Houston's Food Nazis

Some are curmudgeonly but intriguing. Others are just a bad trip to S&M land.

Sitting just inside Bibas is its owner of eight years, Louis Servos, an aged, gray-haired man who looks like a Greek Jimmy Carter. He, in stark contrast to John, is soft-spoken, almost shy.

"John is probably one of the few, few professional waiters left in the city," he says proudly while a table full of young Indian students bursts into laughter as John leans on one of their chairs, headlong into another lecture about who-knows-what. "That's all he's done, that's all he wants to do. He manages the store without him knowing it, but he doesn't want to be a manager. He's a waiter!"

Customers, Servos says, seldom complain about John. On the contrary, "He's off on Monday nights. Sometimes people come in, ask if he's here and leave when they find he isn't," he chuckles.

Doug Mac
Doug Mac

It's a feeling Servos can identify with, having been waited on by John at the now-closed Greek eatery Zorba's he used to frequent almost two decades ago. "John was the same way he is now, only back then he had a big handlebar mustache," he says, twiddling his fingers a few inches from both sides of his lips.

Back outside John ambles over to me and my table by the hedge and asks if I'm ready to order, exasperated.

"Another Corona," I reply.

"Watch out, my friend. Beer has a lot of cah-lor-eeys. It will make you fat," he says as he scans me from head to toe. "Too late for you, no?"

Let's make a quick distinction. There are differences, shades of gray that exist in food service that are worth mentioning here. A guy like John from Bibas, for example, is worlds away from a jerk waiter who doesn't seem to care whether or not you're satisfied. There is a difference between the situation Doozo is forced into and rude service for the sake of it.

When mentioning places with rude service, any number of Vietnamese restaurants will come up and, more often than not, Mai's (3403 Milam) will lead the pack.

Try eating at Mai's with a group of eight. Chances are someone in your party will refuse to suffer the indignities of eating there, a fact borne out on the popular Houston dining guide www.B4-U-EAT.com, whose users have flooded the site with service gripes.

"The service was terrible," quips anais77081. The owner "attacked my guests," claims Donito. "Seinfeld's soup nazi has trainees here," says Nancy.

Still other users defend the behavior, chalking up the whole thing to cultural misunderstanding.

An establishment that can't use a gap in culture as an excuse for its behavior is Late Nite Pie (502 Elgin).

Scott Barnett had eaten at Late Nite Pie a few times and, though the wait was sometimes absurd, never had any real complaints about service. That is, until one night in particular, when he went in with some friends.

"My friend Ryan ordered before me. Pizza by the slice is in a display window and Ryan ordered the last two pieces of pepperoni. I didn't think it was a big deal, so when I ordered, I got two pepperoni too," remembers Barnett.

This triggered the cashier's "smart ass" instinct.

"He said, 'What do you want me to do, pull them out of my ass?' " Barnett, livid, told the cashier he didn't appreciate the snark. "It is a pizza place. You can make more, can't you?"

Voices were raised, threats were made. Barnett took off. "I think if I saw the guy on the street somewhere I'd hurt him," he says, eyes looking left and upward in remembrance. "He had no reason to get so pissy with me."

And pissy's the thing. It's a question of delivery. Where John at Bibas might be able to get away with saying something like this (or worse) because of his good nature, generally, such a line, delivered with a scowl, is meant as it's implied.

Late Nite Pie manager John Allen agrees that, given the right set of circumstances, he and the staff might come off as brash.

"You might get a smart-ass remark if you play 'Freebird' on the jukebox," he says. Such affronts aren't to be taken personally. "The atmosphere of the restaurant is, it's a late-night place. You deal with a lot of drunks. You have to have a bartender's mentality more so than a waiter's mentality most of the time."

And sometimes bartenders, not working with customers with all their faculties, can be, say, direct.

"Yeah, a little bit. You don't give shitty service to people on purpose, but when drunk people come in, you can play with them. Also, we run the place on a skeleton crew. It gets pretty hectic. In a few minutes I'll be here by myself to make pizzas, answer phones, bus tables," Allen says, sounding surprisingly at ease. "I don't mind it; it makes the time go faster."

And with that, Allen must hang up to answer the other line he's been ignoring.

Giving some helpless sap something they didn't order, pushing them hurriedly through a line, refusing to refill their drinks lest they become overcaffeinated, these are not the images that dance about in people's heads when they think of Southern hospitality or food service in the fourth-largest city in the United States.

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