Bad service in San Diego

The standard for service in San Diego is lower than it should be and diners need to stand up for themselves.

Since I started reviewing restaurants for the Reader, the only thing I’ve received hate mail over has been my tendency to call out bad servers and poor service. I’ve gone so far as to say that the standards for service across the industry in San Diego are inferior, and that truly good service is a treasured rarity.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” says the average email from an embittered restaurant server.

So I started keeping a list.

I’ve recorded the most egregious offenses against table service that I’ve encountered, some of which outright appalled me.

At URBN Pizza, I once had the audacity to ask for water glasses. My server launched into a snotty, breathless explanation about why there were none. The correct answer was, “yes, sir. Let me get you some.” I could do without the sir...but it never hurts. That same night, I waited ninety minutes for a pizza that never came. I expressed my dissatisfaction to that same waiter. He shrugged, and said, “sorry, bro, it’s busy.”

At the Blind Burro, where I had an OK meal, the busser pillaged my table, clearing plates from which I was still eating.

At Sipz a waitress disdainfully sighed and huffed about having to serve my larger-sized party. She threw my food down before like a grumpy chef from a cartoon. That same night, at DBar, the hostess gave me a “we don’t want you” attitude on arrival. The restaurant was slightly busy and my friend pulled a boneheaded amateur move when she failed to make a reservation, but none of that absolves the staff from being courteous and trying to help. In fact, I’d venture that servers and hosts owe greater courtesy to more difficult parties.

Every time I go to Tiger Tiger, I am flabbergasted by how disorganized and inefficient the staff there is. I have always loved the Blind Lady, and I think Tiger Tiger has the potential to be cool, but it seems like the staff is in a perpetual state of hot mess.

I hate to beat on Hubcap any more than I did in my original review, the way that the server “rallied” from her error of forgetting to card the table and not mentioning that some of the beers were out before my party ordered was almost comical. And then she had the gall to categorically ignore us.

The big problem, for me, is that this kind of thing is more of a norm than an exception. I am ignored and slighted on a weekly basis, as are other diners in San Diego. Some days, I feel like Big Blue from the Sesame Street sketch.

And what do we do about this? Nothing. We diners are so accustomed to maltreatment that we don’t demand better service. Making the change is on us, not them. People need to start standing up for themselves. Say something. Leave a scant tip. Tell the manager. Let your dissatisfaction be known. Just don’t go on Yelp and rant. Trust me on this one. Negative Yelp reviews only drive service downwards as restaurant staffers carry grudges against anonymous, faceless customers. Business owners end up trying to control the damage online rather than IRL. Interacting in the real world is a two-way street and we owe it to ourselves to demand better. If we do, we’ll get it.

More like this:

Comments

You know what the average eater does here in San Diego? They stand in line to eat and be abused. You know what I do? I just get up and leave without so much as a single word. Nothing is so good that I'm going to stand in line for. Theres so much to choose from anyway. Granted, the offense must fit the reaction from me. Keep me happy and I will tip well baby. Ignore me when I hold a glass up? Bye, bye tip well,...I've been known to leave pennies. I know and understand what a waiter, server goes through everyday. So what!? Suck it up and work for those tips. Half of your work is done when they step inside the establishment! And just because they're already inside doesn't mean you can take them for granted. You gotta give them the enjoyable experience they pay for. Then after humpin' your butt off for said customer, watch what happens. Sure, there are cheapskates out there. Nature of the beast my friend. What can the consumer do? Think for yourselves people. Mediocrity mabe acceptable to the masses. Not for me. Don't go where you're told to go. Try different places, you'll find the jewels all over San Diego. Just don't robotically fall into a random line you see. Unless they're giving away cash of course.

My husband and I wanted to go to Vagabond in South Park for dinner one Thursday night, so we called to see how busy they were — if we should make a reservation, etc.

They asked what time we wanted to come in. We said "around 8:15." The guy got really huffy with us. "Ok, but you HAVE to be here BY 8:15. And you have to order no later than 8:40."

We were being rushed out the door before we'd even step foot in it!

We went to Smoking Goat instead, where we had a great meal without being given a hard time.

Reminds me of a recent interview in Esquire with Alan Arkin, where he said:

"I get pissed off every time somebody says to me, 'No problem.' I don't care if it's a problem or not! That's your job. Do it! You're not there to evaluate whether or not it's a problem. How 'bout 'As you wish, sir.'"

The main problem with all these anecdotes is that they never should have happened in the first place. The very nature of being served should preclude any of these things from happening and mediocrity should not be the norm.

Thank you, Mr. Pike.

I gave up keeping a list of my bad experiences in San Diego, because I stopped wanting to even go out. Now, I'm old and cranky enough to speak up. When the server at Whiskanladle called my middle-aged woman friend "sweetie," I corrected him. When I'm asked if I'm still "working on that," I say, "No. But I am enjoying it." When over zealous wine-pourers attack my bottle like it's medicine to get rid of, I'm quick to put a hand over my glass and tell them, "I'll pour." And the excuses I've been told! It's the kitchen's fault. You came on the wrong night, etc.

On a recent trip to NYC, every meal I had, no matter how humble, arrived with excellent service. In the end, we're in San Diego. Bumptious boorishness pervades every aspect of life here. It's the beach, I'm told. And maybe it is. I say we live in a place of perpetual adolescence, and even those who arrive mature descend into Their Inner Teenager. I applaud your speaking up and your means of redress, but in the end, it may be for naught. This is Flip Flop Land.

Kitty:

You're right in that our laid back beach culture is at least partly to blame for lax standards in service (and other things). The chilled out pace of life here is one of the greatest things about living in SD. I love how relaxed and enjoyable my life is.

It just sucks how that lack of urgency translates into sloppiness, as though it were take just one degree too far! I think that attentive, professional restaurant service isn't too much to ask for while keeping things chill. You can have a "no worries" attitude and still take your job seriously. This isn't NYC and I'm not looking for black ties and studied silence out of my servers--I just want them to act like pros! Friendly, casual, effective, polite, gracious, skilled professionals.

This not a San Diego specific problem. I find it most everywhere I travel. For some reason the restaurant industry has given up training their staff on some simple industry specific standards and general good customer service attitudes.

I disagree with this. My experiences in other cities with equally vibrant food cultures--like DC, San Francisco, and the Northeastern towns--is that the standards for service are, as a whole, more professional. What passes for normal here would not be tolerated in nice places in SF, which is no less a part of California and no less short of bohemian residents working service gigs.

San Francisco has an equally vibrant food culture? No. It is much, much more vibrant.

SF's restaurant scene has a lot going for it at the top end, that's never in dispute. However, in some things we totally and completely own their asses. Mission-style taco shops are wack. The beer drinking scene is better here. We may have the world's best selection of awesome, 24hr donut shops. That's to name a few advantages.

That said, San Francisco and San Diego are culinary apples and oranges. SF compares more favorably to NY than anything else. SD, at its best, is weird and one-of-a-kind. It bears more comparison to a southern or midwestern city, some of which are awesome in their own rights but would fail miserably if San Francisco were the "gold standard."

Hilarious video of the guy with beady eyes and bald blue head. Dopey super-informal surfer-dudes and restaurant service don't mix, and it's notable that many San Diego restaurants' highly capable long-time Latino bus-boys seldom make it to the ranks of waiters. In western Europe and Mexico restaurant servers are professionals who take pride in what is frequently family-sustaining life-work.

It's rude common practice here to clear away plates while others at the same table are "still working on it." It happens so often it's almost funny. Personally, I get peeved when restaurants serve drinks to children in tacky plastic or paper containers -- an unsightly and tippy addition to the table -- and when food is brought in irregular waves rather than simultaneously.

But let's be grateful for crumbs: in Miami there's an automatic 18% surcharge on every restaurant check, regardless of how many people are at table. And the South Beach wait-staff is drawn from the same people-pool as ours.

It's true that down in TJ and other Baja cities, even the most humble restaurants treat guests like absolute kings in comparison to standard-fare SD table service.

Troof. Good luck using the same napkin twice in TJ!

Thank you for writing this! My husband and I moved here from out of state and have been very disappointed with the restaurant service in this town. We thought it was just us, so it's nice to be validated. We don't want to always be "that person," but I guess it's time to step up and say something more often. Thank you.

Good to know that it's not just me! I was starting to wonder if it was, having been slighted so many times, too. Many of my friends are originally from San Diego (I'm not) and they never get annoyed with bad service -- they are so complacent that I started to wonder if I was crazy and uptight! It seems like getting good service is a total crap shoot -- it's been either over-the-top great or abysmal in my experience. I cannot keep track of the number of times that a server will disappear and is no where to be found when I need the check or will leave me hanging for a long time after I've been sat. The inefficiency and slowness I see regularly amazes me, especially at the prices these establishments are charging, particularly in the Gaslamp.

I feel for waitstaff because I waited tables all throughout college. I also wish that restaurants paid their staff a living wage, like Nordic countries and Japan do, and that servers wouldn't have to be so reliant on tips. It is a crappy job, however anyone in the industry needs to remember that they are not entitled to a 20 percent tip, or any amount. If you want a good tip you have to give good service, it really is that simple.

I don't know if the beach culture and laid-back vibe can be blamed. I've never encountered such poor service anywhere on Oahu. And for a town that depends heavily on tourist dollars, San Diego really needs to step up its game.

I'm sorry to hear about what happened at URBN Pizza. I won't be going there after reading this. If I were the owner I'd be horrified to find out that an employee was treating my customers this way.

I wouldn't say that our no worries attitude is entirely to blame, but I really do think it's a part of it, just taken to an extreme.

As for URBN, the restau isn't defined by this one moment of terrible service, but it certainly doesn't help their cause. Their "buy a pitcher get a pizza" happy hour deal is one of the best buys in North Park. Paying full price for a meal there, on the other hand, risks running up a steep bill for some dismissive service.

I'll suggest you all follow the advice that football player John Riggins (and this is true) gave to Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, at a banquet: "Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up. You're too tight.”

I get where you're coming from. You probably have this vision of me as the uptight food snob, a California version of the guy from Ratatouille, or maybe a kind wannabe Jeffrey Steingarten, but I'm quite the opposite.

If anything, I'm overly nice. Where the stereotypical critic finds fault, I look for the "delight" in everything--probably a holdover from taking writing workshops and trying to help people tease the little bits of greatness out of their stories rather than eviscerating rough drafts to the point that souls are crushed and the writers never look at the story again with any love.

Nevertheless, giving the benefit of the doubt to imperfection is very, very different from overlooking grossly negligent service!

Clearly you are not a snob. You defended URBN even though getting terrible service there and but managed to stay objective and point out what they do well. And as a restaurant reviewer you're doing us a service by calling out establishments that could treat their customers better. I'd trust your opinion over the legions of Yelpers that give out unwarranted five-star reviews.

Don't apologize, Ian Pike, you are right-on. The great proletarian Randy Dotinga habitually takes the side of the underdog, no matter the subject -- bridge-jumpers, right-wing gay mayoral candidates, the struggling online journal to which he free-lance contributes and deadbeat restaurant wait-staff. You have to consider the source when you read his comments.

Fascinating.

  • The well-heeled Carl DeMaio was an "underdog"? That's, um, rich.

  • VOSD is "struggling"? Check its tax forms for 2012 vs. 2011.

  • Want to know who's really struggling? Your dear beloved, the San Diego Reader. Its circulation keeps tanking. From 152,524 in 2011 (down from 2010) to 126,273 in Dec. 2012.

Source: http://stateofthemedia.org/2012/native-american-news-media/alternative-weeklies-at-long-last-a-move-toward-digital/

Source: http://www.altweeklies.com/aan/san-diego-reader/Company?oid=80

My wife and I moved here a year ago and have often thought that maybe we were invisible to the servers. With better service, the restaurants would probably get another drink or two out of each of us. That's a higher tip for the server, more revenue for the restaurant, and better service for us. Everyone would win. Why haven't restaurants out here figured that out?

Million-dollar-question, Yorque! There are so many small factors at work--everything from attitude to poor training--that this whole problem is endemic and overdetermined. For a lot of these restaurants, good food and poor service equates to a mediocre experience. Even if the food stayed merely good, adding excellent service to the mix would improve the experiences tremendously. An guy I know (who has been known to have great ideas) always says that "you can't make people like food." What he means is that even if you do your best to cook good food, a certain percentage of people just aren't going to like it because it's not to their taste. Those people can nevertheless have a good experience at a restaurant if they're made to feel welcome and graciously served.

To be honest with you, the food out here is the other problem. We eat out a lot and we find the food in San Diego to be pretty bland. To be fair, our standards are pretty high coming from New Orleans and Austin. I do give high marks to the fish tacos out here, though.

I think the big problem here is that the author and many of the commenters are very pretentious. I have respect for my servers as fellow human beings and expect the same in return. Respect is what every one deserves and not being treated like a king. Ha!! You are not a king order a PIZZA. Ha!

I also notice many of these complaints are " the way the server said something" or the attitude. This is all in your head. Take people for face value and you all would probably be happier people.

I don't get the sense that the author and the other people commenting are pretentious or too demanding. They just want to be treated with respect as well, when they are spending hard-earned money at these places, which are often pricey.

I feel that most of the time service I have received in SD is acceptably efficient and servers are polite and professional. We all remember the bad moments of service and forget the normal experiences where nothing of note sticks in our memories. In fact, often the best service goes somewhat unnoticed because the server is already filling your water before you asked, or is ready with a desert menu as soon as the table's entrees are cleared. I would much rather have a good-hearted server who lacks experience and polish over robotic, rude, yet efficient server. Seamless efficiency as a server comes with experience, but personality and good spirits are something you have or don't have. I note that Mr. Pike compares unfavorably to the service level in SF, DC, and NYC. I concur. But I know SF and DC having living wage laws. (I am not sure about NYC, but I think the density of restaurants w/in walking distance from ANYWHERE is such that if you have poor service you have no chance to compete.) Living wage laws result in service workers receiving a higher income than the national average for that job, and ideally they can support themselves with that living wage. If one is paid more for a job, one inherently (1) sees their work as more valuable, (2) appreciates their position more, and (3) islikely to be less transient in their jobs and thus, by staying at the same place, may develop a professional server skill set. In contrast, if you are being paid at the very lowest end, you probably are always looking to move jobs, if even only for $0.50 more per hour. Thus, servers in cities with no libving wage law likely have a shorter average time at each job, i.e., there is not stability in the service staff. Just my two cents. I will continue to look for the silver linings, and I vote with my feet. There are only a few places with service so poor that I will not return, and by "poor" I mean rude or condescending, not just disorganized. I also give 1 yr grace period for places after opening. Last note, I know the now-closed Sky Room at the Valencia was a equally praised for chef Luke Johnson's fixed-course menu as it was for the level of service. Reviews compared the food and the service to the best in any city, yet the hotel closed the restaurant because they felt the "high-end" nature of the service and food did not fit the "SD food scene" so there's that. Perhaps we are getting exactly what we DON'T pay for, so to speak, in terms of level of server skill in SD when a place with impeccable service and fantastic food does not make it...

There is some validity in arguing that paying people a "living wage" increases job satisfaction and performance and you're not the first to make it.

Here in San Diego, I'd say that restaurant servers make better wages, on average, than servers in many other cities. In many states, restaurants can pay servers the better part of two dollars an hour, relying on customer tips to make up the difference between that sum and a living wage. In California, State labor laws mandate that servers earn at least minimum wage regardless of tips. In lots of places, senior servers earn above minimum wage plus any tips they earn on service. This generous pay scale means that the wage gap between back of the house and front of the house staff is even wider in San Diego than it is in other cities. Plus, restaurant owners have to deal with much steeper labor costs than their counterparts in cities with less restrictive labor laws.

I'm not here to argue the merits (or lack thereof) of high hourly wages for servers, but I do think that it deflates the argument that servers are underpaid and therefore not motivated to excel.

Hey Clutter, if you read closely you would've noticed a common denominator here. No pretentious comments were made. They were honest people who are tired of bad service. Thats all. Heres the thing, I've been in the food service industry for decades. Like most chefs, I've moved around so I believe I can be objective about this subject matter having worked through-out the country and San Diego. Servers are people,......duh! So are the chefs, busboys and managers. So treat your customers like people. If you're content with defending the poor service and attitudes we're trying to speak up on, maybe greenpeace needs your dilligent love of the universe. Or maybe,.....nah, taking it personal don't help either.

taking nothing personal here, but apparently you are. I apologize. The article started with the "most appalling offenses" and I find many of them quite tame/trivial. Same with most of the comments. I find in SD when I go to a expensive restaurant I get superb service. When I go to a pizza joint or taco shop, I cut servers some slack. Or maybe I dont expect them to be my best friend or kiss my ass. Just want respect and my food timely. It usually happens in SD comparably to living in other cities much bigger than SD on the east coast.

Clutter --respect and food in a timely manner is what we are not getting. Hence, the comments. I also don't want them to be my friend or kiss my ass --I just don't want to have to beg to get attention or go thirsty because my server won't look at me. This is more of a marked problem here in SD.

Calling out Bad Service is justified. However, I take offense for those people that try to pick on other reviewers opinions (yes those are opinions) especially us Yelpers. I have been Yelping for a while and I often try to avoid reviewing bad places because I don't even want anyone to go there. Once in a while, you get a really bad experience you wish to share. Some places I might return to see if anything has improved and will update my review so that my experience is not encapsulated on one bad night.

But regarding poor service, it's not San Diego, it's this generation that is also the problem. When we are eating in places where the sound of conversation overwhelms simple talk, the use of electronic devices has substituted for live talk, then we have truly brought it on ourselves. I see no pretension from others expecting service because when we are at a restaurant sitting down and being served, we expect service not attitude.

It's no wonder most restaurants don't last. The goal is for repeat customers and you will not get that if the diner has a truly bad experience and will tell others about it whether it's word of mouth or Yelping.

Ain't it a shame, seeing a group of people out to dinner, sitting in silence and using their phones? Consciously putting the phone away for the duration of a meal is a nice gesture towards your own piece of mind.

Judging by the posts, a nerve has been hit with this story

It sure seems that way. I'd love to keep the ball rolling re: dialogue on this issue. Maybe with an "examples of great service" piece, or just by making it a bigger focus of my overall project doing food criticism here at the Reader.

Either way, talk on the subject is definitely good!

I am never shy about telling the management when I have inferior service. Recently I had a Living Social Deal and the waitress was clueless how to apply it. They were also having a special that night and she couldn't figure out the restrictions on the special either. So after some discussion, she told me that I could use the L.S. Deal and get a discount on drinks. I was surprised but very pleased. Well, things didn't quite turn out that way. She came back at the end of the meal and told me that she had made a mistake. She must have said "Sorry" at least ten times. Finally, she brought the manager over. To my amazement, the manager was as clueless as she was. She also apologized many times but said there was nothing she could do. HUH? YOU'RE THE MANAGER! My husband made an analogy about going to Home Depot, seeing a price on a tool, bringing it to the register and it ringing up a higher price. Even H.D. will honor the advertised price. She dismissed the analogy as not relevant, which really infuriated him and finally I asked for corporate's information. After the manager went to get me a card, people around us said that they totally agreed with us and couldn't believe that the manager wouldn't just give us the discount. Jeez, we're talking about 4 dollars!!!! So, I contacted corporate by email, got a phone call back and he was so nice and really couldn't believe that the manager was so uninformed about how to handle the situation. He sent me a $25.00 gift certificate to be used on my next visit. So - my advice - don't be shy about speaking your mind. You should get good service, it is not the exception. And when a server says "No Problem" tell him or her that it shouldn't be a problem to do your job! But it may be a "problem" for me to leave a tip. :(

D'ya get it? Nobody is asking for anything out of the ordinary. Let me pose this to you, Clutter. Don't you take pride in what you do. Whatever vocation you pursue deserves the best you can be. That's all we're saying. Metaphors and analogys are many. They're really not neccessary. It is black and white. You're either good, or bad. You either love your job, or you don't. That is the issue, thats what I believe. And guess what, that pizza joint should have the same service I get at the best place in town. If you settle for less,... well, hows that for a metaphor?

Let's also not forget that the pizza joint in the article is more of a hip cocktail bar than a greasy spoon pizza place.

Hi Ian,

I have spent my fair share of time working in the service industry, so naturally reviewers such as yourself and Yelp have always been a frustrating experience for me. In theory, your "profession" is a good idea, but really this and Yelp have become a platform for literally anyone to be a critic. There are plenty of fine reviews, with loads of people having nice things to say. However, there are also plenty of people out there who feel the need to take a less then desirable experience and put a person on blast with no consideration of what the consequences might be. Sadly, it is only the negative experiences restaurant owners care about enough to respond to their employees, the good reviews go without any reward other than a, "hey good job, now go shine the stainless steel" at your never rising minimum wage salary. I have seen people lose their jobs over one bad review, when no doubt the times they go about their business in the expected manor no one hears about it. I get it that negativity sells, you know that and quite clearly enjoy exploiting it.

The next time you sit behind your desk smugly preparing to critique a hard working individual or business, consider if your experience was actually that terrible enough to cost someone a salary. It is so very easy to walk in to a restaurant undercover and judge every person in there.

I realize this is the service industry and people go out to be waited on, I enjoy being waited on as much as anyone else. However, we are all human, recognize effort when a misunderstanding occurs, try to roll with any given situation. You claim to love the laid back city you call home, I suggest you adopt the attitude.

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

SD Reader Newsletters

Join our newsletter list and enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe!

Each subscription means another chance to win!

Close