There’s a saying when it comes to Ethiopian food served in the traditional communal way: the tray should never show. The whole tray (or dish) should be covered by injera. When the tray starts to show, as it inevitably will when people begin eating, more injera should be added to cover the exposed part. In reality, of course, this can’t happen. Eventually everything gets eaten off. Starting out, however, the tray is definitely and always completely draped in injera. That’s a given. Which is why, when I go to the website of an Ethiopian restaurant and see this,
I need not read further, much less go there, to know that (in the words of one reviewer) the place caters exclusively to non-Ethiopians, dare I say white under 35s.
But I do read further, and further, because I am nervous. Nervous because a white/black/yellow under 35 has just asked me to recommend an Ethiopian restaurant and I’ve complied. When people ask me to do this, I often want to give them a warning in addition to the name of my favorite place; a note of caution that, if this is their first time, the food will be the least of their culture shock. Of course, it could be that they have been to one before, which is why they’ve decided to ask an “authority” before going in for another fix: to see if their recent experience was just a fluke or the norm. Or, if not a word of warning, I want to give them an advance apology. It’s like telling someone to go over to my house on a random day when I’m not going to be there to explain why it is the way it is, or when I haven’t been in there for so long that I can’t remember what state it’s in.
So, as would anyone who is feeling nervous, I do something to relax me. After I’ve given them directions and watched them walk off to their fate, I go online to check the state of Ethiopian restaurants in general, maybe to guess which one it was that made them seek “expert” guidance. Pretty soon I’m crying a little from laughing a lot at what I read, at what I see. Forget a little bit of tray peeking out here and there from under the injera, sometimes there is barely any injera at all!
One can only imagine what other horrors await inside. As I click from site to site, wiping the tears from my eyes, I’m reminded of a striking question I once heard: what’s the one thing you hope people don’t say about you?
A saving grace is that when it comes to the actual food, complaints are minor and/or few, but as far as the other aspects of…hospitality, let’s just say it’s raining trays – most definitely not hallelujah.
What follows is the best of the worst of Toronto Ethiopian restaurants (with a bit of D.C/L.A/N.Y thrown in but without naming the cities where the crimes occurred in the interest of minimizing the shaming), conveniently separated into six of the most common categories customer woes, and followed by measured feedback from a panel of expat experts/expert expats.
1) HURRY UP AND WAIT
“They told me it would take 10min for my takeout which took 45min. Get your timing right!”
Experts say: There’s GMT, BPT (Black People Time)…and then there’s HPT (Habesha People Time), where “five o’clock” could mean 5am, 5pm, 11am or 11pm. Please indicate which version are you referring to by “10 minutes” and “45 minutes”
“For those interested in the slow food movement, this is the cuisine for you. You can expect to wait a good half hour at most of these places so be sure to bring along good conversationalists and good eaters.”
Experts: Both of which can we provide aplenty.
“expect to wait outside.”
Experts: Sometimes we forget that it’s not thirteen months of sunshine. Yes, thirteen.
“…started ordering at around 8:30pm. Food came to the table at around 9:30pm. I was very starving by then.”
Experts: Were you still ordering at around 9:00pm?
“Word of warning: be prepared to wait. The space is small, so the tough part about eating there is you always have eyes on you while you eat. Folks are lined up against the wall where adjacent to you waiting for you to finish. So, it makes relaxing extremely difficult.”
Experts: Try waiting.
“The service wasn’t friendly or fast. The server seemed annoyed.”
Experts: Was he trying to eat?
2) AND THE TOTAL COMES TO…
“It took 3 of them 15 minutes to figure out how to reload the credit card machine paper in order for me to pay for the meal.”
Experts: Isn’t democracy fun?
“25 minutes after we finished our meal, I had to walk into the kitchen and holler for the waitress to bring our check.”
Experts: Why would you go and do that?
“My initial payment didn’t go through, they didn’t notice. Felt compelled to call in my credit card number as a good Samaritan. They called back later in the day and demanded I go in in person to repay. I then later noticed they had actually charged my card when I called in. They were ready to charge me twice.”
Experts: We have another word for “good Samaritan”. I’m sure you can hazard a guess or two….
“Getting the bill was an also excruciating slow. We watched our server spend a lot of time calculating and recalculating the bill and still got it wrong. Items were overcharged, and there were additional items on the bill that we did not order.”
Experts: It’s the traditional post-meal entertainment.
“…and the hostess for got to mention that she didn’t know how to divide our bills or that they needed to divided them. (mind you hostess 101 is to ask a large group how the billing will be paid upon sitting down at the table to make it smooth for everyone involved).”
Experts: Mind you, Friend 101 is to pick up the bill for your buddies.
“…there is only one server/waiter/cashier and he is cranky and rude. Some one even found him cheat b/s he charged him more.”
Experts: You know that saying: There’s no free smile.
3) IS THAT A…?
“Greeted by the host, unshaven, unkempt, dressed in old ragged shirt and uncrowned trousers, sandals.”
Experts: Next time, say “My condolences. May He have mercy on their soul.”
“Table was not wiped at all when seated, we had to ask to clean it up for us and got attitude from server.”
Experts: Demonstrate “ask”.
“We got there early in the evening and it should’ve been clean, table was DUTTY. Like I mean DUUU- TTTY. We took 5 wetnaps and wiped it down for ourselves. And our glasses of water that came the same.”
Experts: That’s what the water was for, silly. Wetnaps are for your fingers after eating.
“My girlfriend bit into glass in her food…and they admitted it was glass. But they still expected her to pay.”
Experts: Truth hurts.
4) THE $4 MYSTERY
“…charging different prices than what was on the menu simply because it was “entertainment hour”. For example, if you want a coke that is normally $2 you’ll have to pay $6 for it.”
“They give so little injera, that we had to ask 4 times to bring us a tiny plate of a quarter injera roll. I got a lecture from the owner for asking for so much injera, she said there is an extra $4 charge for it!”
“…that there is a $4 serving fee per person for cake, even when you bring in the cake on your own…”
“The bill had an error of $4 and I’ve got a lam excuse that the price list was changed yesterday and they didn’t print a new menu yet.”
Experts: Between having 2 birthdays (three if you made one up for immigration), being 7 years behind on the calendar, telling time in 2 ways, having a 13th month of varying lengths every 4-ish years, not to mention an always fluctuating number of cousins, can you be surprised if numbers aren’t exactly our strong point? To top it off the word for “four” in Amharic sounds very much like the word for “dinner”. We suggest sticking to lunch.
5) MAKEOVER 911
“There are suns and smiley faces. There are cushions and carpeting. There are the most spectacularly heart-stopping artistic designs. Basically, it’s as close as you can get to being in the Jungle Room at Graceland without jumping on the TCB plane to Tennessee.”
Experts: …where we’re willing to bet there’s not a decent Ethiopian restaurant for miles.
“The menus had not been updated in what looks like years”
Experts: You ordered from the menu? Oh.
“There is some attention to detail, yet it is not wholeheartedly thought out. The dim lighting and tablecloths attempt to imitate an quiet, close, and intimate ambience in the dinner room, but the bright lighting from the kitchen’s open entrance glares through.”
Experts: In case you get any ideas other than eating.
“Décor looks outdated and needing some fresh life.”
Experts: But plastic flowers last so much longer.
“While the entrance is very modest and in need of a splash of paint, don’t let that stop you from an incredible experience.”
“the décor ranges from safari kitch to S&M”
Experts: We don’t do safari but our leather is top notch.
6) YOU’RE WELCOME
“When we asked the server if she could tell us what the items were, she rolled her eyes and gave a big sigh. Her answers were short and unfriendly, and gave us the impression we were a bother.”
Experts: Are you eating it or writing a dissertation on it?
“The restaurant was EMPTY so my friend and I asked if we could sit at a larger table with a bit more space to stretch out. The server said No. We suggested that if they ended up needing the table, we’d move to as smaller one. Still NO. After that, we saw the waitress exactly twice – once to take our order and once to bring it. No check to see how we were doing, no refills on drinks (which we both wanted to order)… We needed more injera and never ended up being able to order it.”
“We requested to move to a larger table near by and were denied. There was only one other occupied table in the whole place!”
Experts: You asked for it, the both of ya. This ain’t your living room.
“She pointed at our table and complained about me in a loud tone… I addressed the owner and told him that I wasn’t looking for any money back but I wanted him to understand why I was dissatisfied. His response was the same, “What do you want me to do?” and “I’m sorry that we did not meet YOUR standards.”
Experts: Sorry “to understand” is not on the menu.
“As an Ethiopian and paying customer I was very unpleased with the service my family and I received at the restaurant last week. The service and food were just awful and I was shocked at how rude our waiter was.”
Experts: Understood. Unfortunately unacceptable.
“The women at this place…are inattentive, nonchalant, for most of them is NOT a language barrier so I have come to think that for all intensive purposes, they just hate their jobs.”
Experts: Yes. Intensely.
“First off, they never got back to my reservation email, which was sent to the restaurants ‘reservation’ email address.”
“We watched 3 tables of people who arrived much later than us were served drinks and food.”
Experts: Were you still deconstructing the menu?
“- no napkins/utensils unless requested (just a head’s up)
– forgetful staff =P (a couple of items were missing so we had to remind them)”
Experts: Was it the utensils they kept forgetting?
“Everything was cold. We told the waitress, who told the manager, who begrudgingly took it away after trying to tell us that it was supposed to be that way. No apology, no explanation, no nothing.”
Experts: You did get an explanation. It is supposed to be that way.
“It was the first time in my ENTIRE life that I did not leave a tip- that is how horrendous the service was.”
Experts: Or maybe you ran out of money?
“…our server came up to me and asked me if I was Ethiopian or Eritrean?!?… she asked me if my father was the Ethiopian one or my mother…I was like wtf is her point.!?! She then obnoxiously tells me she’s just Ethiopian. She then tells me that “the kitchen is closed!”…A few mins later 3 white women come in and she sits them down and OH BEHOLD The kitchen is open!
Experts: Should have told her that you were “just white” inside.
“Lady on Phone #1: “Yeah?”
Me: (wondering if I called the wrong place) “Ummm…hello? Is this [restaurant name]?”
Lady on Phone #1: “Yeah?”
Me: “Ummm…OK…I would like to make reservations please.”
Lady on Phone #1: “Hold on”
Lady on Phone #2: “What do you want?”
Me: “Uhhh…I *think* I would like to make reservations, please?”
Lady on Phone #2: “When?”
Me: “on Friday for seven o’clo…”
Lady on Phone #2: (cutting me off) “How many?”
Me: “Ten, but there may be…”
Lady on Phone #2: (cutting me off. Again.) “Name?”
Me: “The Party will be under ‘Yelping Pi…”
Lady on Phone #2: (cutting me off yet again) “Fine. Bye.””
Experts: (we stopped reading at “reservations”)
“Slow service. Many flies.”
Experts: Fast flies though, eh?
“When you poor a glass a wine, don’t fill it up to the literal brim of the glass. It’s ok if wine is left over in the bottle. We can drink it later. I would like to be able to drink the wine before spilling it all over the table first.”
Experts: Saves us a trip.
“The group of waitresses were too busy chatting amongst themselves to be bothered with our table and our waters sat empty until we finally were able to get their attention.”
Experts: Hope you like tap.
“Whoever had taken our order had flat out forgotten about us.”
Experts: Be memorable.
“The older lady, who I assume is the owner, was unbelievably rude – never cracked a smile and acted like she was doing us a favor by letting us eat there.”
Experts: Well? Was it a treat or was it?
“I told the lady it looked small and she said it’s too bad I ordered it.”
Experts: Welcome to the immigrant experience.
“but the service can be on the cranky side. Last time I went it bordered on rude”
Experts: You looked like you needed some space.
“We were lied to. We ordered lamb and they gave us beef. They thought we wouldn’t’ notice by spicing it more, but I eat both very often, and I could tell in the first bite. Then the waitress denied it and the cook, who was sitting outside, went to the back to the kitchen and made us another dish and brought out to us “free of charge” without even being told our complaint yet. Then I told her we knew that we were eating beef, and we weren’t sending it back because my girlfriend was starving and we don’t like to waste food. The cook never even tried to assure us that it was lamb, instead she decided to play dumb and then walked away. Later when we were leaving, the waitress and the cook got together and had a hearty laugh at us in the background.”
Experts: Let’s see: victim complex, frequent consumer of meat, unwilling to let a matter go, respectful of food, heightened sense of paranoia; we say you’ve earned your honorary Ethiopian card!
“man the same cranky & rude waiter (‘_’)”
Experts: Yet you keep coming back. Perfecting your emoticon?
“I was a loyal fan who eventually grew tired of your lackluster service and product.”
Experts: And you were loyal because…?
“The service was terrible. I had to seat myself at the bar after asking the waitress if I could multiple times and getting ignored. Then I had to find my own menu from a table in the corner. The waitress forgot part of my order after telling her twice what I ordered. I found her very rude and rushed as she was the only one working.”
Experts: We have a saying ‘he who eats alone dies alone.’ She was trying to miss the Grim Reaper. Cut the girl some slack.
“They may forget drinks. They serve at their own pace.”
“…the fact that the person taking my reservations forgot to mention to me that they don’t like large groups coming in there…”
“I called to make reservations for Friday night. The woman on the phone yelled something I didn’t catch, and then hung up on me. Thinking perhaps we had been cut off, I called back. The woman said that I don’t need a reservation, there was lots of space. I told her it was actually for Friday. She said no need for a reservation, and then hung up on me AGAIN. Which would have been fine if I had showed up and there had been space. Showed up on Friday and there was a line out the door.”
Experts: All of them were waiting for a proper “Goodbye, thank you for calling. Please call again.”
“it was pretty badly managed at the time of night, the weakest link being the young waitress with short hair. She was terrible, and also discriminatory, as her attitude changed drastically while serving the visible ‘minorities’ throughout the restaurant.”
Experts: Inexcusable. Someone should chop off all her hair. Oh wait.
10 – “One woman seems to do everything here. She cooks. She cleans. She serves. She has so-so conversational skills.”
Experts: What a lazy slob.
9 – “man, am I ever sick of the way Toronto never seems to have any African restaurants other than Ethiopian and Moroccan ones.”
Experts: My Moroccan friend says to tell you Watch who’re you calling an African!
8 – “And there’s the total meatheads outside on 18th street to deal with before and after your meal.”
Experts: They’ve got the same meat on their mind that you’ve got in your tummy.
7 – “Don’t use a fork here, because it’s “an insult to the culture”. The waitress literally took a fork out of my friend’s hand and looked angry. It was a bit disturbing.
Experts: No offense but how exactly were you holding the fork
6 – “Until today, I thought shows like Restaurant Makeover or Kitchen Nightmare were heavily edited, to make the restaurants looks incompetent, and the makeover more dramatic. After today’s experience, I’ve changed my mind.”
(The experts seek the public’s opinion on this one, preferably someone from the Food Network.)
5 – “…it’s way too exotic even for me!”
4 – “I’ve never seen people wait so long for something so good – ever.”
3 – “And she was super nice and the service was great. Too great for an Ethiopian restaurant.
2 – “My bf said the food made him sad, and then made him go to the bathroom.”
1 – “she made herself a coffee before starting her shift”
LMHAO!!! Consider me relaxed.