We arrived on time for our reservation, got the smiley-face greeting and were promptly shown to our table. The menus came. The room was alive with conversation in close quarters.
This was our second of three visits to Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom, and we were excited to be here. But unlike our pleasant if uninspired first encounter, this evening began to unravel like Mel Gibson after a traffic stop.
In retrospect, our second evening here made us feel like unwitting actors in a training video about how not to run a restaurant.
Bidwell Street Bistro, surely, is not a terrible place. But it offered a poor restaurant experience on two out of three occasions. It happened thoroughly enough for me to feel compelled to play back that "video" here, going over the missed opportunities and botched fundamentals.
Poor service puts everything else in a restaurant under the microscope. It makes us notice more readily the basic missteps with the cooking – how the cassoulet was seriously underseasoned, how the macadamia-crusted halibut was seriously overcooked, how the fluffy and bland white bread made us recall Wonder Bread rather than a crusty and tasty hand-shaped baguette.
Let's roll the proverbial tape:
Once customers are seated, it is customary for a waiter to stop by, say hello and get things started in some way, such as offering details about the chef's specials, asking about drinks or saying something nice about my sweater. At Bidwell Street Bistro, our first interaction with our waiter was after 17 minutes.
Menus are for reading. When we fold the menus and place them on the table, that means we are finished reading. It's a subtle clue to walk over and take our order. Watch our eyes dart toward the ceiling tiles. That means we're feeling uneasy. The menus sat on the table for 30 minutes.
When we say we would like to order a couple of appetizers along with our meal, that means you should eventually come back at some point and ask what we'd like. (See two spots below.)
When a cheese plate is delivered, it is common to identify the cheeses. We had to ask. What's worse, it was the owner of the bistro who dropped off the "fromage anonymous" with that lousy bread transformed into bad toast. (We had two questions about the goat cheese. What kind was it? And was it infused with herbs to give it that flavor? Our waiter later said it was Cypress Grove "Purple Haze," adding dismissively that it was just straight goat cheese. Wrong answer. You could see little flecks in the cheese, and I found Purple Haze at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op; ingredients include fennel pollen and lavender.)
The owner asked if there was anything else we needed. Maybe he didn't notice the large menus hanging over the edge of our small table. We said we would like to order dinner. He said he would alert our server.
Once the dinner plates are delivered, it is customary for a server to return minutes later and ask how everything is going. Never happened.
When folks have finished eating – often signaled by empty plates, utensils placed on the plates or, in our case, a half-eaten "double-cut" pork chop sitting untouched for 20 minutes – it is customary to remove those plates. When there is a large portion of meat left on a plate, inquire about a doggie bag. Our waiter walked by, looked at the plates, looked at us, then walked away without comment. The bistro's host cleared the plates at our urging.
We weren't asked, but we chimed in: We'd like to take the rest of that chop with us.
10 minutes became 20 minutes. We asked for our pork chop. She had thrown it away.
When you throw away food the customer paid for and wanted to save for later, it is customary to make amends – offer a complimentary dessert, take something off the final bill or blow up a balloon and twist it into the shape of a puppy.
Our host returned and said the kitchen could cook another one. More like overcook another one – our original was significantly dry. Life's short, so we passed up the offer.
Once you pretty much screw up the entire evening and you notice those wax statues at the cleared table, it is customary to drop off the check, pretend you enjoyed serving us and bid us adieu.
We had to ask the host for the check. Our waiter eventually brought us our check, which should have included a "get well" card.
We walked toward the front door. No one said goodbye.
To be fair, Bidwell Street Bistro must be doing something right.
The room was full, the power was on and there were functioning batteries in the plastic candles on each table. Apparently, someone decided the pretend flickering of the pretend wick creates a certain authentic and memorable bistro ambience.
That – whew! – was our second visit. Our first was somewhat enjoyable. The food was still nothing better than fair, but our server was friendly, reliable and engaged. He made us feel appreciated and, more important, less like picking apart other elements of the business. Two of the assistant waiters also did well.
What would we get with our third visit? Oops, we got our second waiter. If we were making another video, it would have seemed like a rerun.
Another lackluster performance helped us notice the halibut – how skimpy it was for $25, how dry and bland. Throughout our visits, the halfhearted service drew us closer to all the wrinkles we might have overlooked – how burnt-tasting our espresso was, how they somehow forgot to bring us our side order of green beans, how the escargot with garlic and butter sauce needed more flavor, how the mirror behind the bar needed a date with Windex.
We thank our server for giving us the time to tally all the botched fundamentals and call this bistro experience a bona fide flop.
As our pretend video rolls to the final scene, listen in as we chat in the car. The video fades to black and ends with a voice-over: "With all of the good and great bistros in the area, why would we ever come back here?"