Three local businesses prove that second chances can and do happen in the restaurant industry
A night at Merchant during Restaurant Week in July was a redeeming experience.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MERCHANT
One of the more difficult facts of life in the restaurant business is how few second chances there are. Kitchens make mistakes, servers call in sick, chefs have a bad day, the walk-in cooler goes down. What customers know is they had a bad experience. They may—or may not—let the restaurant know, and they may handle it in the most convenient way possible: by not coming back. Redemption can be hard to come by in the food business. But it can happen and it can be pretty sweet.
Admittedly we are not typical restaurant-goers. We lived the never-count-on-second-chances life first hand. We replaced the blouse with the spilled wine on it. We absorbed the cost of a mistake or two. Or three. We root for redemption. Recently we got to share a little ourselves. The first was a July Restaurant Week visit to Merchant. Our initial experience at Merchant, dinner with friends about a year ago, was not terrible by any means. But it wasn’t great. The service was fine. The dreaded server spill was well handled. The staff successfully navigated the challenge of a packed, noisy dining room. But the food was just mediocre, and Merchant found itself on our list of restaurants we were unlikely to seek out for a return visit. But for a number of reasons we decided to give it a try for Restaurant Week and we had a really nice time. They did the whole Restaurant Week thing well with a big menu with lots of choices. The room’s been remodeled and we found it much more comfortable. The service was informally professional. And the food was well sourced and very good. We’ll be back.
The week before that we flew out to Seattle. It was one of those early morning flights made only moderately acceptable by the promise of a good cup of coffee and a relaxed couple of hours reading the paper and getting caught up with each other. And we dreaded it. A couple of months earlier we had a similar flight east and the coffee experience at Ancora, the only game in town at Dane County Regional Airport, was awful. Whereas the shop downtown promotes high quality, Fair Trade, organic coffee, none was available at the airport location, at least according to our servers, and what we were served was undrinkable. Not only was the cappuccino not a cappuccino; it resembled no coffee drink known to either of us. The regular drip was just as bad. The stuff on the plane was better. So this time we reluctantly made plans to simply wait until we got to Minneapolis to get our coffee for the morning. But we stopped at Ancora just in case and, lo and behold, redemption. It was like a completely different place. The coffee was just what we wanted, the cappuccino and drip were well made and delicious and the staff knew what they were doing. The next 6 a.m. departure just got much easier.
And finally, perhaps our favorite second chance of all. A while back we had a pretty awful service experience at Bandung Indonesian Restaurant, and we wrote about it. We actually made a point of saying in the piece that it was likely just a bad night and we would probably go back because we like Bandung (and like we said, we know bad nights). But it was no fun to experience an apparently out-of-control night, and we felt we had to be honest about it. A couple of weeks ago we went back, and it was really nice. The service was comfortable and the food was really good with the quality ingredients and fresh and clean tastes we expect from Bandung. It felt good to be back.
In fact it felt good to have all these places redeem themselves. Sometimes that’s exactly where the genuine articles are found.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.