When it comes to being waited on in Baltimore-area restaurants, the readers have spoken. And their message, which echoes from the fanciest four-star bistros to the humblest greasy-spoon diners, is: There are some really bad servers out there.
This comes in response to a column in this space last week, in which I chronicled a recent encounter with a waitress who was everything you don't want in a server, starting with inattentive and incompetent.
Then I invited readers to send in their own horror stories of bad servers, figuring it would give me a cheap follow-up column.
Fortunately, the mail poured in: more than 100 responses in the first 24 hours alone. Some of the stories people told make my encounter with the Server From Hell look like an evening at the Prime Rib.
In the interest of fairness, I should note that a few servers also weighed in. And the basic theme of their e-mails was: Quit picking on servers; we work hard; you ought to see the idiot customers we have to deal with.
"How about asking servers to write in with their horror stories about idiot diners?" one veteran server suggested.
Which I just might do, although don't get in the habit of looking for fair-and-balanced coverage here.
But let's get right to the mail, shall we?
Quite a few readers had experiences with servers who were not -- how to put this? -- overly concerned with the concepts of basic hygiene and civility.
Reuban Cohen of Owings Mills recalled a lunch at an upscale restaurant that did not start well, to say the least.
The waitress brought the menus and water, which was mostly a glass of ice.
"I asked her to bring an empty glass for the excess ice," Cohen writes, "whereupon she said, 'No problem,' and reached two fingers into my glass to remove the ice! When she saw my jaw drop, she said, 'It's OK, I have a bandage on my cut finger.' "
You may -- or may not -- be comforted to know this sort of thing is not confined to Baltimore restaurants.
At a nice restaurant in Hilton Head, S.C., Cheryl Schroder of Columbia ordered the fish. When it arrived, Schroder says she detected "a definite ammonia odor." She said something to the waitress. The waitress took the fish back to the kitchen.
"She came back to our table," Schroder writes, "and told me, 'There is nothing wrong with your fish. I tasted it and it was OK ... it must be your tastebuds and smell that are off.' "
Anne Stein of Baltimore says she once received french fries with her meal by mistake and gently pointed this out to the waitress.
The waitress, Stein writes, "stepped away and returned in a moment with an empty plate. She then proceeded to shovel with both hands the pile of french fries, which sat in front of me, onto the empty plate and carried it into the kitchen."
In a related vein, Skip Chase of Gaithersburg reports he and friends were having lunch at a favorite tavern, where they were waited on by a server they nicknamed Shakey Jake, who had obviously been a bit of a drinker.
When their order of roast-beef sandwiches was ready, they watched Shakey Jake put the food on a tray and hoist the tray above his head.
"It was at this point that the trouble started, because Shakey must have had an urgent call from nature," Chase writes. "So we watched as he made his way ... into the men's room. All the while balancing the tray with our sandwiches.
"We had visited the men's room on occasion, and though it wasn't bad enough to warrant a citation, it was close. So now we had to make a command decision."
Stay and have Shakey serve the food fresh from this appetizing detour to Lysol heaven? Or get up and leave?
"We chose the latter course of action because we knew full well that the staff would see nothing wrong with Shakey's detour," Chase writes. "After all, it took only one hand to keep that tray balanced in the air."
Overzealous servers hell-bent on moving things along was another common theme in the bad-server horror stories.
Stephanie Kim of Baltimore recalled dining at a chain restaurant with her boyfriend when the waitress began clearing the table, despite the fact that the boyfriend was still enthusiastically devouring his fries.
He would have communicated this fact to the waitress, too. Except, writes Kim, "his mouth was full, so he couldn't tell her he wasn't done. But he held onto the edge of the basket [of fries]. She didn't get the message and kept pulling, so for a full 10 seconds, there was a tug-of-war on."
And Alissa Schaub-Rimel of Eldersburg, out for a meal with her mother, once watched dumbfounded as the waitress, also engaged in premature clearing, "took the fork from my mom's hand while she was using it and put it into the dirty utensil bin ..."
Then there were stories of servers who disappeared during the meal -- not figuratively, but literally.
Karen Colliflower of Cockeysville and her husband, when they were first dating, had a wonderful Valentine's Day dinner at a downtown restaurant, then didn't see their waiter again for the rest of the evening.
The same man was also waiting on the six other couples in the tiny restaurant, so his absence was soon the topic of conversation with everyone.
"The manager finally came back to us," Colliflower writes, "and told us it had been a very busy night. This was our waiter's first night there and he was overwhelmed. He just took off, checks and all!"
The embarrassed manager wished everyone a happy Valentine's Day, and said dinner was on the house.
Which was way better than what happened to Eva Whitley of Uniontown and her husband when their server disappeared in a New Orleans restaurant one evening.
After not being served dinner or seeing their waiter for 45 minutes, they complained to the manager, only to have the manager bark: "Your waiter's mother died and he had to leave. You are so insensitive!"
And people wonder if I make this stuff up.