The worst service I've ever encountered came while eating at the famed Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine. The waitress, who looked like a Latin version of Joan Rivers, was an absolute trip. I remember asking her how a particular fillet of snapper was prepared, to which she responded, "Are you a lawyer?" Flustered, I shook my head no. She decided to dig deeper. "Well, then you're Jewish, right?" Luckily, my salad plate was there to catch my jaw. But the real kicker came later. After delivering our entrées, she picked up my friend's fork and knife and proceeded to root through his stuffed pork loin, looking for "the sausage hidden inside."
We laughed about that one for days.
As bad as that particular waitress was, I've never had service as uniformly awkward as what I experienced on multiple visits to Todd English's Wild Olives in Boca Raton. A partnership with local restaurateurs Lirim Jacobi and Dixon Li, the restaurant is one of four eateries the celebrity chef has opened in the past year in South Florida. Although Wild Olives is not fine dining per se, the staff has seemingly been trained to act as stiff-backed and pompous as if they were waiting on King Louis at the Court of Versailles. Yet the actual nuts and bolts of service — seating guests, clearing plates, delivering dishes, filling drinks, answering questions — are so thoroughly botched that it would almost be comical if it weren't your money on the table. It's as though everything the front-of-house staff knows about fine dining it learned from watching reruns of Monty Python.
During one visit, our waiter was so awkward and rigid that he completely avoided making eye contact with us throughout our meal. Instead, he addressed my spouse, my friend, and I in the most over-the-top manner possible. "Good evening, lady and gentlemen," he said, moving his right arm around like a conductor as he spoke, "and welcome to Wild Olives by Todd English." His left arm, meanwhile, was clutched tightly against his chest as if it had an imaginary white towel slung over it. The uncomfortable introduction was cut short by a busboy presenting a bottle of wine to our table that we did not order. "Stag zin?" the busboy asked as he showed off the bottle. The waiter looked flummoxed. "No, no, I'll take this." He grabbed the bottle and promptly disappeared for ten minutes.
Upon returning to take our orders, he continued as if nothing had happened. "We'll start with the lady. What will she be enjoying this evening?" The lady, Danielle, paused at the odd phrasing before ordering the butternut squash tortelli, a sort of ravioli dressed with brown butter sage sauce ($22). Immediately, he complimented her selection. "Excellent choice," he said, drawing out the words. "I'm sure you'll agree it's delicious."
As he turned to leave the table, he spun in place, performing some sort of weird pirouette. We half expected him to stop, flip around backward, and ask, "Would the lady like a fork with that, or shall I simply chew it up and feed it to her like a baby sparrow?"
I'm not suggesting that servers should behave only in a certain rigid way. But with an average meal at the restaurant totaling more than $50 per person, I expect some sort of genuineness — at least a sign that you care as much about my presence as you do about my money. Instead, Wild Olive's waiters seem to have gotten it in their heads that good service should be stuffy, pretentious, and, worst of all, performed. And they have no clue how to execute the important stuff.
When we explained to our waiter that we had already had some drinks at the bar and would just like some ice water, he didn't bother to remove our wine glasses (two of which were filthy). Instead, he simply shuffled them around the table to make room as the busboys dropped our appetizers. After we finished those — a lightly fried plate of asparagus frites ($8) and a bowl of creamed and truffled cauliflower soup ($7) — he removed the dishes but not our dirty silverware or small sharing plates.
When he wasn't exalting us with titles, he was stumbling over words, especially when it came to answering questions. When I asked him what the house cavatelli pasta was, he struggled to find a metaphor. "Yes, well... it's rectangular and long," he offered with a strained face. Not quite satisfied, I asked him if the pasta was hollow. "Yes!" he said as if he had just then made the discovery. "It is!"
It's not. Cavatelli, a flat piece of gnocchi-like pasta, is rolled over on itself to form something like a closed shell. Wild Olives' version is not only closed but it's also ribbed and tapered at the end. What the pieces of pasta most resemble are fat-bodied worms.