We should have known that, on a night like this, when all our first choices in Chinatown had a long wait to get in, the restaurant without a line would probably not be all we hoped for.
It was Christmas. Jeff and I were excited about having a night out with friends in Chinatown on Christmas with chopsticks and fortune cookies and red lanterns and silly tropical cocktails.
My mom laughed when I told her. She recited that little bit of good-humored racism from A Christmas Story. “How does it go?” she said. “Deck the hars with bars of horry…”
But the place we chose turned out to be nothing to laugh at.
I’m not one to get worked up about service. I’m vaguely embarrassed by being served — but I figure if I’m not allowed in the kitchen, someone has to bring the General Tso’s and lemon chicken, right? I usually find myself defending restaurant staff. I don’t mind if waiters and waitresses make mistakes, or if I have to wait just a little bit.
But this place didn’t even have the basics down. The food was fine. The service was horrid.
After we were seated, the place cleared out pretty quickly. It wasn’t at all crowded. I know, because I watched everyone leave as we sat there waiting for someone to notice us. But depending on who happened to walk by, we were either ignored or treated with surly contempt. No one working that night seemed to have even the thinnest hint of joy in their faces, and their misery was contagious.
Our drink order was forgotten until the food began to arrive. Then the waiter conveyed the order to the bartender. The drinks were twice again forgotten. We stopped various staff to reminded someone — anyone — that they had not yet come. Then finally, our glamorous, goofy mai-tais — “I hope they have little skewers of pineapple and cherries in them,” Jeff said with a twinkle in his eyes — came when we were half-done with our meals. They were tall glasses of iced pineapple juice with a splash of rum.
The food itself was late, each dish arriving 5 to 10 minutes apart. When all the dishes were down, and most of them were no longer hot, we had to ask no fewer than three times for steamed rice. I felt like asking the waiter: “You know you work at a Chinese restaurant, right?”
Jeff and I wondered out loud what we must have done to upset the waitstaff, because their behavior seemed almost retaliatory.
Jeff had to grab a pitcher of water from the server’s station so we could pour it ourselves. We might have asked to exchange our dirty water glasses if we thought there was a chance of it actually happening.
Even the check took forever to arrive. We couldn’t wait to get out of there so we could start enjoying the evening. No, we don’t want anything else. No, we dont need a to-go box. Just the check, please.
And then, for the … tenth time that night? … our waiter disappeared.
When we pulled on our coats and scarves and started walking toward the cashier, he ran up to me and shoved the bill into my hand. It was marked “reprint.” Where the original one was, I couldn’t say.
I think it’s immoral to leave without tipping a minimum of 20%. But not that night. I feel quite justified in leaving nothing on the table.
Visitors to Philadelphia’s Chinatown: I hope you have better luck at Joy Tsin Lau than we did.
We found it after exhausting our limited knowledge of Chinatown. It had a Zagat sticker on the front window. A cluster of people was walking away remarking how they’d so enjoyed dinner. (Did the manager pay those people to say those things?) The waiting area wall was crowded with photographs of a glamorous Chinese woman—the owner, maybe—posing with various celebrities and presidents and presidents’ wives. The place seemed like a winner.
I’m willing to believe that it is on most nights. But on this night, it was not even a contender. I will never go there again. The nice thing is, there are enough alternatives that I don’t have to.
My advice: Wait in line — somewhere else.