Omnivore - Sweet Auburn Barbecue: Anarchy and good food

Bring on the sweet compensation for tepid food



What’s the appropriate response if you have bad service or poorly prepared food in a restaurant? Do you complain to the manager or just tip low? Do you send the food back to the kitchen or do you demand a reduction in your bill? Is a free dessert adequate to settle you down?

Some of those questions came up last week when I dined with friends at the two-month-old Sweet Auburn Barbecue in the Poncey-Highland space vacated by Pura Vida.

This is owner Howard Hsu’s third venue. He’s gotten great reviews for his booth at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market and his food truck. Hsu blends his Asian heritage with Southern ‘cue classics in some dishes (like a rib sandwich with Korean ingredients), branching out to other cultures like Mexico (tacos) and Jamaica (jerk-seasoned collards), as well. Don’t worry. There are plenty of Southern classics, like pulled pork and brisket.

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We enjoyed most of our food - this isn’t a review of that - but the service seemed off-kilter from the moment we passed through the door. We couldn’t get seated for over 10 minutes, even though there were four empty tables, only one of which was seated before us. Did this mean there weren’t enough servers at work? If so, we weren’t told.

Worse, we were ignored for at least 10 minutes after seating. I finally hailed a server and he said he had no idea who was supposed to be waiting on us. He offered to take our drink orders, and returned saying, “I can’t find out who your server is, so I’m going to take care of you.” His name was Shawn and he was terrific, especially given that he was working amid what appeared to be virtual chaos.


Would you like that heated?

Most of our entrees, especially a trio of cross-cultural tacos, arrived at room temperature. That kept the flavors from blooming and melding. The pulled pork in a bowl of grits was also tepid. Brisket was fine. I told Shawn and he offered to take the food back to the kitchen.

We were halfway though our meal and I declined. “It’s not a big deal,” I said, “but you really should tell the kitchen.” And that’s my advice to diners. If you really find something seriously amiss with your food, don’t remain silent. Do the rest of us a favor, and let the kitchen know. A lot of chefs want to know.

When the manager came by, I told him about the cold food too and he insisted on comping a dessert - a gigantic, sticky-fat praline basket filled with bourbon-brown-sugar ice cream and sliced strawberries. I would never insist on such and the times I have accepted a freebie from a restaurant I’m writing about are very few and far between, usually in certain ethnic ones, where declining is considered completely rude. In this case, I thought it was entirely appropriate to accept some sweet relief. (Alas, I had to remind them they’d offered it for free; the bill charged for it.)

As it turned out, they also unexpectedly dropped the price of the tacos a couple of dollars. I would have adamantly declined the dessert had I known they were going to discount the tacos, which a friend also ordered.


Should restaurants comp meals?

Is it ever appropriate to demand price reductions, free desserts and cocktails, or full comping? I don’t really think so. I’ve sat in countless restaurants over the years and watched people absolutely drive servers nuts with their nit-picking demands, sending dishes back to the kitchen twice, whining that “it doesn’t taste like I expected,” and refusing to pay.

I think restaurants should do their best to meet reasonable expectations and be open to hearing about problems with the food, but they certainly don’t owe people freebies of any sort. I can imagine the onslaught of hungry haters if word got out.

Do not blame your server for a problem with the kitchen, like inadequately heating the food. The server’s business is service and she deserves a good tip - minimum 20 percent of the total bill - in any case. If you do receive a freebie, you should figure the value of that in calculating the tip.

I felt like the most annoying diner alive at Sweet Auburn. Many thanks to Shawn for not strangling me and maintaining a sense of humor. I’m guessing that adapting to a full-service operation is difficult after a few years of employing counter service only at Hsu’s other operations. Still, after two months, things should be worked out and, yes, I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends.