Hugo’s Diner

I’m sad today, folks.

There’s a local restaurant I’ve been happy to patronize for many years now. My dad took me in there when I was a boy, and the habit’s never left me. Many of my friends also grew up hanging out there, and and we’ll stop in together from time to time, for company as much as for the wonderful fare. My own boy’s just a toddler, but they have a kid’s menu that will do just fine for him when the time comes. And best of all, they helped inspire me to cook my own meals around the house when I wasn’t in there sopping up every crumb they had.

That means that I don’t go in quite as often as I used to. Well, you know how it is. But it’s still a popular place. They cater to a lot of tastes and do it very well, through changes in ownership, through new cooks and staff, through competition from other places.

You can imagine how happy I was to hear that a very popular food writer, a chef himself, had been eating there for years, and spoke up about his regular hangout in print, encouraging new patrons to come in.

You can also imagine how shocked I was that many of my fellow regulars reacted to this by being ugly to the newcomers. It’s not that they didn’t tip well, it’s not that they didn’t like the food, it’s not that they were taking the regular patron’s tables. “All they eat is the chicken and steak,” they sniffed. It didn’t change the quality of the food that I saw, and of course they stuck to the vegan and gluten-free stuff – the only place in the whole town you could get it, and it was all right, even if it wasn’t my personal taste.

These things sometimes blow over, but this went from bad to worse. I heard people bad-mouthing the writer, as if it was a bad thing for a guy to have a favorite restaurant and do his part to continue its success. A lot of folks said he wasn’t a real chef and his opinion wasn’t knowledgable like theirs was – even though all he said was that fresher ingredients would improve the quality of the food, which he always enjoyed. Some people confused him with a guy from another city who had a poor experience with a few of the waiters. Other people accused the critic of not really liking the food at all just because he mentioned that the decor could be updated. A few people even ludicrously accused him of being one of the sportswriters who criticized the local team’s players and lobbied to have them all traded; when the team responded by winning the league and parading in triumph through the center of the big city, they watched it on a TV in the corner of the restaurant and booed, even though none of them at all had shown the least prior interest in the team or the game.

Well, I won’t bore you with my personal troubles. The long and the short of it is, the restaurant decided that they were going to have a grand reopening, expanding the seating, bringing back chefs who had gotten their start here and gone on to great things. The press and the local TV came – celebrity in our town! – and bookings were through the roof. It should have been the greatest day ever.

It never happened. The owners came up to the ribbon and cut it, we all went in, sat down, placed our orders – and then the lights went out. “We reserve the right to refuse service to everyone,” the chefs announced, and then left. The maitre’d even bawled out one patron in the middle of the lobby and went off in a huff.

We found out later that the hardcore regulars had threatened to have the whole place shut down for all sorts of bogus health violations. That didn’t stop them from looking well-fed – it also turns out the cooks had made a full variety of the gluten-free items just for them, while all the people ordering fish and steak and such went begging because “not enough people ordered it.”

So what happens now? Well, the diner’s just sitting there empty, and the regulars are actually gloating that nobody gets to eat there anymore. The only joint in town with decent gluten-free and vegan fare is belly-up. A few of the cooks who didn’t want to go along with it are afraid they won’t find work if they complain. And that chef/writer is seriously considering going back to cooking full-time and opening up his own place so folks have a place to eat and hang out and enjoy themselves again.

It’s all so pointless. There was a complete menu for the pickiest tastes and plenty of tables for everyone.

I guess I’ll have to go try out Noah Ward’s place across town. He’s gotten a lot of buzz recently.

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