'Waitress From Hell' Lives Here in Russia

Over the years I have spent dining out in St. Petersburg, I have become rather adept at the fine and frequently treacherous art of complaining in Russian restaurants. The first thing to remember when you call attention to that URO (unidentified rancid object) on your plate is that it will make no difference whatsoever. That well-known maxim favored by proprietors all over the world, "The Customer is always right" has yet to make much of an impact. Complaining in this country must be looked upon as a kind of baptism of fire. Complain here and you can gripe with confidence in any restaurant in the universe.

My latest encounter with hostile waiting staff came just over a week ago at the Stary Cafe, a cozy little haunt on the Fontanka Embankment favored by the expatriate community. Presuming that they must be fairly used to bolshy foreigners -- there were two other English speaking groups already installed when we arrived -- I had no compunction about rejecting two dead, flat beers when they were plunked down on our table. This was, as it turned out, a rather unwise move.

Immediately, the bright young women who had been serving us transmogrified into "waitress from hell," snarling and slamming down glasses on the table. Then after around 15 minutes of this, the proprietor arrived and dragged us up to the counter where various brown liquids had been laid out for us to test. "Frankly, I am deeply offended that you dared to complain," he said, practically on the verge of tears.

"No one has ever before said anything nasty about the beers served in this house. Never. You have caused me great pain, great pain indeed."

Hey man, it was only a complaint. No need to turn it into the last act of a Greek tragedy.

However, this incident pales beside the time I was trapped in a Georgian restaurant by a burly waitress who actually put her foot against the door, refusing to let me leave until I explained why I hadn't eaten my food. On another occasion, the waitress in a nearby cafe summoned the entire kitchen staff to my table after I pointed out that the kebab I had been served had the texture and appearance of half-chewed cardboard. As no one seemed to understand what I wanted, I spent the next 25 minutes giving an impromptu lecture on the meaning and metaphysics of "The Complaint in Modern Catering."

My adventure at the Stary Cafe had an equally unsatisfying outcome. We were charged for the lifeless beers, but simply deducted the cost from the tip that was once destined for "waitress from hell." Just a little good grace, however, could have prevented the whole incident, retained some loyal customers and saved what is generally a nice, above average place from adverse publicity.