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Restaurants Where You Can't Have It Your Way

The other day, my coworker went to the coffee shop around the corner from our office to get a bagel. While there, she noticed an oversized bin of fresh, juicy, sliced tomatoes. "Oh" she said, motioning to the tomatoes,"can I have a slice of tomato on my bagel?" An innocent enough request, it would seem—she described what happened next as a kind of Curb Your Enthusiasm moment, as the women behind the counter flat-out refused the request. "No," she said. "I can't." And then, the line that even in the second-person retelling had me outraged—"I've been instructed not to cater to the customer." Thud.

This got me thinking about the various places where, and reasons why, customers aren't accomodated in restaurants. Certainly, there are a handful of places that seem as though don't really give a damn about catering to the customer because they are so successful, so mobbed, that even putting off potential customers by, say, refusing to frost a wedding cake or take a prime-time reservation will not hamper their business one bit. In fact, it may separate the wheat from the chaff. For others, the lack of accomodation has more to do with scale and concept (like at Beast in Portland, Oregon, which serves a multi-course prix-fixe and notes on the menu "substitutions politely declined"); they simply cannot cater to every whim. Then, there are places so bound by ideology that they have chosen to do something they believe in—or not do something that they don't—even though it's a detriment of the diner. The clearest example of this is at Oakland's Camino, where they do not serve decaffeinated coffee because they haven't found one that meets the same rigorous quality standards they apply to all their ingredients, from the spirits at the bar to the vegetables in the nightly entrees.

In each of these cases (except, maybe, tomato-gate) I suppose I can understand where chefs and restauranteurs are coming from—you can't go catering to each and every request out there. But if you want to get strident about it, aren't these people in the hospitality business?