At Sascha’s 527 restaurant in Mount Vernon, wait staff are trained not to flinch at special requests or slavish adherence to the latest diet fads.
Then there was, let’s call her, the Bowl Lady.
“One of our customers had a digestive condition and couldn’t eat solids, and there were many foods she was not supposed to eat,” says manager Cathy Monaghan. “One night, she ordered these ‘forbidden foods’ and an extra bowl. Then she proceeded to put the food in her mouth, chew it a bit and spit it into the bowl. And she was sitting at a table with eight other people! Her friends were used to it, but we were appalled.”
Weird orders, food allergies, diets from A (Atkins) to Z (Zone), Baltimore restaurant staffers have heard them all. Yet most still cling to the credo that the customer is always right- or often, just plain odd.
At Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Reisterstown, there is, shall we say, Burned Bread Man, a regular diner who likes his bread crisp to the point of ashes. Not to mention Shoe Leather Tuna Woman at Helen’s Garden in Canton, who insisted that her tuna resemble a charcoal briquette when it came to the table. “I was ashamed, but she loved it,” says owner Ed Scherer.
Helen’s Garden has also played host to Billy Bob Thornton Disorder, named in honor of the actor who has food-touching issues. “We’ve had customers demand that every single item in their entrées be delivered on separate plates with separate utensils, and this was not related to separating meat and dairy for religious reasons,” Scherer relates. Rob Freeman at Four West reports a similar quirk, only with diners eschewing the restaurant’s square china, claiming they can only eat off round plates.
At Charleston in Inner Harbor East, chef Cindy Wolf says one diner orders the lobster bisque for dessert. Which surely beats customers suffering from Safeway Syndrome, those who bring in store-bought cakes, salad dressing, sauces, and yes, even recipes for certain sauces or dishes they would like the chef to “try”- which has happened at Helen’s Garden and Babalu Grill.
But at some local restaurants, the chefs clearly rule the rotisserie, and customers know that picayune deviations from the menu du jour will be greeted with the gastronomic equivalent of stink-eye.
Over-pampered customers can unsettle Kim Acton’s hash. The chef/owner at Pazza Luna in Locust Point says that people have ordered steamed mussels and then asked to have them removed from the shells. Acton is happy to accommodate many special requests, just so long as you don’t use the A-word. “Atkins has gotten out of control,” she says. “We had one guy recently who asked for the pasta special but without the sundried tomatoes, the walnuts, the shiitake mushrooms and, oh yes, the pasta. Basically, he wanted scallops on a plate.”
Acton says she gave the diner what he wanted, but says that deconstructing the menu throws a wrench into the works of a small kitchen. And she will bend just so far. The restraints of Atkins and the South Beach Diet have become so pervasive that Acton has printed a message on her daily menu stating that “special requests are handled on the basis of the chef’s discretion,” which she says has cut down on substitutions and extreme modifications. Servers are also instructed to steer diners to dishes that are low-fat or low-carb without rebuilding the entrée from scratch.
At The Bicycle restaurant, owner Deborah Mazzoleni says much of the dining experience is taking in chef Barry Rumsey’s distinctive dishes and presentation. “If your diet is that Spartan, perhaps you shouldn’t be dining out at that time,” Mazzoleni says. “We gently try to suggest alternative items on the menu, but we have our limits. It is a lack of civility, to be honest, when guests mess with the dishes. It stresses the kitchen, which stops everything for the other diners.”
Mazzoleni says many food allergies or dietary restrictions can be easily dealt with if diners call ahead of time. “It is tougher on a Friday or Saturday night or with certain dishes,” she says. “Take our snapper en papillote. If someone wants the tomatoes and olives on the side and the snapper dry-sautéed with no butter or oil, we can’t do it. That dish cannot be torn apart because it is prepared earlier in the afternoon.”
Often, the customer is unhappy with the custom-ordered entrée. “Once, we had a person order a dish, deconstruct it, send it back because he didn’t like it and then order a second deconstructed dish, which he also complained was ‘dry’ and ‘had no flavor,’” she remembers. “Finally, my husband came out of the kitchen and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t feed you.’ We are very lucky that it doesn’t happen very often and that most of our customers come to experience Barry’s food as it is prepared. But it does happen.”
Other restaurants take a “supping with the enemy” approach to eating fads. “We’ve had customers who ordered pork chops au poivre topped with a filet mignon,” says Scherer of Helen’s Garden. “And others who want the protein of a dish with no side orders or sauce whatsoever. We give it to them.”
The Prime Rib is high-protein heaven, and manager David Derewicz says he has noticed more diners ordering double cuts of prime rib or steak. “And I don’t even get mad when they pour ketchup all over the prime aged beef,” he says.
John Shields at Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art even revamped his menu for customers who want it their way. “Baltimore is a town that likes what they like when they like it,” he says. “I had mostly composed dishes when I started Gertrude’s and then, one night, I was leaving the restaurant with a friend and we were walking through the sculpture garden and he turned and said ‘It is a beautiful restaurant’ and I replied, ‘Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to eat there.’”
Shields realized he liked old-fashioned eateries like Perring Place in Parkville, “where you can pick what you want and have two sides.” He has two menus now at Gertrude’s, one with composed dishes and one “build your own.” There are three steps: protein, sauce and sides. “This way you do your own thing and don’t get the chef or the server’s panties in an uproar,” he says. “It has worked out great.”
Shields has even considered taking Polaroids of the most bizarre combos. “Scallops broiled with blue cheese sauce is not the best combination, but what the heck? My favorite customers are the ones who order plain grilled seafood with pasta salad and french fries. They must not have a clue.”
Charleston’s Cindy Wolf also leaves ego off the menu. “We feel strongly that we want people to eat here. So if people want to swap scallops for rockfish or change the garnish and it doesn’t make me unhappy, I’ll do it,” she says. “But then again, we haven’t had any requests for a caviar and peanut butter omelet- yet.”