It's common knowledge that behind the fancy tablecloths and pretty plates, restaurants are twisted environs — where cutthroat humor, stuff that would get a person fired in corporate business settings, is a mainstay. Where sexual harassment from the kitchen is a guarantee rather than a no-no. And where servers grow thick skin by putting up with customers' inane comments and often-poor behavior.
And, just like in any other setting, sometimes funny accidents and bizarre things happen. No restaurant worker gets out of the biz without at least one good war story to tell. We've condensed (and minimally edited) a small batch of the best we found locally below, in the same spirit with which we brought you amusing stories from bartenders a few years ago (see: "You didn't hear it here," Feb. 28, 2008).
If you can best one of these stories, post your own tale as a comment to this feature at csindy.com. Otherwise, just enjoy the graciously proffered tales below. Because I couldn't resist, we'll start off a warm, fuzzy memory from my own restaurant past.
Wookin' pa nub
I was 15 when I started my first restaurant job back in Birmingham, Ala., at this four-star Italian place. I quickly worked my way up from bussing to food running, which put me working closely with the kitchen guys to organize trays and get them out to the dining room.
One night, our dishwasher (the instrument, not the person) got jammed during the middle of service, and dishes started piling up. One of the cooks, Chris, tried to get the machine back on line, which involved sticking his hand in to remove a piece of silverware or something that was stuck. The thing was, he didn't turn the machine off to do so, and after he pulled the item out, the dishwasher sprang back into action and the conveyor chain sort of tore off the top half of one of his fingers — I think it was his ring finger.
As he began freaking out, someone found the nub and threw it on ice, and the whole commotion left for the emergency room. We made it through the night one man down, and Chris, ultimately out half a finger, went on workman's comp for a couple weeks.
When he returned, complaining of phantom limb pain, there was of course merciless humor at his expense — restaurant people being the sensitive types, you know.
On his first shift back, some of the other cooks took out some fingerling potatoes and carved a potato replica of the severed nub. They left it floating in his Coke for him to find.
When he discovered it, he turned really red in the cheeks and showed us one of his good fingers.
London and France
So I went to the bathroom and I accidentally tucked my skirt into my nylons afterward. I had zebra print underwear on, so it was very apparent. This was in the old Adam's Mountain Café.
I walked all the way into the back dining room. I was waiting on two employees, actually, that were cooks. And I went and talked to them and turned around and walked out, and they didn't say anything to me.
I had this other customer that had gone out the front door to wait outside, so I walked all the way through the front of the restaurant, out the door to grab her and tell her that her food was ready. Then I walked back into the kitchen and still, no one had said anything.
When I finally realized that I'd been showing my underwear to the whole restaurant, I was like, "Why didn't you guys tell me?"
And they were like, "We figured you'd figure it out ..."
Another time, I was hosting and wearing a baby doll dress, no tights or anything, and I lifted up a chair to go up over a table in the back dining room. All a sudden, I was like, "Oh my God" — my skirt was hooked on the chair, but I had it in the air already, so I just walked forward and set it down. There was a woman sitting facing me in the back, and she was all, "Nice panties."
Editor's note: While on the phone with Adam's, I gathered a random batch of other anecdotes, compiled here.
• I worked at a hotel where this guy was a kleptomaniac. We all had to bring in our own knives, and they all kept going missing. One day, this guy went out drinking with one of our co-workers. They closed a bar, then went back to the guy's house, where he said he had some beers. Our co-worker went looking for a bottle opener, opened a drawer, and there were all our missing knives.
The same guy stole a whole salmon in the middle of his shift. He had to put it in his locker, but he forgot about it and had the next two days off. That's when he was fired. Security had to cut the lock to get to the smell.
• One of our cooks used to be a very passive-aggressive server when he worked at the Colorado Springs Country Club. Just to be an ass, he'd put tongs into the cottage cheese on the Sunday buffet spread. Two German women who worked there said, "Ugh — Americans are so sloppy."
• Funny things that have been said to Adam's employees:
"I'm vegan, so I don't want cream sauce on my fish."
"I'm gluten-intolerant, so I don't want a roll with my lasagna."
"What kind of meat is polenta?"
"At what altitude do deer turn into elk?"
"Which mountain is Pikes Peak?"
"How do you get the meat in the Planet Burger to taste like that?" (The menu clearly states that the Planet Burger is made of rice, nuts, onions and cheese. Customers have also tried to order it medium rare.)
In 2003, I showed up to work and found every road to Shuga's closed off for construction. There was a fully cordoned-off block surrounding Shuga's, which prevented any car from being able to get to us. It was planned to be closed for a week, and after much hounding of the construction workers, they made us a sign at the end of Cascade Avenue's blockade, which read, "Shuga's Are Open."
We proceeded to answer all phone calls in this manner for the next week. The sign was hung on the back wall staircase and was stolen within the last year. We desperately want the sign back as a souvenir of this memory.
Still wookin' pa nub
I was waiting tables at Sencha — it was the end of a lunch shift, and I was tired and scatterbrained. I had one table left: a middle-aged couple sitting in the corner. While I was waiting for their food to come up, I called and left my boyfriend at the time a quick message: "Hey, I'm almost off work, I'll call you when I'm done — love you, bye."
When the food was ready, I brought the order to the table. Having been a server for eight or so years, I always had my standard line when I dropped food, something like: "Here's your fish tacos — is there anything else that I can bring for you? ... Enjoy."
For some reason that day, I set the food down, asked if I could bring anything else for them, and then instead of saying, "Enjoy," I looked right at the guy and said, "I love you."
It caught us all off guard. She looked at him accusingly, he looked at me, surprised, and I turned beet red. I ended up laughing after I gained some composure and was able to explain to them that I was tired and that I'd never met this man in my life, and no, I don't love him, etc., etc.
They left a decent tip, and the comment card said, "Very Friendly Service!"
The funniest thing I've seen in a restaurant actually happened before I got into the biz.
I was doing an air show at Clermont, France back in the mid-'80s, and there was a dinner hosted by the mayor for all the airshow participants, including the French national aerobatic team — the Patrouille de France. We were all enjoying a gourmet dinner in the wine cellar and a lot of great wine. I spoke French and all the pilots spoke English, so there was no language issue except with the service staff.
The lieutenant who was with me and flew my spare aircraft to the show was having a particularly good time and had eyes for the French server. She came over to the table and asked him, "Woood you like somezing else," to which the lieutenant replied, "Yes, I'd like a few more slices of filet steak and another bottle of that Chateaubriand ..."
The whole community table of about 40 exploded in laughter — in five languages.
Smell you later
Back in the '70s, when we were out in the field all by ourselves, we had lots of animals. Nothing was around us on Pine Creek Road. Every Friday night for some reason, we'd have skunks come around our compost pile, and they would let off their stink in the middle of dinner. And you know that smell. In the restaurant, it was overwhelming, especially when you're trying to eat.
So my husband was trying to keep the skunks out and he put electric fences around, and then he started shooting them. He got on the roof, put a spotlight on the compost, and shot them and put them in the trash.
One day, the trash guy came in with this sheet-white face and said, "What was in the dumpster?"
We said, "What are you talking about?"
The guy said, "I just got a new truck and they put these compactor things on them ..."
He'd compacted 11 skunks and received an unpleasant surprise.
Pay for what you get
We had this lady that came in with her husband and another couple, and they were sitting at a booth at the Blue Star. Somewhere in the middle of their dining experience, she had to get up and go to the restroom.
That's when you see this giant, 6- or 9-liter empty bottle of port that we have on display disappear. She thought she would be able to discreetly grab it and walk it back to her booth and then put her jacket over it. The only problem being, pretty much the entire wait staff on the cocktail side saw this happen, and they told me about it. Then they were like: "What are you gonna do?"
I really didn't want to embarrass them or the couple they were with. We all thought it was just absolutely crazy that this lady thought, No. 1, she could steal anything from a restaurant, and No. 2, one of the biggest things in the entire restaurant to steal besides a table itself.
So we were throwing around ideas on what to do. I said, "You know what, I don't want to go over there and talk to them and embarrass anybody — you know, if she wants it, she can have it, absolutely." One of our wine reps, Drew Robinson gave it to us. It's pretty rare; they don't make a lot of them. But I was thinking: If she feels that strongly about it, she can have it. If she needs it more than us, that's fine.
She'll just pay for it.
So I went into the back office on the [computer] and created a button called "big bottle of port" or something like that, and I attached $90 to it. And we said, "We'll just drop the bill and see what happens."
Of course, none of the wait staff wanted to drop the bill, so I was left with the dirty deed. So I printed it, I put it in the book, walked it over to the table, thanked them and then walked into the waiter aisle, where all 10 of us were huddled around one of those tiny little diner windows around the swivel doors. We were all kinda peeking out of the window to see the table's reaction.
They look at it, it gets passed to the woman, she looks at it, and then there is conversation at the table, but still no movement on the bottle of port. It looks like everyone is shocked she did this. Although we find it hard to believe that nobody saw her walk back with a bottle. But the guys were acting oblivious to it.
So they stop conversing, and I figure that's my cue to go pick it up. So I walk over there and a guy says, "Hi, uh yeah, we'd be willing to give this back to you if you could take this off the bill."
I still think it's a hilarious situation, because I can't fathom it, really. So I'm kinda making light of it at the table. I was like, "Really, I don't mind if you want to walk out with it ... it's just that this guy, Drew Robinson, is a big port fan and he knows our owner is a big port fan, and he went to some great lengths to get us this bottle for display. But if you guys really want it ..." and he cuts me off and just says, "No — no, take it off the bill." He's really pissed. My lightheartedness isn't even close to matching up with the emotions at the table.
So I go and void it and drop it off, and of course there is nothing else going on in the restaurant at this point for the wait staff except for this situation. There are tables to wait on and things I'm sure need to happen, but nobody cares. They're all in awe of the situation. So she hands the bottle back over and I walk it back.
And they leave a really bad tip, like it was our fault, and they leave. I thought it would go the other way: I thought it'd be a huge tip, being like, "Oh my god, we're such jackasses. We're so sorry." Instead, they made it out to be our fault.
The waiter didn't care about the bad tip because the whole staff got the best entertainment they'd had in a long time.