The Portland Phoenix

Leftovers: Armchair quarterback

Natalie Ladd

We all want our restaurants, corner bars, and roving food trucks to bounce back and exceed their pre-pandemic status quo. Sadly, staffing troubles, back-ordered vendor supply chains, and some of our own residual fear continue to thwart this goal.

But what if those very places we’re rooting for are contributing to their own shortcomings?

Before I go on, I must admit I’m the GOAT of armchair quarterbacking. I’m the all-star MVP. The Grand Poobah. Although I most certainly should, I have no qualms telling others how to resolve their personal or professional quandaries, especially if they relate to a restaurant front-of-house operation.

I’ve interrupted many wonderful dinners or nights perched at the bar to tell BFF the utensil roll-ups are too loose, a server needs to put their shoulder-length hair up, the guy texting in the corner should be clearing tables, or no one should ever enter or leave the kitchen empty-handed.

Let’s not forget, “Time to lean is time to clean.” Yes, I really used to say that with a straight face. 

My BFF is well aware of SHUV-IT, a company that ingeniously invented rubber wedges shaped like a matchbook to level wobbly tables, a replacement for wadded-up cocktail napkins or stacked cardboard bar coasters. I love this company because long ago, their sales guy waltzed in where I was working (during a slammed Friday lunch I might add), to ask if I’d be offended if he told me to SHUV-IT. Blown away by his chutzpah, I immediately ordered a box of 100.

BFF has also heard me complain about over-garnished plates (OK, that’s on the kitchen, but still) and unchilled martini glasses due not to a shortage of glasses on hand but to laziness. And, I’ve raged for days after watching a host pass over a party of two on a waiting list because he didn’t want to seat them at a four-top, even though they were next and had already been passed over once.

Like that host’s list, mine goes on and on. 

These days, my operational observations are offset by sympathy, but they still impact my dining experience.

“Perhaps,” I tell myself, “The owner/operator is well into a 70-hour workweek and still can’t find a good dish dog to keep the steak knives clean. Maybe the salad station is out of balsamic reduction, and there’s still none to be found at Hannaford, so the evening special is 86’d or modified before service even begins.”

Like the very best of days in the business I so dearly love, many things can go south in a heartbeat – only in post-pandemic times, the odds seem greater. 

That said, and despite my armchair quarterbacking, there are some legit things people in the industry can think about to do better. I’m not sure where the guy going on 71 hours this week will find the time, but here goes:

• Please, continuously update your days and hours on Facebook and on your website. Also, briefly state them on a phone message in case someone calls in and you’re closed or unable to get the phone. While we’re on the subject of social media, tell us about specials, events, and menu additions. And, tell us anything and everything that will keep us from being disappointed by expecting things to be the same before you shut down last year. 

• It’s time to put salt, pepper, candles, and all the niceties back on the tables. Small plastic to-go containers are out and metal ramekins are back in. Sure, it’s more work, but it makes the experience so much better for diners. 

• Rethink “the whole party must be present” to get on a waiting list. I understand the whole party must be present to be seated, but to go on the waitlist is silly. And, if you’re opposed to letting people call in to put their name on a list in general, ask yourself why. Unless it’s because those waiting in person are spending money prior to being seated, there’s no harm in taking names over the phone. If you call the name of someone who phoned in and they aren’t there yet, cross them off and call the next party. This shows the love to your local patrons. 

• At what point can we (or should we) go back to hand-held menus? QR codes are easier for the house and environmentally friendly, but we lose a lot in the storytelling, drink and item descriptions, and the overall key visual process. Many older folks aren’t comfortable with the QR code process, and parents, partners, or friends who insist on no phones at the table are defeated before they even sit down. 

A lot of Monday morning touchdowns have been thrown here, but I do believe our restaurants are working hard to bring us back and make us happy. Please join me in showing up to the game to cheer them on. Be it a quick lunch or leisurely dinner, think of it as an awesome tailgate party, and as always, enjoy your meal.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at

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