Every so often David has his “Not About Wine” posts where he expresses his opinions on non-culinary topics. After all, man cannot live on food and drink alone– though come to think of it, that’s a pretty good start so long as you also have things available like oxygen.
Well, similarly, I don’t always write about nerd stuff, but I can’t quite claim this article breaks that barrier. There is discussion of food, and restaurant experience, but within the lens of the San Diego Comic-Con that ravaged Satellite Show productivity this past weekend. It’s also not an entirely unique rant, since it was only last year that I spent almost an entire blog on Zombie Ranch bitching about my second-class citizen treatment at a certain Chevy’s in San Francisco during WonderCon 2011. I still feel obligated to write this because until last Sunday, I had not experienced any similar feelings in San Diego. In fact, I held up San Diego Comic-Con as the pinnacle of a regional community that went out of its way to accommodate and even cater to the geek population, with no sense that we weren’t as worthy as the next person of being served well.
I still believe, by and large, that this is true. Dawn and I sampled a number of places both new and old and felt quite welcomed. Then Sunday rolled around.
Which could be the entire crux of the problem, to be honest. I’m basing this on Sunday, traditionally the red-headed stepchild day of Comic-Con where the big stars have mostly gone home and a lot of the stuff outside the convention center is already being dismantled. Tim Burton’s Maze of Frankenweenie Wonder (or whatever the fuck it was called) is not as whimsically magical when reduced to shrink-wrapped pallets, with headstones marked ‘LOAD TOWARDS THIS END’. Inside the exhibit hall there’s the last-minute buying frenzy of people looking for deals and vendors all too willing to make them to reduce the amount of stuff they have to ship home, but there’s still a sense the climax has happened and we’re just a bunch of exhausted souls waiting for the credits to roll. So should the restaurants be the exception? Is that fair?
Personally, yeah, I’d like to think they should still be able to provide a decent sit-down experience, especially because of the much reduced crowd. Especially when the two we looked into were places where a simple burger started out at $15 and the rest of the menu went up from there. The first was the Serenity lounge, which despite the name has nothing to do with Firefly. My aunt and uncle decided to treat us to lunch, and while I wouldn’t call them rich, they are not poor, so the fanciness of the decor was not a turn-off. What began to be a turn-off was the hostess deciding, despite a nearly empty restaurant, to seat the four of us in a booth that clearly was designed to accommodate four people– if they had been Oompa-Loompas. Look, I’m not a skinny guy, but neither am I XXL+… it’s rare I go to restaurant seating that I feel like I have to shoehorn into, not to mention the joy of having my knees nearly in the crotch of the person across the way and vice-versa. But the hostess was already off to the front to see to the zero other customers, necessitating me having to track her down and tell her we were moving to one of the ubiquitous larger tables after prying myself free.
Our waiter at the new table was friendly enough, but handed us the special “Comic-Con menus”. Then informed us they were out of the $15 hamburgers. Oy. Did SDCC just break these people? They only opened in March, so did their kitchen just really run dry of ground beef over the weekend? Things looked very pricey and very limited, and on top of that was the strange decision to have a place called Serenity, with its soft lighting and trickling waterfalls in the walls, blasting screechy emo-rock over the sound system. At that point my aunt had had enough and none of us protested much when she suggested we head down the street to the New Leaf restaurant located in the Hilton GasLamp, which they’d dined at previously and enjoyed. We paid for our drinks, of course, but in a true weirdness, the waiter tried to appease us by saying that maybe he could scrounge up some hamburgers from somewhere. I didn’t even really want a burger, but if I did, I personally would prefer my $15 burger to not come from some sort of scavenger hunt.
Alas, New Leaf ended up being even worse. Another limited “Comic-Con menu”, and on top of that, I shit you not, we got seated at a cheap plastic picnic table lined with chairs obviously borrowed from a conference room. There wasn’t even a tablecloth. And yes, this was indoors. We had cloth napkins and metal silverware, but our drinks came in plastic stadium cups and my requested A-1 steak sauce was delivered in this:
I got off better than the mayonnaise request, though, that came out with the waitress gingerly cradling a dollop of it in one of those paper cups you pump your ketchup into at McDonalds.
But hey, at least it was chea– oh. No. No, they actually had a Petit Filet Mignon on this menu for $36. They did have burgers available, though again around the $15 mark. With my aunt’s blessing I actually ended up ordering the Filet, which was nothing special, and delivered with a pat of rice and a few limp sprouts of asparagus. I think it was just for the novelty of eating a dish that expensive in an environment more suited to Ball Park Franks. And again, the eating area was mostly deserted, with plenty of actual tables and actual dining chairs going unused.
To her credit, our waitress seemed genuinely embarrassed by it all, but I just can’t fathom what the fuck was going on. Neither could my aunt, also embarrassed because she’d led us there but what was going on that day was completely different than the prior experience she remembered. Would it have been different on Thursday? Did Comic-Con again just break the back of New Leaf and leave it a crippled husk of its former self? Or did they just decide to roll up the red carpet and bring out the cheap stuff until all the riff-raff were gone?
All I know is that in nearly ten years of Comic-Con attendance, Dawn and I had never checked out the places directly across from the Convention Center along Harbor Drive, and after this experience, it seems our instincts were keeping us away for good reason. There are much better places just a short walk down the street, like McCormick & Schmick’s which has similar prices but a much more elegant and welcoming atmosphere. Or hell, Dick’s Last Resort, where the atmosphere can’t be called “welcoming” but the portions are generous and the prices are plenty reasonable. Or the Old Spaghetti Factory, which gives you plenty of bang for your buck in a nice sit-down environment. There’s so many good options around, there’s really not much excuse for any restaurant to fall short of the mark. And gouge your wallet while doing so.
I will say this, though, none of them made noises about us having to pre-pay. So congratulations, WonderCon Chevy’s… you’re still the worst.