Monday, February 16, 2009

Train Wreck Brunch: Valentine's Delay

When the day after Valentine's Day came, Karen and I were excited. The grandparents were taking Jasper for a few hours, leaving us time to go out for brunch and then some much needed alone time at the house. Being fans of Millie's, we decided on Lulu's, the sister restaurant to Richmond's brunch mecca (and we'd never been in before). (**I want to spoil it and tell you that our meal was bad times and they waved the whole bill, so this isn't one of those irresponsible blogger beefs. It's just a wash. Sometimes a restaurant's most loyal customers are people who've been burnt, then complained, and were taken care of, and kept coming back. That might be us, if we're ever able to go out for meals regularly again**)

The whole thing started badly because Karen and I were kinda butting heads over the scheduling of our tiny allotment of time (my fault for being really wound up about my grad school paper deadlines). Even after finding a great parking spot by the 17th Street Farmers Market, we had a tiny black cloud over us. Not how we wanted to spend our deferred V-day. From outside, we could see that the place was packed and we worried that we'd have to go somewhere else. But, a spot opened and we got a seat in the middle of the busy-ness. We admired the details of the place, the two toned wood grain tables, clever ceiling fans, and the island of booths. Lulu's looks like a great hang out, for eating or drinking.

On the menu, I didn't see any sides to order ahead to snack on (like you'd find at Can Can), but everything came with potatoes (like you WON'T find at Can Can), so we were both starting to get happy although really hungry. Karen ordered the petite fillet with poached eggs and asparagus and hollandaise and I got the... what else? Huevos rancheros (none of the frittatas were veggie, so I couldn't compare Lulu's with Richmond's abysmal frittata scene). There were some other interesting specials, but they'd already sold out of them by 1pm.

After some awkward moments, we made small talk about Jasper (he'd captivated us at dinner the previous night when he laughed, which made us laugh, which made him laugh, and he worked a call and response routine for almost 10 minutes to everyone's delight). Then we launched into an unexpected discussion about our dream kitchen renovation: a reworking of our entire livingroom/diningroom/kitchen first floor. The result would be more like a "great room" for cooking and hanging out with the old kitchen space serving as the pantry of our dreams and a corner booth dining nook. We got so excited about the fantasy, I took notes down about every detail in my phone for future reference. Does anyone know a cheap home makeover pro? Oh, and we're also gonna need about $20k. I promise I'll blog about the whole process if you all paypal me that money ;0)

When we came out of the exciting conversation, we realized it had been about 45minutes since we'd ordered and the place was really thinning out. I made eye contact with our server enough times that she came over and apologized, saying she'd bring us some toast to hold us over (um... coulda used that 30 minutes ago - stomach complaining to brain complaining to whichever organ makes one cranky). The table next to us said their food took over an hour.

By this point, the server just hung out at the spot where the food is supposed to come out of the kitchen, throwing stressed out glances our way. Karen and I were trying our best not to think about the fact that our precious little "alone time" (on Valentine's day, you get the drift) was being traded in for this waiting game. We checked in with each other and felt helpless that our briefly sunny dispositions were hiding behind the clouds again. The server, a really nice woman, actually, kept popping by to apologize.

Eventually Karen's steak and eggs came out. It was stacked: meat, eggs, sauce, and two tiny asparagus spears laying across the top. Those green twigs were more of a garnish than a side. The steak was less than a half inch thick. I guess when I thought of petite, I figured it would be smaller cut of fillet mignon, but still thick. She'd ordered it medium, but it was well done - cooked all the way through (probably because it was so thin to begin with). Karen ate with little enthusiasm and I just had to sit there and watch. It was another 10-15 minutes before my dish came out and we were both getting exponentially surly. Can you see this leading to good alone time, if there would be any time at all?

When my huevos finally came out, the server apologized again saying she'd buy us desert (we declined because we had some pastries at home that we were looking forward to). Then I kinda cut her off and pointed out the steak and asparagus issues and she wanted to make it up to us and I think I said that we kinda wish we hadn't come there to eat, sounding likewise apologetic and defeated. The server, Karen, and me all frowning and crestfallen. It was a sorry sight. I tore into the beany eggs and we both ate in silence.

Time out for the upside. The potatoes rocked. They wore the tastiest grease I've had at brunch in long time. My huevos had a delicious pico de gallo and every fresh tomotoey bite popped with acid and cilantro. I tried to heap praise and elevate the mood at the table, but we were kinda in a rut by then. Karen hates conflict, so I'm always the one to assert myself in these situations. If I sound like a jerk, well don't worry. I felt like one, even though Karen agreed with my speaking up about our dissatisfaction. But, we both agreed that the coffee was nice and strong. Trying to focus on the positive now.

As we finished eating, I was going over in my head how to approach the bill. I was treating, but I didn't feel like we should be paying for one of the entrees. I mean, I couldn't take it out of the tip. It wasn't likely our server's fault and withholding the gratuity on $25 wouldn't really be much of a trade-off. When the server came by I started to ask her how to handle it, preparing to negotiate some kind of compromise. To my surprise, she said she was not going to charge us for the meal. I was astounded, Karen breathed a sigh of relief (no Jason tantrum in the restaurant during our supposed romantic dining out). I thanked the nice lady and that was that.

Minutes later, Karen is still nibbling her potatoes cuz they're really freakin' good. I looked in my wallet and I have no money. I'd intended to pay with a card. How do I tip with my credit card if there's no bill to pay? Damn. With Karen's permission, I run out of the Lulu's to the ATM on Main Street - really sprinting with huevos and frijoles bouncing around in my belly. When I took out a twenty, the ATM asked permission to charge me $3 on top of whatever my bank 's service fee is. "Do you agree to this charge?" Um, is it negotiable? Grrrr! Not interested in tipping $20, I bought two pounds of fresh water cress from the produce vendor on the corner (no idea what I'll do with'em).

Back in the restaurant, there are only a few tables left. Karen is still pecking at her plate. People, she eats like she tweets (140 bites per meal - plug for Karen's Corner over there on the right). I put a bulging plastic bag down on the table, turning a few heads. It seemed awkward to walk out without paying, but it's also weird to spend almost two hours having brunch. I leave $5 on the table, which probably confirms most of my readers' suspicions that I'm not just frugal, but inappropriately cheap (whatever, I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not leaving double that since the server advocated for us and we ended up not paying). The stars just alligned in a way that made me extra-miserly.

In the end, I figure that bad tippers and burnt customers is the cost of doing a booming business for Lulu's and for our server. They made a shitload of money that brunch service. When quantity goes up, quality goes down. When demand is high, supply can dry up and people get pissed off. On this day, we drew both of those unlucky cards from the dining-out deck. But, I don't have any bad feelings. Lulu's is successful for good reason. I'll probably go back one day, but considering our limited opportunities, less popular places just got bumped up in my queue.


  1. Dang, that is disappointing to hear. I haven't made it to Lulus for brunch, but, both times I have been for dinner, the service and food have both been top notch.

  2. I was with you up until the $5 tip. THAT is cheap. We go to Lulu's for brunch a couple of times a year and it's always been very good but it can be slow...usually not a big deal, but I can see where it would be at that time of day and when you have other plans for the day.

  3. Just to be clear, this blog entry is not servin' up the dirt on a popular Richmond restaurant. It's mostly about the strange collision of time/place/personalities. I think your experience, Mark, and that of most of Lulu's happy customers, probably holds true most of the time.

    Janet, g'head and rub it in. The tip was 20% of the bill and I still regretted not giving more and not giving less. It's one thing for an epic wait, but to make it two separate eating times for the couple - hell no. We just wanted those two hours back for the rest of the day.

  4. Getting entrees separately is the worst, especially after an already sub par experience. And it is hard sometimes to separate that bad experience from what sounds like a sweet server that was genuinely distressed by the poor experience you had. I'd like to say I would tip more than you did, but it's hard to say...I would have been pretty hot as well.

    The wife and I decided to try and go out this year for the first time on V-Day. Don't think we are going to do it again, too many restaurants trying to cater to the masses and not sticking to their guns, generally ends up being a sub par experience.

  5. Thanks Dude. There's a lot going on in this story. The food, tip, service are all things that I know are bound to provoke reactions (the point of this blog, overall, I guess). For the record, my cheapskate tendencies usually don't manifest in my tips. And, I don't guess that the server probably cares too much about my $5, since she probably had 20 tables that ordered more food than us.

    Janet brings up a good point. If any of you find yourselves agreeing with everything I say/do, then it's probably time to get some therapy. Trust me, this affliction of mine is best enjoyed as a spectator. Plus, my meals out are so infrequent now, few restaurants have to worry about seeing me any time soon. But, there are lessons to be learned here (like having "alone time" before brunch, next time). So, I had to share.

  6. Anonymous7:54 AM

    Quit being such a whiney dilettante. I thought you were some sort of social justice radical. Geeze.

  7. So, I guess you all should get a heads-up that Jack Goes Forth, Richmond's "blogging bartender," decided to weigh in on the issue of my $5 tip. Expect pot-shots from the peanut gallery in short order.

    Assuming you've read the entirety of my post, then you'll probably notice that I was pretty confused/flustered/in-a-rush about what to do at the time. If there is one thing I know, it's how to calculate 1/5 of the subtotal. So that's what I did. Jack, on the other hand, thinks customers should empty the contents of their wallets every time they encounter one of the martyrs/dominatrix/charming-person in the food service industry and maybe they will bless us with common courtesy in future transactions. Okay, that's a bit extreme, but there is such a wide spectrum of approaches to gratuity (I think a lot of it revolves how the customer views the server, if they've waited tables before, etc - not really the point of this post at all, but see the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs).

    If there's one thing that I want this blog to do, it's raise questions. If my misadventures can serve a purpose, then I'm happy to serve as an example of what not to do (or what to do). But, the debate is the real thing, if you ask me, so I hope you all will make this discussion your own and feel free to add stories of how you dealt with difficult situations.

    Also, I just want to reiterate that I think Lulu's is a really fun place. The ambiance, decor, menu, servers all make it one of the few places I would ever be proud to visit in Shockoe Bottom.

  8. I'm a good tipper...and I have never worked in the restaurant industry. And I have always tipped well no matter my level of income at that time (not saying that's a factor for you but just clarifying). And it has always come back to me ten fold...if not today, it will tomorrow or next week. In the case of what happened with you, I'd probably left the $20...not saying that is what you should have done, but I think a minimum of $10 was in order since she had the entire bill deducted.

  9. I've left what I consider crappy tips when the server was incapable or incompetent. This sounds more of an issue with the restaurant then the server. I've had meals comped before leaving me wondering how to tip as I rarely carry cash. I offer a credit card and ask them to open a check. They run it for $1 (cheaper than a bank ATM fee) and then I tip. I've also had the server decline saying they couldn't accept after such a bad experience - releasing me from my obligation.

    You should have tipped $5 a head. I'd go back and make this right.

  10. I will remember the $1 credit card charge if I'm ever in that situation....good advice. I have more grace with an incompetent server than I do with a rude server....rudeness is the one thing I have a hard time dealing with. If someone is doing their best and they are simply clueless or in over their head, I generally allow for that when determining my tip.

  11. Wow. So I should have offered my credit card. I had no idea that was an option. That would have saved me a post meal sprint on cobblestones, and $3+ in ATM fees, and a 2 lb bag of watercress (seriously, where are my recipe suggestions?). I wonder how the server would have responded. It seems like it would be pretty awkward. As much as I feel regret about the way things went, I don't really feel like I owe anyone. Sure, I was stuck between tipping $5 and $10 and I made a choice based on the experience we'd just been thru. That said, I don't wanna put this instance under a microscope. We should really be speaking in generalities (as Janet and Piet have demonstrated). I want to preserve my still relatively positive image of Lulu's, cuz I fully intend to go back there sometime, and over tip - hoping I get the same server.

  12. Anonymous12:05 PM


  13. M: I turned your tip into a tweet.

  14. well, your situation was unusual so i sympathize with your dilemma...but i agree with janet and piet here. i have worked in the service industry, and feel pretty strongly that the MINIMUM tip should always be 25% and in instances where a server has done everything in his/her power to make a decidedly bad experience better, the tip should be higher than 30%.

    i am sure lulu's isn't the sort of place to penalize a server for a comped meal, but that does happen in corporate restaurants on occasion, and if a server goes that extra mile i think it's best to err on the side of grace/generosity.


  15. Anonymous5:34 PM


  16. Anonymous5:37 PM

    We walked into Lulu's for Monday lunch and it was so noisy we left. Black Sheep was closed - have you had their vegan gumbo? amazing.

  17. Holy crap, the "Gumbo Z" soup at Black Sheep is amazing. The menu's description says something about it being made with lots of greens. Well, tonight, I made the water cress soup that was linked earlier (look for a post about it in a bit). Now, I feel like I have the inside scoop on that soup.

    Back to the tipping thing. This isn't really an issue I have a lot of energy for, but it sure seems to trigger those who do. There are a number of commenters advocating for 25%, 30%, up to 50%. They might be right, morally, and/or professionally. But, I don't think they're representative of reality. I believe that standard tipping practice still trends toward 15-20% on average and I also believe that this is generally what servers use to predict their take home pay. Of course, there are the Steve Buscemi's of the world (again with the Reservoir Dogs) and these commenters (some of my favorite bloggers) are doing their best to offset the rogue outliers. That's how I see it and 20% is my minimum, median, and mode.

    For those that want to learn more about the strange, highwire-act/caught in the middle predicament of restaurant servers who routinely go to work without any assurance of getting paid, you can read more about that here:

  18. Anonymous10:12 PM

    I guess as long as were talking about you, that's a good thing right?

  19. Hey, the readers poll showed that people wanted to hear about "cheap restaurants" and this one turned out to be pretty cheap. (?!?!?!) Okay, a little levity. Not pressing my luck.

  20. Anonymous1:38 PM

    The nice Black sheep waitress mentioned roasting or grilling things - peppers?to get that smoky gumbo goodness (no fake smoke in a bottle) she also admitted to kale but implied greens change and is always a mix. She did mention thyme. I can't figure it out - the flavor is so complex. I guess at $4/bowl I'll just have to go more often.


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