How not to inspire confidence among diners: A guide for restaurants

portrait of chef flambe cooking in the kitchen

(erwinova/Big Stock Photo)

It’s dinner out on Saturday night, in nearly freezing weather, so the table at the back feels warm. The restaurant has been around for decades, but it’s new to me and my husband.

After we place our orders, Ed moves from his assigned seat across from me to the chair next to me so I can show him some pictures on my phone. When I look up, I am facing the prep area adjacent to the kitchen.

Neatly uniformed servers and buspersons deposit soiled dishes and bread baskets onto a large, rolling, metal table with two shelves. An employee called an expediter, or expo, picks up the returned breadbaskets, discarding some crusts and bits. She dumps other remnants into a huge stainless bowl. From my vantage point, I cannot distinguish the difference between the bread bits that go into the trash and the ones that go into the bowl.

She returns unopened, golden foil-wrapped butter pats to a bucket of butter pats to be re-issued to other customers. So butter goes from someone’s table, to the kitchen, to the butter-pat department — and then back to my table. Really?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The expo shakes crumbs from the folded navy napkins, refolds them into quadrants, and places them in the bread baskets. She plunks the baskets on the adjacent, identical large, rolling metal table, and stacks bread and butter in each.

Although I have never worked in a commercial kitchen, I think clean stuff and dirty stuff should inhabit distant locations.

I become a less brilliant conversationalist, unless I can work “Why doesn’t she wear gloves?” into the dialogue. I digest the details. I’m feeling less hungry.

The expo scoops the restaurant’s distinctive appetizer onto plates, four at a time, setting them aside. Once she picks up an empty plate, but apparently not with a grip she considers comfortable or efficient, so she rests the surface of the plate against her chest — her gray, long-sleeved shirt, to be exact, above her unpressed jeans — in order to relocate her fingers.

She actually holds the plate flat against her shirt, then fills it with appetizers destined for a table. Yeah, she does. No apron.

Would you tell the manager? I do. He can’t envision the holding-the-dish-to-the-bosom maneuver, so he ushers me back to my table. But these kitchen capers don’t stop.

I watch for more than 20 minutes, increasingly upset. Would you mention this situation to other diners? I don’t.

Let me say that the large restaurant, a clean-looking, well-lighted place, is full when we arrive at 6:30 p.m. The crowd never dissipates, and patrons, who seem to be regulars, are content.

Every employee is pleasant, courteous, smiling. So management sets the tone for attitude — which is as far as imaginable from the tone for cleanliness. A paradox.

We appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of the menu and the prices only marginally higher than elsewhere. Our salads and main dishes are delicious.

Would you ask for the owner? Eventually I do. He defends himself against every question I pose. “We don’t serve the bread again,” he explains. “Look, we put a new, big piece of bread in the basket each time. We use the old bread to make croutons.”

To make croutons? You take the uneaten bread from the basket on Table 24 and plop it in a bowl to go to the kitchen to become tomorrow’s croutons? It’s uneaten, but how do you know it’s untouched?

Yes, he says, the expos shake the crumbs from the navy napkins, which they reuse. And reuse. And reuse.

No one used a napkin to wipe a tear or blow a nose or wipe a spot off a lapel? Are you sure?

The busboy serves an espresso to the next table. As he passes, his thumb rests on the rim of the cup, the better to prevent a spill. He removes his thumb before serving.

I catch his eye and beckon to him. I ask when he last washed his hands. He pauses, thinks and responds: About 20 minutes ago. I ask about the likely cleanliness of his thumb, after carrying used plates, napkins, and forks. He apologizes, but he is not the culprit. Management is.

Kitchens should have clean and dirty sections, as far apart as possible. Aprons for people who prepare food. Plastic gloves. Sinks.

Disgusted, we skip dessert and coffee.

On Monday I discuss my dining experience with a friend who serves at a high-end restaurant (and who teaches me the word expediter). She says my revulsion is appropriate.

Would you report the restaurant to the health department?

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal