I recently posted here about an issue I took with my favorite restaurant, Tea and Sympathy Yes, it was a complaint, but I was sure I'd return, and of course I did since that post. When you love something, it takes more than a little disappointment over a menu change to keep you from returning. Now, though, I'm at the point of no return, or at least a point of doubtful return. And it's a difficult feeling, especially at a time of so many other changes in my life (more on that another time, maybe).
Many years ago I had a terrible experience at another favorite tea shop, Teany. Even so, I gave them one more chance to redeem themselves, and they sort of did, but not enough for me to really want to keep going back. They are gone now, and it's for the best. I don't want Tea and Sympathy to go, but last week I had an experience that made me agree with their bad reviews, and I suspect my money can be spent better elsewhere.
I've had complaints before. I don't like eating in crowded spaces, and because it's a small and popular place, you'll inevitably dodge elbows and nearby conversations whether you like it or not. Somehow I put up with the human proximity. I noticed sometimes the servers were not terribly nice (while some are, to be fair). I excused this, thinking it contributes to the English atmosphere, and continued to tip like an American while ignoring the irony. I put up with the price being a little higher for credit card users, because technology and such.
Oh, and I observed The Rules. This is a little list posted on the outside of the shop and on the menus. It's a little kooky, but these things are usually derived from experience in running a business. One rule is that you can't be seated until your whole party arrives. Another urges pleasantness to the waitresses, and another advises you that you may be moved from your table. The rest is about tipping and minimums, and I get that. So all these years I always arrived with my full party, I was nice to the waitresses (when am I not, though?), and if I had to move, I'd do so, even with a mouth full of scone. I loved the place that much that these things weren't exactly putting me off. I felt differently last week.
My friend Cathy and I went a couple of Sundays ago for a last visit before her upcoming move to the West Coast. It turned out we were seated too early for the menu items we wanted, so we got Afternoon Tea, which we loved, and planned to come back after work on a Wednesday night. Maybe that's indulgent, but both of us loved Tea and Sympathy so much, and would miss going there together.
Cathy's been going for over a decade, and I've been since 1995. If someone asked me what was my favorite restaurant, it was always the same answer, and as I've said, I have brought everyone I possibly could there to share in my joys. If they complained about something in the service or food, or the price, I made every excuse, because, again, this was My Favorite. Perhaps it was a misplaced loyalty.
On the Wednesday evening in question, we got to the restaurant about a quarter to six. Usually at this time we found a relatively empty room, but this time it was packed. So I told the waitress we were looking for a table for two, and waited outside. It was a longish wait, but we felt it was worthwhile as long as we had a decent table. And we did - the table for two by the table that we particularly love, so never mind the slightly numbed fingers and toes (you have to wait outside for your table). We almost missed it, as the waitress looked as if she was going to take a couple of girls who had arrived well after us first, but we spoke up.
We were in for a good evening. The menu had a seasonal item I'd been waiting for all year, and we discussed the possibility of a glass of red wine. And we waited. And waited. The wait seemed unusual, but there was only one waitress on that night, and a full house, so why complain? It'd be all right in the long run.
After about twenty minutes, the waitress approached us. Would she take our order? Nope. She informed us that we were going to have to move to the center table, as they needed our space for a party of nine who had made reservations.
First of all, that center table is not pleasant. It's near the door, which means draft, and it was a cold day out. I'd dealt with a similar table in Caffe Reggio a few days earlier, and it doesn't make for a happy dining. It also means that anyone entering the premises stands right on top of you, and anyone moving around will bump into you. But this might have been acceptable if we hadn't already been kept waiting twenty minutes at the table by the window, without even a glass of water to pass the time. Also, the two girls who'd came in after us had just been seated by the other table by the window. Their order hadn't been taken yet, so they could easily be moved to the table of doom. Before we could bring that to the waitress' attention, she proceeds to go over to their table and take their order. Again, we'd still not had our order taken.
We decided enough was enough, and left, though Cathy did communicate her unhappiness to the waitress, who didn't try to make amends at all.
This left us with empty stomach and a bad taste in our mouths. Cathy will likely never, ever go back even if she's in town, and I'm not sure about myself. We wondered, and hoped we were wrong, if our less than stellar treatment was due to a racial bias (the girls who came after us were both white and one of us is not). It's not something we want to believe, though I've heard others make that claim in the past. I always said it was in their heads, but who knows?
And why would they take reservations for a party of nine? Seriously?
A few months ago, Tea and Sympathy started a Go Fund Me account, because despite being busy, they had trouble paying rents. I understand the difficulty - so many businesses in the City, and particularly the Village, have gone under not because of a lack of customers, but because rents are astronomical. I feared its demise, but now I'm feeling tepid about the whole situation. Why should I feel for a place that doesn't act like it wants our business? There's a big to-do about celebrity patronage, but we tiny unknown Britophiles are obviously expendable.
I don't want Tea and Sympathy to close down, but I don't want to return to a place that is terribly lacking in its service. Frankly, I can't afford it. So, for now, we're on a break. I'll have to find another cozy spot to bring my friends. Suggestions are welcome.