First Watch Cafe: Rockville, Maryland

I was on the road this week, yet another of my family’s frequent trips to Washington D.C, and I figured there was no reason to cease and desist the great blog progress. Manifest destiny, etc. (Disclaimer: this blog does not support the views of Andrew Jackson and his cronies.)  Hence, my first solo review.

A quick Google search led our family to the First Watch Cafe in Rockville, Maryland. This is a chain, which your reviewers generally steer clear of, but I had little choice in the matter. Near as I can tell, the place focuses on breakfast, giant pots of coffee for the table, and a lack of brand consistency (you can take the girl out of graphic design…)

When we arrived, the place was already crackling with the raw terrifying energy of a breakfast rush. No host or “seat yourself” sign greeted us at the door, which has nearly the same effect on a restaurant patron as a concussion. Our internal GPS recalculated several times before the kindly manager came to rescue us. He quickly soothed my bristling server fur with a couple of jokes and a willingness to help us situate ourselves in a way that suited us and our resident four year old.

He left us with a smile and some menus, and that was our last instance of human contact for a good five minutes (i.e. an eternity). When someone finally showed up, it was a frazzled trainee with half a pot of coffee. He mumbled his name, fumbled for his book, and bumbled taking our order. His ignorance of the menu sank my heart into the depths of the Atlantic, and his lack of focus would surely have redirected a ship on auto-pilot into a cliff.

We weren’t off to a good start. A fresh pot of coffee and our other drinks not only took overly long to show up, our server delivered them with all the grace of an untrained beluga. I love being proven wrong, however, and I was not disappointed. Shortly thereafter, our server quickly dropped off a fresh pitcher of water and pre-meditated syrup.

There was a lull in action afterwards, which gave me an opportunity to observe the rest of the restaurant. The place was obviously going through a round of training, I noticed several servers giving pro tips to their trainees regarding pre-bussing and such. As previously mentioned, the place was hopping, but from what I could see not a single server was in the weeds and there were no dissatisfied customers.

Our food arrived within fifteen to twenty minutes, which is  an understandable ticket-time based on the number of people filling the relatively small space. Our server had not yet mastered the art of balancing several plates in his hands, but placed the correct food in front of the correct person. My breakfast took longer to show itself, but was hand-delivered by the manager, with a reassurance that my request to add mushrooms had been fulfilled. He also noticed our empty coffee pot (which I’d strategically moved to the edge of the table) and must have passed on the information to our server, for we received fresh coffee soon thereafter.

The rest of the meal passed relatively uneventfully, with a reasonably timed check-in from our server. He was obviously busy elsewhere, though, for although he grabbed one of the empty plates on our table he ceased showing his face until everyone had been finished for several minutes. He delivered our check promptly upon request, but I’d advise him to keep his checks better organized to avoid rifling through a mess of wrinkled papers for a good minute. A check drop-off must be like our favorite kind of flatulence, silent but deadly. Once again, the manager proved himself my favorite employee, for he was pleasant and humorous while cashing me out at the register.

The experience was not mind-blowing but fairly pleasant. With a little bit of confidence, our frazzled trainee has the makings of a fine server. The management and senior employees obviously care about the comfort of their customers, which is always nice to see. I’d love to see how everyone functions at a slower pace, but there’s no better time to judge a staff than in the middle of a rush.

If you’re ever in Rockville and looking for a good breakfast, First Watch wouldn’t be the worst choice you could make.

Brown Jug

The scene: Memorial Day in Ann Arbor. Two renegade bloggers wander the eerily deserted streets in search of an unsuspecting restaurant to review. Their quest leads them to the corner of South University and Church Street. The sky darkens above them and unleashes a relentless downpour, urging them to make a dash for the nearest enclosure. As if the weather itself was on their side, they find themselves in the Brown Jug, a staple among the University students.

Although we had not planned on critiquing Brown Jug, we slipped into review mode effortlessly and automatically. There was no sign indicating a seating policy, but an informal holler from the bar maiden hinted that we were to seat ourselves. Squelching our way over to a booth by the window, we waited patiently for someone to tend to us.

A server popped up and dropped off menus, but scurried off to take care of tables that had entered before us. We took the opportunity to escape to the paper towel dispenser, attempting to dry off from the sudden rain. Upon returning to the table, however, we remained untended. A second server was visible on the floor, but they moved at incomparable speeds. The Tortoise and the Hare racing before our very eyes.

Eventually the Tortoise arrived at our table, slow and steady and losing the race. Tucker, hungover and in desperate need of water and coffee (also an orange juice, he was feeling needy) had to wait for what seemed an eternity to re-hydrate. The orange juice lagged behind the coffee and waters, along with a prompt for food orders. Moderately unfocused and not at all ready, we requested another minute. He gave us five. A quick glance over the restaurant gave us no indication as to when he would return, as he was nowhere to be found. Once he did reemerge, we burdened him with any and everything we felt we may need in case of another prolonged absence. Our forethought proved necessary when he vanished until the pre-meal soup was delivered.

Tucker’s coffee running low, a cloud of impatience engulfed our heroes (or villains, depending on which side of the story you’re on). The kindly bar maiden seemed to sense the toe tapping, as she appeared to check on us in place of our Tortoise. The obviously more adept Hare swiftly rectified our worrying lack of caffeine and hopped off with the empty soup bowl. The Tortoise ambled along with our entrees, dropping them off with a smile and politely accepting our request for a box and silverware. The silverware appeared in a flash, but the box arrived fashionably late.

As seems to be the unfortunate trend, the food was good but our server had no idea. Our penultimate meeting with him featured the disappearance of our empty plates and our check. The check was presented together and to Tucker, the “man” of the pair who should obviously be paying. Obviously. The rest of the experience was short and sweet. A quick parting with the Tortoise, a pleasant exchange with the bar maiden (the Hare was busy stirring up wind as she sped through the restaurant), and we were on our way.

All in all, our time at Brown Jug was not harrowing, but it certainly wasn’t mind-blowing. Our server was kind and of good intent (he even let Tucker charge his phone at the POS station!), but obviously serving in between semesters or while searching for a job in his chosen field. Everyone was pleasant, and we’d recommend stopping in for some good food and the chance to interact with the more impressive staff.

Your Humble Servants,
Arina and Tucker

Old Town

For our most recent review we decided to visit Old Town on Liberty. We were glad to finally receive service worthy of the awesome feedback we’ve been waiting to give. So, without further ado, let’s see what it takes to impress a sassy server(Arina insists I take full claim for this term – Tucker).

The sign inside the door said ‘seat yourself,’ which tends to make us cringe. Luckily for us, the server greeted us not only quickly, but casually and cheerfully. Waters weren’t presented right away, but she made sure to ask us what we’d like to drink right off the bat. Information about the soup of the day was delivered with a side of playful banter, and our server made sure to let us know that one of the soups was only available for a limited time. Of course, that piqued Tucker’s interest and he just had to order it.

As we were ordering our meal, our server proved that she knew the menu inside and out. She provided helpful recommendations, and Arina only got bacon on her sandwich because the server mentioned it. Now that’s salesmanship. After ordering, Arina left the table in favor of an attractive male outside, leaving Tucker to ponder the universe. Noticing that he was alone, the server spent a little extra time conversing and joking with him until the bell beckoned her to the kitchen. The food arrived before Arina even had the chance to charm the pants off her anonymous companion. The server made sure to ask if Tucker needed any kind of sauce with his sandwich before leaving him to wait for Arina. In a display of her prowess, the server dropped off another table’s order as she returned with the requested mayonnaise.

Arina returned victorious, and we dug into our food. It was absolutely divine, and although our server made no move to ask us about it she kept a watchful eye on our table. Halfway through our meal she came over, armed with a disarmingly funny comment about Tucker’s phone case. This set off another round of pleasant banter, further cementing our appreciation. As she left we asked for boxes, and it felt less like we were making a request of our server and more like we were confiding in a friend that we were just too full.

Although we hadn’t asked for the check, it arrived with the boxes. In a different situation, this preemptive strike would have disappointed us. Here though, the bill was split and in the company of an urge that there was no rush. Another nice touch was the “Thank you!” written at the top of our bills. Almost giddy with the prospect of writing a good review, we quickly handed her back our payment. She accepted our refusal for change with heartfelt gratitude, and left us with an encouraging ‘see you soon.’

Dining out is a luxury, and as such should be an experience worth the money you’re spending. While that can be filled by any run of the mill server, a great server can do more. Great service can lift your spirit so much, and that’s what we strive to provide as servers and expect to receive as customers. Our experience at Old Town did just that. Our server never once made us feel like a customer, but instead made us feel like a friend. She did her job efficiently and with talent, yet it never looked or felt like she was working. We have already paid them a second visit since our first investigation and we plan on returning. If you haven’t already, stop in and enjoy an amazing time.

Sava’s

Everyone knows Sava’s. It’s where you take your parents when they drive up for Parent Week. It’s where you have your baby shower and celebrate your engagement. But does it live up to the hype? As the self-proclaimed townies that we are, we’re familiar with Sava’s. We’ve eaten there once or twice, but never really taken the time to analyze the service. We embarked on our quest in full review mode, notepads at the ready.

Instead of the warm welcome we expected, we received a brief glance and no other recognition. Once we requested a table for two they again disregarded us to discuss where to place us. The hostess that led us to our table surprised us with light, friendly conversation before leaving us in the server’s capable hands. He arrived fairly quickly, considering how busy it was, and promised that he would be with us shortly. After doing a quick round at his tables, he returned to us and asked for our drink order. Arina’s inquiries about the house drinks were met with an expert recommendation. Our drinks arrived promptly, accompanied by the evening’s specials. After we ordered our appetizer, he informed us of the 86 list (for those that don’t speak server, an 86 list is the list of unavailable items). He returned to get our entrée order and further proved his knowledge of the menu by helping Tucker decide between two items.

The appetizer came and went pretty quickly, and although he didn’t ask how it was he made a point to keep our table clean and clear. Like a seasoned gardener, he cleared the weeds but kept us watered. Our food arrived with a smile and tasted delicious, but our server seemed to lose interest in tending to us until we requested boxes. Tucker’s soda did not receive the same attention as our waters, but the server offered dessert as he cleared our table. He apologetically let us know that the pudding we had chosen was no longer available, so we went with our second choice. As he left to put in the crème brulee, we had to call him back to request coffee. Though we declined cream and sugar, he brought it anyway. Whether this was intentional or not, it worked out for the best as the coffee was a bit bitter for our tastes.

He graciously accepted that our checks needed to be separate and presented them lickety-split. The checks hung out with us for a minute, but after they were all taken care of he wished us a good evening and thanked us for our business. We left the table overall pleased with the service, but were once again disappointed by the hosts’ lack of concern as we departed.

The experience was by no means exceptional, but we had a nice time. We recognize that the evening was a busy one for our server and he did his job as well as he could under the circumstances. The only real qualm we had with our outing were the hosts. With the reputation Sava’s has, we expected that the staff would strive to make our visit pleasurable from start to finish. Even so, we would say give Sava’s a try if you haven’t already.

Your Humble Servants,

Arina & Tucker

aMa Bistro

What more fitting subject for our first review than the place that started it all? aMa Bistro is a relatively new, well-decorated café hidden on State Street between CVS and The Getup Vintage. Our first visit, during the restaurant’s infancy, left us so dissatisfied with the quality of service that the idea for this blog was conceived somewhere between our forsaken coffee cups and lukewarm food. We left with no intention of returning, but after getting wind that aMa had sought out a professional staff trainer, decided to give them a second chance.

We arrived expecting a turn around, but our hopes were quickly dashed. Our first inkling that this second visit might be as disappointing as the first presented itself as an empty host stand asking us to wait for seating. Although all but two tables were empty, it was a whopping minute and a half (yes, we timed it) before we were brusquely greeted and instructed to pick any seat by the only hand on deck. Those that followed behind us were met with the same tactless reception. Once seated, it was another several minutes before we received waters; unaccompanied by menus or the offer of any other beverages. Several guests ventured in after us, but all remained ignored and thirsty while the server disappeared into the back. It soon became obvious that apathy was the guiding principle of service here.

When the server finally arrived with the menus, she did not stick around long enough to inform us of the daily specials or soups and again assumed that we were satisfied with water. To our chagrin, the lackluster server did not seem to care that we had entered the establishment first and proceeded to take orders at random. This gave us time to look around the restaurant and notice that a majority of the tables were not set with silverware or the proper condiments. Once the server found the time to come take our orders, it was done almost mechanically. No pleasantry nor personality were provided.

After placing our order, a small eternity filled with awkward silence passed before our pre-meal soups reached us. At this point, Tucker pointedly asked for a soda, receiving a curt “sure” in return. Our server scurried off into the back, once again shunning the dining room. Whether or not she went back there with our soda in mind we may never know, as she reemerged several times without it in hand before fulfilling our request. In the meantime, we discovered that Tucker’s soup was lukewarm, bordering on chilly, whereas Arina’s was piping hot. Tucker’s dissatisfaction and subsequent request for the soup to be reheated were received without concern or apology. By the time the soup was returned (haphazardly presented on a soup-splattered saucer) Arina’s empty bowl had been deliberately placed on the edge of the table. The reheated soup was anything but, and was indignantly pushed aside. The soda finally arrived at our table but the dirtied dishes did not depart, leaving unappealing clutter and further accentuating the server’s inaptitude.

Entrees came sooner than water refills, and the used dishes remained at the edge of our table. We aren’t sure of our server’s methodology, but we can assume from her confusion that it was not intended to keep track of who ordered which dish. We dived into our food, not overly impressed but not terribly disappointed either. Our server didn’t seem too concerned with our opinion of the food, as she spent the duration of our meal flitting about the restaurant in a panicked disarray. While we understand the stresses of an understaffed dinner rush, a quick scope of the restaurant revealed the potential for an efficient trajectory for such instances. The tables are organized in a loop, providing a missed opportunity to effectively attend to every guest. Forethought clearly was not a part of the training process at aMa.

About half way through our meal, we were told that we would receive our check shortly. At this point, we had grown weary of the experience as a whole, yet were still relatively offended, although unsurprised, that our server’s top priority was to empty the dining room as quickly as possible. Her attitude toward other patrons was similarly apathetic, as evidenced by the palpable discomfort surrounding us. During our meal, we witnessed a customer next to us being cut off while attempting to order, another looking disgruntled at the temperature of his soup and several tables rubbernecking in a vain search for service. It quickly became clear that the server was no longer concerned with providing hospitality, but was instead inconvenienced by our presence.

Our check was presented separately, though we had made no indication that we would not be paying together. For the first time in our hour-long experience, there was a glimmer of interest when Tucker could not justify paying for a half-finished soda that had taken an exorbitant amount of time to reach our table. Even then, there was no apology or acceptance of responsibility for her lack of timeliness and our dissatisfaction. Fortunately, our change arrived quicker than anything else we’d requested. Unfortunately, this only served as an emphasis of her indifference towards the unwelcome occupants of her domain.

It saddens us to say that the refinement we had been hoping for was neither present nor something we foresee happening in the near future. There is no satisfaction in receiving poor service, and there is especially none in writing about said poor service. However, we feel it is our self-appointed duty to report the truth (as pompous as that may sound). We want to emphasize that we have been in her shoes, but she’s not the Cinderella we were looking for. We deeply feel that as a server, even at the point of extreme stress, it is not just a courtesy, but your obligation to assume responsibility for anything that goes wrong during your shift. Were we to focus our reviews on the food itself, we may have a more positive outlook on aMa, however, until the servers are properly trained and the management makes the appropriate staffing adjustments, we regret to say that we would not recommend dining at this establishment.

We hope that this review has been enlightening, and that our next will be less of a downer. Thanks for checking us out, look forward to our next post this Wednesday!

Your Humble Servants,
Arina & Tucker