Nouveau Fast Food Restaurants — not for me

Photo courtesy Flickr User SpecialKRB
Photo courtesy Flickr User SpecialKRB

Are cafeteria-type restaurants a trend? Are they going to be around to stay? I ask because in the past couple of months my husband and I have gone to three cafeteria-type restaurants. These were highly recommended and relatively new restaurants in Bethesda and Washington DC and we did not expect them to be serve-yourself restaurants.

Let me make it clear — when I go out for dinner, I don’t like to serve myself. I like to sit down and be served. I like a waiter to come to my table and ask what I’d like to drink, bring me a drink and then take my order and then bring it to me. I don’t like to walk into a restaurant, grab a tray and stand in line to pay for my meal before I eat it. I don’t like to have to go back to the line for a second glass of wine.

The first restaurant we went to recently that was cafeteria-type was a place whose opening in Bethesda I’d been looking forward to for months: Nando’s Peri-Peri. Nando’s Peri-Peri claims to be “the home of Portuguese flame-grilled PERi-PERi Chicken” on its Web site. I love chicken and hoped it would be comparable to Peruvian chicken — one of my favorite foods. I bought a Groupon for Nando’s Peri-Peri and was excited when my husband (who doesn’t like chicken all that much) agreed to go with me. We left home expecting a nice sit-down meal and were unpleasantly surprised when we were greeted at the door by someone who, instead of asking us how many were in our party,  asked us if we’d been there before. We said no and asked why she asked. She then explained that we needed to go to the counter, order our meal and drinks, then sit down and wait for the food to be brought to us. Okay, we could do that, we figured. We also had a choice of sauces that we were told we could bring to the table. The young man who took our order had a hard time hearing us and we had a hard time hearing him. Every time he talked to us he turned his head to the side (looking at whatever he was talking about). I think the order was screwed up a little, plus there was a problem with getting the Groupon to work. The line kept on getting longer and longer behind us.

The chicken was okay, but not wonderful. The sauces were also okay. If the food were spectacular and the service was better I think I’d want to go back. I may try it again as a takeout, but not to go in and sit down.

The second cafeteria-type restaurant, Vapiano, we went to was with (and on recommendation from) our daughter who went there over Thanksgiving weekend with her roommate. She couldn’t say enough about the restaurant and I was looking forward to going along having heard about it elsewhere as well. When we got to the door we were given instruction on how to order.

As with Nando’s Peri-Peri,  I’d expected to be seated and waited on, but again, this was not the case. We stood around looking foolish and confused, but the “wait” staff didn’t seem to notice our confusion. They just chit-chatted around the register.

The restaurant is set up not unlike a college cafeteria. There is a pasta counter, a drink counter, a salad and pizza counter and a bar. You need to go to each one of these separately in order to get your entire meal. After wandering around aimlessly for a few minutes, our daughter said we needed menus and went to the register to ask for one. She had to wait until the staff finished their conversation before she came back with menus.

My husband decided on a pizza and salad. I thought I’d get a salad and pasta. Our daughter planned on getting pasta. My husband’s order was easiest — he only had to go to one food counter and the bar. I should have gone to the bar first, then the salad counter then the pasta counter, but I went with my daughter to the pasta counter and then realized that my pasta would get cold by the time I ordered my salad, so decided to not get the salad. I did go to the bar and get a glass of wine. It took forever for someone to see I was there, but finally I got my glass of “happy hour” wine. Everything tasted fine — my husband’s pizza was very good.  When I went back to the bar for a second glass of wine it took nearly 10 minutes for anyone to show up to serve me. The chit-chatting folks at the register looked away whenever I tried to catch their eyes.

The most recent cafeteria-type restaurant we went to was just over the line on Wisconsin in DC: Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza which was recommended by our son. He’d mentioned how he had pizza with clam at a friend’s house and that it was very good. I was not so keen on having pizza with clam, even though I like clams, so thought I’d have pasta instead. When we got to the restaurant my heart fell when my husband said, as we approached, “it looks like it is cafeteria-style”. He was right. We decided on what food to order by looking at a menu, then stood in line to order our food, were given a number and told to find a seat and the food would be brought to us, but we needed to pick up our drinks at the end of the counter. We did all that and noticed that there were many young families in the restaurant. Of course it was early in the evening, and it was a pizza joint after all. When the food came, we were happy with the pizza, clams and all, but the pasta was a disappointment. I’d settled on the fettucini carbonara but it was far too salty and it had chunks of what looked like sausage when I was expecting thin slivers of pancetta.

I don’t mind going to a cafeteria-type restaurant for lunch. In fact I quite like to eat at Le Madeleine for lunch and do so often. I also don’t mind ordering food at the counter (although they take orders tableside now)  at Lilit Café because I like the restaurant so much (it’s my “Cheers Bar”). I just don’t like being surprised when I am expecting a sit-down experience only to have to stand in line to get my food.

In addition, the prices were about the same as sit-down restaurants we go to. Our meal of a large pizza, salty pasta, two beers and two wines came to $65. That’s a lot of money to pay for a cafeteria-type restaurant, in my opinion.

Finally, we did a little research before we went to two of the restaurants and neither mentioned having to stand in line to order food. The one I didn’t research does mention a “chip card”. If I’d known beforehand that the restaurants were not sit-down-and-we-serve you I may have had lighter expectations. It is not that I’ve not been to those kinds of places before, I have. Previously mentioned Le Madeline and Lilit, plus Cici’s Pizza, Fudruckers, and Urban Burger/barbecue are a few that come to mind. But I expected those to be more like fast-food places.

When we were at Vapiano I wondered if perhaps the people that like to eat there are homesick for their college cafeterias because that is what it felt like to me — with the exception of the bar. The very slow and rarely manned bar.

Have you been to this kind of restaurant? What do you think about this trend, if, in fact, it is a trend?

6 thoughts on “Nouveau Fast Food Restaurants — not for me

  1. Obviously out here in the wilds of Vermont, I can’t tell you if it’s a trend. I can tell you though, I’d be disappointed to walk into a place like that thinking I was going to a restaurant with wait staff. And having to go to a counter to get your own glass of wine? Ugh.


  2. Nope, although I’m a spoiled urbanite (is that a word) so maybe I’m a snot. If I go someplace expecting a buffet, I’m fine (one place here in STL has a fabulous sunday brunch and it’s amazing–but you still have a waitstaff bringing you coffee and taking plates away). And you’re right–lunch doesn’t bother me at all. But if I went someplace that was touted as upscale (and it wasn’t brunch) and I had to serve myself? I’d never go back. Mike and I go out so rarely now, I want to go someplace wonderful.


  3. I’m with you. A cafeteria-type place is fine if that’s what you know you’re getting. But not if you’re expecting a civilised dinner without jumping up and down to serve yourself all the time. And places with different stations that you have to walk around? Other than at a hotel breakfast, or a Thai food court, not my idea of fun.


  4. How very odd! I don’t think this particular trend has made its way north yet, at least not to my town.

    Another sign of the decline of civilization.


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