Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Greenhouse Tavern: Revisited

Crispy Hominy
Back in July I visited The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland and absolutely LOVED my dining experience. It was one of the most incredible-tastiest, most-satisfying, so-happy-to-eat-in-Cleveland experiences I've had to date.

So I figured when I took FD there for his special birthday dinner it was going to be the same mind-blowing, mouth orgy again. That doesn't seem an unreasonable assumption, does it?

Chef Sawyer is known for his seasonl spin on contemporary comfort food. And I firmly believe in his Green mission and the restaurant's farm-to-table mentality. There's no doubt in my mind that my food values are completely aligned with The Greenhouse Tavern's; we're totally on the same page.

But FD's birthday meal has left me frustrated and reconsidering going to The Greenhouse Tavern again. At least for anything else other than Animal Style Frites.

Chilled Sweet Potato & Cabbage Soup
I want to be clear that the opinions I express are as an honest food critic and paying customer. It is not my intention to slander any restaurant. It is only my intention to share my dining experiences as an average-Jane diner with no strings attached.

Let it be known that I think the good at The Greenhouse Tavern is definitely worth experiencing, but the customer service is something, I feel, needs much improvement.

Let it be known that the intoxicating, primitive experience event of eating Animal Style Frites is something every food lover MUST experience. However, I must warn any diner that the sassy-and-not-in-a-good-way attitude from a few of the servers and runners at The Greenhouse Tavern might disrupt that experience and turn it into something not-so-much-fun.

Animal Style Frites
Because I am a detail-oriented person who believes arguments should have ample credible support, I feel the following examples will illustrate how lack luster the customer service at The Greenhouse Tavern is.  First of all, when we were seated we were not approached immediately, and once the server approached our table, he did not announce the beers on tap or show us the beer and wine menu. For an establishment that has tavern in its title, I feel is imperative that every server share this information before asking diners what drinks they want. It's helpful and it makes diners feel comfortable in additional to a little of booze and a few recommendations mean a bigger tip usually. Also, the The four course chef's tasting menu used to be $39; now it's $44. If you do the math, it's a rip off; you can order food from each section and usually pay less than $44. I understand this doesn't have to do with servers, but it has to do with customer service and not taking customers (who are in a city that is having hard economic times!) for a ride. Next, our first and second courses were served at the same time. Our table ordered the four course chef's tasting menu because we wanted to have a long dinner; serving both courses not only screwed up the timing and our experience, but also it upset the taste of each course. I have no interest eating chilled soup with hominy or even better hominy with lardo speck gnocchi, which is what we did in much of a rage. Our server's response to the matter: "First and second courses are small tonight; we're serving them together." However, all the surrounding tables were receiving them separately and our portions were huge. The runners had to be asked to box leftovers, and during dessert when a decaf cup of coffee served to our table was cold, the runner deliberated aloud the time it would take to make a fresh pot, which was really rude and destroyed the flow of our table's conversation. Finally, the server forgot one of our guest's desserts and overcharged that same guest by two desserts, even though dessert was included in their four course chef's tasting menu. Needless to say, I didn't leave feeling satisfied this time.

Strip Steak with Pomme Frites
Dear reader, I'm not happy to report these examples of rude, unorganized, and sloppy service. It breaks my heart quite frankly. But I feel the need to share because as food lovers and paying customers we expect a meaningful dining experience, and we, as paying customers, are shelling out a lot of hard-earned money to get that experience, especially in times like these. I have a huge problem with celebrity chef restaurants and talked-up restaurants not delivering on customer service. Restaurants are part of the service industry. That means meeting the expectations of customers and making those customers happy. In this case and in other cases, such as Michael Symon's Bar Symon, I feel the servers are hired because they need jobs and look indy enough to work there. But the servers and runners should know about the food, about serving a table, about the etiquette of dining, and about who actually is paying their paycheck, which are the customers, essentially. If I drop $200 at a restaurant, like I did at The Greenhouse Tavern, I expect the server to be respectful, knowledgeable, and competent. That's not much to ask. And as diners that's all we want. I understand some servers are flirty, some friendly, some hands-off-but-aware, or some funny. A little personality is great. But there must be smarts to match it. And that training MUST come from the owner, the manager, and the executive chef. I can't justify spending that amount of money on a meal when half my experience is spent frustrated at a server who looks and acts like he just did ten lines of coke and is saying his allergies are bad today.

Gravy Frites
With that said, the lardo speck gnocchi was to die for. The halibut was absolutely perfectly cooked, even though the garnish was useless. The kick of hit at the end of a taste of the Ratatouille Vegetables Involtini was divine. The texture of the sweet potato and cabbage chilled soup was so silky it was like sexy satin sheets. The strip steak had a flawless sear and was faultlessly cooked to medium. And the Gravy Frites and Animal Style Frites--I live for them. Period.

Alas, I'm sad this review isn't more about the food. But it replicates my turmoil during this meal. I would have one moment of ecstasy which would be clouded by an unnatural desire to throw a punch.

What's the balance of food and service? Which is more important? Or are both equally important? Is a small dining room like at Revolver or Lucky's Cafe--where service is ALWAYS good--the key? I don't have any answers. But I sure wish I did.  

Pure coolness. The Greenhouse Tavern serves Black Label in a can for under $2.
The Greenhouse Tavern on Urbanspoon


  1. oh no!!
    Also, I can't believe you went animal style.

  2. Wow. That's terrible!

    Hm. We recreated the butternut squash and gala apple soup--what's the likelihood of recreating the sweet potato and cabbage soup? :)

  3. I'm sorry you had to go through that (good food aside). If you want to try a good upscale Cleveland restaurant without the snooty attitude problems, try Pier W. When I went there a few weeks ago, I was very impressed by both the food and the wait staff.

  4. Here's a comment from Facebook about this post from Jae:

    I had a similar experience at his previous restaurant. I will not go back to a restaurant if the wait staff sucks even if the food is excellent. The point of a restaurant is to create an experience. The food the atmosphere the theme. The ...attitude of the waitstaff sets the mood and tenor of the meal. I read an interview of Chef Sawyer in which he stated he deliberates everything. If the color of a wall was a shade off it would keep him up at night. Yet in two restaurants the same experience with the service leads one to wonder why.

  5. Here's a comment from Facebook about this post from James:

    I agree, bad service can completely ruin an otherwise great dining experience because it takes your focus away from the food. Great service is almost unnoticeable in it's execution. You do what you came to do: focus on the food, and if you ...need a soup spoon, salad fork, water or wine refill, it's there without you even having to think about it. Any sort of attitude from a service professional is silly. If you'd like to find another way to earn a living, please do so. Don't burden me with your issues and personal baggage. You may only be waiting tables until your screenplay sells, but what happened to doing the best job you can at whatever job you are doing now. It's a matter of personal pride in my opinion. I also love poutine, but that seems like a lot of frites in a tasting menu.

  6. Amanda, you've done a great job pinpointing the problems of our dinner at Greenhouse Tavern. What still (even right now, yes) bugs me about our service was the beer. I practically announced myself as a beer snob to the server only to get Sierra Nevada Torpedo as a recommendation. Make no mistake, I love this beer, but it's pretty easy to come by these days. I was looking for something special and rare. I ordered a big bottle of Stone's newest anniversary ale (which was dynamite good) but when I wandered down to the bathroom I noted the taplist above the bar, specifically Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Ale. I ordered one immediately, but was disgruntled the rest of the night. If you're going to bother with tasting menus and specialty beers, then you should do it right. Stagger your courses for god's sake (that's why they're called courses, no?) and announce your taps to your diners when you seat them. You can't expect to sell a $10 glass of specialty beer if no one knows it's there. ~ F. Daniel Rzicznek

  7. My wife and I make it a point to take any out of town guests to the Green House Tavern. Our latest experience there however has made us question whether or not we will do this again. This review isn't meant to trash the Greenhouse Tavern, which we very much like and have reccommended vigorously, but we've noticed a trend: rising prices on the menu and falling quality of the food. I'm a food and drink lover, a fanatic is more like it, an above average home cook who also roast his own coffee at home, has studied culinary techniques in Italy etc. That being said, I really look forward to going out to a first class restaurant like the Greenhouse Tavern to experience food that I am not capable of making at home. I don't expect to be dissapointed when I spend $200 at one of the top 10 best new restaurants featuring one of the nations 10 ten chefs. I don't expect to discuss driving home in the car that we could do better in our home kitchen for a tenth of the cost, and with better wine than the $20 vin de pays house offering of the evening. However we left the restaurant very dissapointed and reluctant and saddened to say that we were since this has been one of our favorite spots for quite a while.
    Our last dining experience didn't suffer from unfriendly servers as some reviewers have noted, they were quite friendly, although they didn't inform us about the up-charge to the tasting menu for the Animal Frittes or the "Best Chicken in Cleveland." I found the supposedly "best" chicken only slightly better than the average rotisserie yard bird one can buy at the local grocery store for $5. The pastry in which it was served was excellent, but one would be hard pressed to cal this chicken the "best in Cleveland" and certainly not worth $32. The Risotto was watery and underdone, and the confit wings were strangely dry, a far cry from the fall-off-the-bone-when-you-try-to-pick-them-up-from-the-plate that they used to be. What's ging on at the Greenhouse Tavern? Are they getting comfortable because they've won the awards? Is the chef taking extended trips celebrating this success, and in this absence the kitchen is slipping from the former state of excellence? Do they put all their effort into developing dishes that will win acclaim and then let their post-award preparation fall into disrepair, or was it just a bad night? Whatever the ailment, please figure it out and fix it...and a polite request, please instruct the waitstaff to inform the customers of an up-charge to the already increased price of the tasting menu for certain items. The shock of a bill that is about $15 more expensive than expected alone I think would be enough to turn away a first time diner from ever again darkening the door of the venerable Tavern in the house that is green.