I was at my current favorite Mexican restaurant Saturday — El Jardin in Oakdale on Saturday.
There’s nothing wrong with the Manteca El Jardin per se except I’m tired of their booths that for some reason aren’t secure enough that each time a patron behind you moves — usually a squirming kid that can’t sit still — you are jolted.
That doesn’t happen with the same exact booths at the Oakdale location which is a little bit quainter and smaller. We’ve been going to the Manteca El Jardin since Chris opened it and will continue to do so, but the Oakdale location doesn’t feature rock and roll dining. It’s also a pleasant drive.
Saturday happened to be the second week in a row at the Oakdale El Jardin. This time I was with my grandson and his girlfriend on our way back from Yosemite. We got the same waitress when I was there with Cynthia the week prior. The waitress was excellent. This time she was even better. Not that we were creating any problems although it took her three trips to our table before all of us were ready to order. She was attentive, courteous, anticipated our every need, didn’t hover, was extremely pleasant, and managed to again make sure my biggest peeve didn’t happen which is waiting for eternity for the bill and then the change. Even after we lingered and the tab was paid she asked If Ryan wanted a refill on his Dr. Pepper.
Before I decided on the tip for whatever reason an experience at another dining spot in Oakdale — an older drive-in restaurant — popped into my mind.
While realizing that a fast food place is not somewhere that I leave a tip, it was an encounter that makes me appreciate the value of a good dining experience.
When we entered the place there was a couple seated and a kid about 5 years old wandering around and no one else.
After standing at the window for a good two minutes after deciding what to order, Cynthia asked out loud if anyone was there. She got a “what’s your problem I’ll be there in a minute” reply from in the back.
For whatever reason, we didn’t leave at that point. It’s a good thing because then we would have missed one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen at a fast food restaurant.
Someone had given the kid a battery powered electric drill — minus the bit — to play with. Bedsides the annoying noise, he walked up by where we were standing at the window and proceeded to press the drill into the wall as if he were making a hole.
This went on for perhaps a minute. The couple at the table never looked up. The kid kept walking around pushing and then releasing the power drill on/off button.
We walked out.
After I stopped replaying that scene from four months earlier in my mind, I was about to settle on a 20 percent tip when my garbage can standard for bad service popped into my head.
It happened 20 years ago. Someone gave me a gift card for Christmas to a chain restaurant that bills it’s self as a great pasta place even though I’d beg to differ with their glowing self-assessment. I’m one of those people that will eat pasta with absolutely nothing on it given if it is cooked properly as every type of pasta has a unique taste. That said most chain restaurants cook pasta to death and use whatever sauce you order to cover up the crime.
What you are about to read is as surreal as the kid with the drill. Given Cynthia was with me I had a witness.
We were seated in a booth two booths away from the kitchen door.
It was the holiday season so we expected the staff to be slammed. What we didn’t expect was to wait as long as we did to see our waitress.
When she did appear Cynthia asked a question about how good the lasagna was. The waitress replied she didn’t know because she didn’t eat stuff that was fattening.
I held my breath. Cynthia definitely didn’t — and still doesn’t — have a weight issue. But given the young age of the waitress and her size the inference wasn’t good. Cynthia held her tongue.
Our salad — or should I say my salad — arrived 15 minutes later. When we asked where Cynthia’s salad was we got an irritated smirk and a curt “I’ll be back”. Meanwhile a group of four young “studs” were seated in the booth next to us.
Within a minute the waitress was there. What transpired next was mind-boggling. Not only was she openly flirting and laughing with them but was caressing one of the guys on the shoulder.
When she left to place their order she walked right past us despite my raising my hand and saying “miss”. A second later the bus boy came by, we explained our situation and within a minute Cynthia had her salad. A few minutes later the waitress reappeared with salads for the four guys next to us. When we finished our salads, we tried to get the attention of the waitress again after she finished flirting a second time with the adjacent table. It didn’t work. We looked down at our watches. We had been seated for 45 minutes and no main course. The bus boy came by, we caught his attention and we had our meals a minute later. Apparently they had been prepared already. No sooner than we got our meals the waitress comes out with plates for the table next to us and proceeded to sit on the one guy’s lap. It was obvious she knew the guy.
For the rest of the dinner the bus boy took it upon himself to check on us and to ask if we wanted refills or anything else. The waitress miraculously appeared with the check before taking off.
Cynthia wanted to get up and go without leaving a tip. I said no as we were going to wait for a few minutes.
What I was waiting for was for the bus boy to appear. As he stopped at the table I told him how much I appreciated his service and wanted to make sure the tip I was leaving — a $20 bill since the gift card more than covered the tab — went to him and no one else. He politely protested and said he couldn’t as he wasn’t our waiter. What I didn’t realize was that our MIA waitress had just made an appearance and was standing behind him just out of my sight. I happened to turn slightly and saw her with what might be called a nasty look on her face. That was the last straw. I stood up, pulled a $10 bill out of my wallet, picked up the $20 bill, and put both in the bus boy’s hand.
I told him he more than earned it as she — the waitress — could have cared less about us and spent her time fawning over the four guys at the next table and that he should not give a cent of it to the waitress and on my way out I would let the manager know that was my instruction. I then looked the waitress right in the eye. If looks could kill, my life would have ended back then at age of 43.
I’m not a big tipper I keep it between 15 and 20 percent almost always. The only other place I tip besides sit down restaurants is at the end of the weeklong stay at motels on hiking trips if the maid service is better than expected and when I get my haircut.
I also don’t eat out a lot nor am I a big believer that tips should be automatic while at the same time I’ll give the wait staff slack on the assumption they may be having a bad day. I also never try to blame the waiter for issues that could very well be with the kitchen. A few times I’ve been known to leave a 10 percent tip over the protests of whoever is dining with me not to leave one at all, when I thought the service was crappy but not exactly the absolute pits.
But only twice have I never tipped. One of those times was our experience at the Modesto chain restaurant when it was so bad and someone else noticed and stepped up that I felt compelled to tip the bus boy $30 or a 100 percent tip before the tax was factored into the equation.
Dining out is not simply about having food placed in front of you. Not that you should be pampered but it should be relaxing and pleasant experience with the staff being attentive to your needs.
And if they make the experience top notch they are worthy of a 25 percent tip only because I know there are dining experiences from hell out there courtesy of restaurant staff that could care less about the people they are serving who are picking up the tab.