at 16:53

Normally, I’d agree with you – but so many people, and many of them people whose judgment I normally trust, have insisted that the food is excellent and the service outstanding. And truly, it’s hard to hit so many wrong notes all at once, it’s almost like they got hit by a wave of weird karma for the day.

It’s interesting, I was having this conversation with a visitor from Canada last night – he asked me how many times I thought a good reviewer needed to visit a restaurant before giving it a solid, reasonably objective review. My response was that a casual, neighborhood place, has room for off-days and on-days, as long as the latter dominate, and may require multiple visits to make an informed choice. A fine dining, i.e., 4-star type restaurant has no room, in my mind, for an off-day – it’s just not acceptable for a place that holds itself out as being of that level – so one off-day kills a review. It may not seem fair, but it’s logical to me coming from the restaurateur side of the equation. On that basis, given that although they’re doing a more creative and interesting style of food than typical for San Telmo, they’re really a casual neighborhood spot, I feel like I ought to give them at least one more chance…

Lizzz March 31, 2008 at 18:11

It sounds like you really do want to give them another chance. I say you should. I live a couple blocks from Cafe San Juan and its one of my favorite places in the neighborhood….or even remotely close to where I live. I have found the place to be unprentenious, friendly, and helpful, with cute waiters and fantastic food. I think its what a lot of restaurants in Palermo try to do but get all wrong.

Stovetop Traveler March 31, 2008 at 23:20

I don’t know what cultural differences there are between Buenos Aires and Seattle, but no way could such a place survive in Seattle. You only get one chance to make a first impression. I say stay away. I never go back to a place that really bombs on my first visit.

dan April 1, 2008 at 00:25

I generally don’t either Jay, but… you see, the place has its supporters! Well, I won’t run back to try it, but at some point when I’m over that way I’ll probably give them another shot. As to cultural differences – inattentive service with indifference is the norm – anything that gives better than that is a star…

Oh, and Lizzz is correct… at least the waiter we had was cute as could be, despite his occasional sneers.

Ken Sternberg April 2, 2008 at 16:36

Wow, Dan. If you ever return there, you are much kinder and open-minded than I am. I wouldn’t care if the food were wonderful and free. I don’t think I’m a difficult dinner guest, but I can’t see how I would pay to be insulted.

David Singer April 3, 2008 at 08:50

I’m surprised you are even considering giving them another chance. Is the New Yorker in you fading away? 🙂

The telling line for me was that the owner (?!) was rude. Chefs can be off, so and individuals in the front of the house, but the owner being rude to a client? Thank you but no, I wouldn’t return.

There is a restaurant in Boston that’s been around for awhile that’s known for being good, not great mind you, but good. The owner was at the Matire’D stand for brunch. Apparently my wife and I arrived when we were close to the end of the brunch period. He acted like he was doing us a favor by sitting us. Haven’t returned and never will.

dan April 3, 2008 at 10:47

Well, you know, that whole New Yorker thing was just an act, I’ve always been an easy-going midwesterner at heart…

Truly, I wouldn’t be considering going back if I’d just wandered in on my own, tried it out, and had that experience. The only reason I’m giving it thought is that virtually every “foodie” friend I’ve got here in town seems to love the place and at times, even, amazingly, I have an off day myself – so I find myself wondering if it was me who was perceiving things askew.

It’s one of the reasons that good reviewers go back to a place several times, especially if they have an off experience once. As I said, I don’t think I’ll make a special trip, but if I find myself nearby at mealtime, I may poke in and give it another shot.

Karen July 25, 2008 at 19:25

I ate here 4 times in three weeks and loved it every time…

Susan G. December 6, 2008 at 20:45

While we’ve enjoyed our food on a couple of visits and not had any problems with the waiters, we’ve also encountered “the owner”. On our last visit, and it will be our last, one of our party asked for a substitution on something that she couldn’t eat because of an allergy. The owner came over and told us that we could eat it the way it was, or stay home and “eat whatever the fuck you want”.

Trish January 6, 2009 at 14:09

Thanks for keeping the tourist lines short for our favourite restaurant in Bs. As.

dan January 6, 2009 at 16:52

You’re welcome Trish. While no doubt your comment was meant to make sure, sarcastically, that I know you disagree with me – here’s the point – it’s just my opinion from one visit, and not intended to be anything more than that – and I noted, and several commenters have noted, that it’s not a universal reaction to the place. I would note though, that I’ve heard from quite a few customers at our own place much the same reaction as Susan G has above – they like the food and the staff, but almost universally have had bad encounters when they’ve actually met the owner.

Trish January 7, 2009 at 14:37


well….., I was not entirely trying to be sarcastic. I fully understand your frustration with the attitude and would probably react similarly to such an experience. Since I don’t think I could change your perception, but have a very different one, my conclusion was that there is a benefit in this – shorter waiting lines.

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