When a friend wanted to meet for a late-evening bite to eat and some beers in the neighborhood last Friday night, I immediately suggested Royal Oak Bar & Grill (1318 Westheimer, 281-974-4752). The former home of Bartini had recently been converted into what I'd heard was a cute whiskey bar with good beer and good food. I was eager to check it out.
I can tell you that the interior is cute. I loved the dark booths, the cheekily elegant decor and the soaring ceiling with its grand centerpiece: an enormous chandelier made entirely of antlers. I can't tell you anything about the food, however, because despite the bar being half full and waiting for 25 minutes, no one ever bothered to wait on our table.
The other tables in the bar, however, had no problem getting any service. What could have happened? Why was just our table ignored, as if we were lepers dropping various body parts as we limped our way to some seats?
That question I can't answer. I can only give my version of what happened on Friday night.
My friend and I were both well dressed, I in a dress and tights, she in jeans and knee-high boots. We were polite and smiled as we tried to get the attention of the three waiters that were rotating throughout the main room on the first floor. We even successfully got one waiter to bring us a pair of menus.
He snapped them rudely down onto the table without saying a word or even making eye contact with us, then walked off. He never came back by the table. He never let any of the other waiters know that a table was in need of service. We watched them carry drinks and dishes to every other table around us, tables that were filled with people that looked as if they had come straight in off Washington Avenue. My friend and I instantly got the feeling that we did not fit in here.
Those tables got bottles of wine, glasses of beer, shots of Jaeger. They got plates of stuffed jalapenos. Pizzas. Burgers. All of the food looked very good.
Meanwhile, the waiters huddled together by the POS system mounted to one wall, stopping their chit-chat only when a plate of food or a tray of drinks came up. At the other tables, immaculately coiffed women in stilettos and men in business attire ate and drank happily as we continued to sit alone, ignored. Waiters refused to make eye contact, and it was almost too loud for them to hear us. I certainly wasn't going to grab one by the arm and manhandle them.
My friend and I were utterly confused by this point. Were we supposed to order at the bar? If so, why were all these other tables around us getting full service? As a measure of last resort, we walked up to the bar and found the manager.
"I'm sorry," I said, in my nicest voice possible (although my inner bitch was straining -- hard -- to get out by this time). "But are we supposed to order at the bar? We're sitting at that table, and I just wanted to make sure." I pointed at our pub table, now empty except for the two unused menus.
"Yeah," came his laconic reply.
"Oh, okay..." I gathered myself. "Because we've been waiting for over 20 minutes now and no one has waited on us." I smiled meekly.
"Oh. Well I'll send someone over." Nothing on his face registered any kind of apologetic feelings toward us. And then I got mad.
"No, that won't be necessary," I replied, shortly. "We're just going to leave."
He finally snapped to. "Oh, no, wait!" he sputtered. "Just go sit down and I'll send someone over." No apology. No "I'm sorry." Just a slightly agitated demand for us to go take our seats again. To be ignored some more? To have a waiter that's now irritated at us wait on us, huffing all the way through dinner?
"That's not necessary. We're leaving," I reiterated.
And so we did. The manager never bothered to apologize. Never tried to make any amends whatsoever. But that's okay. We ended up in the comfortable confines of Rudyard's, with a Fireman's #4 in one hand and some fish and chips in the other. It's not the best food in the world, but at least you can actually get someone to take your order there.
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The next day, I browsed through some reviews of Royal Oak on Yelp and was both relieved and aggravated to see that my friend and I weren't the only ones to have received this treatment at the place. It took me back to the complaint I'd made last night. Even Ricky Craig, owner of Hubcap Grill, chimed in with a similar complaint of his own. Is this what's becoming of Lower Westheimer?
And that's what bothers me most about Royal Oak. This bar and grill is from the same owners of Boondocks, people who ostensibly know Montrose and respect the vibe in our neighborhood. It's casual, laid back, unpretentious and takes all comers.
In other words, all the things that Royal Oak was not on Friday night.
So here's the question: Should Royal Oak be given the benefit of the doubt, considering that it's only been open a few months and could, understandably, still be experiencing service jitters? Or is this the new face of Lower Westheimer, and should we all seek shelter in places like Catbird's while we still can?