31 October 2009

A tale of weal and woe.

As this is October, the month of Hallowe'en, I feel it is only appropriate for me to tell a scary story. This is a tale of weal and a tale of woe. And ultimately, it is a tale of poor planning and bad results. I am solely to blame. I will carry the guilt of my choice for the rest of my life.

We are traveling across California for vacation. We've visited some really beautiful and fantastic places. Sequoia National Forest.



And we've had some good meals. And even some memorable meals. But this is not that happy meal story.

Family vacations are often a tale of negotiation and compromise. I wanted to visit Santa Barbara, and sample the fabulous wines. My wife wanted to visit Sequoia National Forest. The little one loves sea critters, so wanted to visit the Monterey Aquarium. Fitting these in requires a bit of planning, and a lot of driving.

Big Sur

After a long day drive from Monterey to Santa Maria (at the gateway to wine country), we were tired. We'd been in and out of the car all day, and seen some spectacular sights along the coast. We'd made reservations, via Priceline, at the very cute, extremely old, and slightly rundown hotel, the Santa Maria Inn. It's the perfect setting for a ghost story.

Santa Maria Inn claims to have had all kinds of famous guests. Gregory Peck. Clark Gable. Jack Lemmon. Walter Matthau. You'll notice, of course, that they are all dead. Curious...

Well, as I said, we were tired. Exhausted even. So we decided we would eat in the hotel restaurant. The dreaded "Garden Room". I quote from their brochure:
Embraced by a crackling fire and a casual, yet elegant atmosphere, our guests enjoy true personal service and fresh, imaginative California Cuisine.
Hmmm. We should have noticed the warning signs: The maitre d' in a cheap suit. The monogrammed plates, bowls and glasses at every table setting. The smell of 40 years of stale cigar smoke.

We nearly escaped. We sat at the table, looking over the boring, standard menu for nearly ten minutes before a waiter even looked at us. I glanced over at my wife and said, "If we wait 2 more minutes, I want to leave. This is ridiculous." If only. One minute after that statement an annoyed-looking waiter graced us with his presence. "Would you like something to drink?"

We were ready to order. Everything. And we did, a glass of pinot noir for me, a glass of cabernet for my wife and a glass of milk for the little one. The milk would prove to be the only good choice. Chicken tortilla soup for my wife. A caesar salad with "seasoned" tri-tip steak for me. And a cheeseburger and fries for my son. These are simple things. Hard to screw up. You almost have to try to screw them up...

The wine that arrived was not good (this is in wine country, mind you). It had clearly been open for a few days, and had that lovely oxidized flavor. The milk seemed to go down well. The soup? Simply appalling. It was CostCo brand spaghetti sauce with cheese and stale chicken in it. Not even any seasoning. Yuck. The caesar salad - well, the lettuce wasn't rotten, and the Kraft dressing they drenched on there was of a quality to be expected from Kraft. The seasoned tri-tip? Neither seasoned, nor tri-tip. Indeed, it had been cooked and cooked again, based on the dryness of it. The cheeseburger? Thankfully my son didn't notice that it was a pre-cooked burger that had been microwaved for him. Gross.

Towards the end of the meal, the waiter handed us a comment card and asked us to fill it out. But where to start? "Dear sir/madam: Please steam clean the drapes and carpet. Wash the walls. Throw out the menu. Hire a cook. Just start over. Sincerely, your customers."

Now this isn't the worst meal of my life. I've had worse. But at $52.00 for the meal, this was without a doubt the worst meal, dollar for dollar, that I've ever sat near, much less eaten.

When you see the warning signs, flee. Don't ask questions. Don't look back. Just run, and don't even think about who you're leaving behind. Leave your family behind. (This is a horror story, remember, there's only ever one survivor in those stories). There will be plenty of time to mourn them later...

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