Is The Playground Overdoing the No-Modifications Thing? Maybe. Does It Matter? Probably Not.

Usually, the letters our mero-mero editero receives accuse us of
everything from low IQ to being in league with the devil for any of a whole litany of sins. Our music
critics are accused pretty much weekly of being tone-deaf, and anything we write about
politics guarantees angry letters from the sort of people who have
saliva stains down the fronts of their shirts (did you know I'm a
“hate-filled neocon”?). We're used to this kind of letters.

don't normally get sane people writing us to complain about restaurants,
though, like reader Louis did. It's worth replying to people who write us politely, and so I'll let him explain:

friends and I recently visited The Playground restaurant in Santa Ana,
. I was met with resistance when I requested oranges with my
drink. The manager explained they do not alter the menu in any way. I
explained my intent was not to change the menu but to merely have an
orange slice to accompany my drink. The manager said they would stand by
their word and would not fulfill my request. He also said we could go
to another restaurant if we liked. We decided to stay, and ordered some
appetizers. A short time later, our table was approached by a gentleman
wearing a chef's uniform. The gentleman angrily slammed his hands on the
table and stated “I'm the owner and I want you to leave”. He then
walked away from the table with no explanation. I have never experienced
this type of unprofessionalism from a business owner nor would I expect
this type of behavior in this situation. While I can respect their
perspective on food, I cannot respect their approach to customer


Dave responds:

Thanks for your letter, Louis. I'm glad you took the time to write, and thank you for not being rabidly angry, creepy, or demented. You touch on a subject we've discussed before: this isn't the first time this has happened, and you're not the first to report being thrown out by Quinn & Co.

Let's start with the beer: Jarred Dooley, the cicerone, does not put fruit in beer he serves. He's the official beer boffin, and Jason Quinn, the chef and owner, lets him decide how to serve beer. They don't give habaneros with habanero ales, they don't give lemons with hefeweizen, and they don't give oranges with stout. There are oranges, lemons and grapefruits behind the bar for use in sangria and other wine punches. Should they have lied and said they didn't have any?

According to Quinn–the man in the chef's coat who came to your table–you told your server you were going to write a negative Yelp review; that's most of what got you booted out. If you had already made up your mind to do so, why waste the time trying to change a mind that's already made up? Quinn views it as throwing good money after bad.

I'm not sure how much clearer The Playground could be about its policies. They're written on the menu; they're written on the blackboard that serves as the south wall of the dining room; they're communicated by the servers–ALL of the servers–when an attempt is made to customize the menu. The same goes for their 3% service charge to the kitchen; it's well-known and well advertised. Whether you can abide by the “house rules” is for you to decide.

I personally think Quinn could tread a slightly less dogmatic line about the policy without damaging his culinary integrity. It doesn't matter what I think, though: it isn't my restaurant. It isn't your restaurant, either, Louis, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Americans have taken wholeheartedly to the Burger King model, wherein diners can design their own food using a list of ingredients available in the kitchen. Don't like St.-Agur cheese? Substitute cheddar instead! Does mayonnaise make you turn green around the gills? Ask for ketchup instead of aïoli! When a restaurant refuses to allow customization, it's tempting to view it as egotism by the chef.

Is it, though?

Here is how ordering food works in other countries: you ask what is available, they tell you, and you pick the thing that pleases you most. There are no long and comprehensive lists of ingredients, no allergy warnings, and no optional tweaks. What you order is what they cook, and how they cook it is how you get it. If you don't like it, you are free to say so; The Playground is a lot more gracious about food sent back than, say, the Chinese restaurant in Irvine where I ended up telling the chef he had obviously taken knifework lessons from toddlers.

Since more people read this blog than The Playground's menu or wall, I'll do the restaurant a public service and tell would-be diners that the official restaurant policy is this: customers do not get to make additions, subtractions, customizations or rearrangements of the menu items. Dishes come as is. So do the beers. So, too, will the cocktails, once the full liquor license is complete and the cocktail program designed. Arguing is useless and will just lead to an escalation of emotions that will get you pitched out, hungry, thirsty and angry, on your ear.

If you cannot deal with a firm policy like that, it's probably best for both sides that you were sent away before you had spent any money. The policy will have one of two effects: either people will stop ordering modifications, or they will vote with their feet and the restaurant will close. Getting your blood pressure up about it isn't worth the effort.

Incidentally, I notice you didn't write a Yelp review–I hope you found someplace more to your liking for dinner.

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