We decided to take a chance on Summergrove restaurant, a part of Summerview Estate. The idea of an early dinner overlooking the promised views sounded idyllic enough for us to take a chance.
There were 5 of us and when we arrived we were shown to a white plastic table where we sat on white plastic chairs in a large white room with white floor tiles. A few colour photographs adorned the walls. The view was OK but the table was placed so that we really couldn't see the view. The windows were.. you guessed it.. white aluminium.
The waitress was a sweet lady and made us feel welcome, which was just as well considering what happened later. The menu came and we ordered a really nice NZ white. We drank no more than the one bottle so we were still very sober when the problem began. I ordered a rare, rib eye fillet, my sister-in-law ordered the duck, and the remaining three people ordered the night's special, the 'Chicken and Chorizo'. We also ordered two antipasto dishes which came promptly. So far so good. Conversation was difficult and we realised why: tile floor, cavernous room, hard plaster walls and not a fabric in sight to dampen the noise coming from a singer esconced in the far corner belting out some pretty good covers of Neil Diamond with the help of some serious electronics. Still we persevered. After all, it was my wife's birthday, we all love her and so we could see the best approach to the stark environment was to 'be happy'.
The antipasto was.. well, it was quite good. Not really good, but quite good. Nothing to complain about except the false Prosciutto. Good sauces and dips, reduced aceto balsamico, some deep fried haloumi that could have been a bit less chewy.. but all in all, passable.
The mains arrived in reasonable time. My eye fillet came first with the duck, then 3 plates of the special 'chicken and chorizo'. For some reason I couldn't quite figure, the waitress had to tell us again that the chorizo was local, not imported. Knowing the difference between good imported sausage and Australian substitutes I should have known things were all not as they seemed, and I shouldn't have been so surprised when all 3 recipients of the dish took a couple of tries and stopped eating. The first problem was how it looked. It was shades of brown. brown chorizo, brown chicken and - not expected - brown rice. It also seemed to have some sort of chickpea. Perhaps this may have also been OK except we had informed the restaurant at booking that two of us were gluten intolerant, dairy intolerant and grain free. When all three put down their forks, I knew we had a problem. "It's awful!" said the birthday girl. It tastes like the worst sort of club food!" The others agreed with similar comments. I tried it. The 'curry' (curry with chorizo??) tasted like Keen's Curry Paste. Cheap and nasty. I decided to take the matter in hand to avert a group meltdown. I informed the table clearing waiter that we were not happy.
Our waitress returned. She was still a nice girl but when i said we were not happy and didn't want to pay for them, the first blooper came out. She said "It's not my fault!".
"Of course it's not your fault, I said, but we'd like to get the bill and go."
She replied; "I'll get the owner."
Well, we waited. And waited. After around ten minutes a tall man dressed in black arrived and began to make small talk with my brother in law, asking him where he lived, who he knew and apparently seeking some sort of common ground. It was going nowhere and I decided to open it up.
I spoke up and said simply, Look, the three people who ordered the chicken and chorizo say they can't eat it and that it is terrible. They said it is like cheap club food. We don't want to pay for them.
"Oh," he responded. "Everyone else who has ordered it raved about it."
Now, I don't want to toot my horn, but I ran my own 120-seater restaurant for six years. I know something about difficult situation management and one thing I know never to do is challenge people's taste. If they aren't just trying to get a freeby, they really do think your food is bad! Don't tell them they are wrong! In this case it was 3 people all agreed that the dish was horrid and still he argued. Not only did he say it once, he said it again. And again, refusing to accept that three paying customers at a birthday celebration may just have a point.
Now.. my wife is a strong woman. I love her for it. But rile a strong woman and be prepared to reap the storm. And here was his second big blooper. He could have said "I am so sorry, I won't charge you for the bad meals." What did he say? "Well, you have to pay for what you ate."
At this point things got pretty wild. My wife, already incensed by the decor or lack of it, the plastic table and chairs and the impossible acoustics and food she couldn't eat, misheard him. She thought he said "You have to pay for what you ate" to mean that he was insisting on us paying for everything even though she only took one forkful from it. She leapt to her feet. The plastic chair skittered across the white tile floor. "How dare you! We are NOT going to pay for this food. It's terrible!" The manager was taken aback and compounded his gaffe by repeating himself. Cassie was really getting going, and when she gets up steam you better have somewhere to hide. By this time the whole restaurant had paused in mid forkful and were watching, slack jawed. It took all my calming power to get the message through to her that although he phrased it badly, we didn't have to pay for the chicken and chorizo. She say down, the silence broke and the manager scurried off to reassure patrons that an earthquake was not imminent and we awaited the bill.
"How was your duck?" I asked Gina, my sister-in-law. "Ordinary" she replied, and said she was disappointed that it had none of her favourite duck-part, the crispy skin. It seemed I was the only winner with my rare $36 eye fillet.
$160 later, we left, relieved to get out of an atmosphere that resembled the inside of a supermarket without the shelves.
Lessons? Well, we spend a lot of time in Italy where the Trattoria is usually family owned. The Trattoria relies on locals and welcomes constructive criticism. That's how they survive for generation after generation. It's a system that works because it relies on trust; trust from its regulars and trust of its patrons to tell them what they need to hear to improve or maintain standards. Here in Australia we have no such tradition, and the maitre'd can be anyone from an unwilling manager up to the actual owner of the establishment, as it was in this case. He just had no clue about how to manage situations, or criticism, constructive or otherwise.
Oh yes. Why did we choose it? because it was advertised as 'Trip Advisor Recommended'.
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