Steakhouses are institutions where the true Bon Vivant’s of food congregate. Many are renowned for luxurious food, stunning service, and upper class clientelle. Of course, when meals can cost several hundred dollars you’re going to be weeding out a portion of people who may not be able or willing to pay such prices, at least in theory.
Our story begins with a waiter in one of these opulent palaces serving rich clientele. It takes place in the mid 90s and this particular steakhouse had been booming for decades. It was prom season and the castle of carnivores was metaphorically on fire, but it was about to get a lot more heated.
This is from those distant, mist-veiled days of the mid-’90s, but it was when I was still serving. I don’t often get to tell this story, but it’s one of my favorites from that part of my life.
So I worked at a local steakhouse which was an institution back home. It had been there for 25 years by the time I started working there, and we often saw kids come in for prom whose own parents had done the same when they were in high school. (I feel certain that most non-Americans are familiar with prom thanks to films, but for those who aren’t prom is typically a big dance to celebrate the end of the school year. It’s generally organized by, and is often restricted to, those in the final two years of high school—students aged 17 or 18, for the most part.) During prom season, things were crazy for a couple of consecutive weekends. Adults who would have liked to grab themselves a free meal or six would sometimes decide to take advantage of the general chaos of prom season as a means of helping them do so. I had had a couple of checks walked over the years, but never at that restaurant. I was vigilant. (Having to cover a $200 check that didn’t get paid acts as a great motivator never to allow that to happen again. [Edit: I see from several comments that this makes it seem as though I had been required previously by this restaurant to cover a walked check. That happened at my first waiting job, at a corporate chain. No one who worked at this restaurant was ever required to cover a customer’s theft. Apologies for the confusion.]) No one had ever tried as brazenly as the couple I’m about to tell you about, though. Before we get too far into the story, though, it’s important to describe the set-up of the restaurant itself. It matters to the story.
At this restaurant, one walked in the front doors directly to the host station. From there, guests could either walk straight ahead to the bar, or if they were arriving for their reservation on time we would lead them down a long hallway to their left. This hallway ran nearly the length of the building, minus the bar, and branched off into four separate dining rooms. At the far end of the hallway to one side was the entrance to the kitchen. Both sides of the hall were lined from one end to the other with our wine selection—reds and ports to the right, whites and sparkling to the left. So this was not the sort of place where one might run without attracting lots of attention, to say the least. Now, to the story.
I was working a station in the dining room at the far end of the hall on the right, so when I walked out of the back of the house I couldn’t see my station without physically walking into the room, and I couldn’t see the two-top without turning my head. It wasn’t our biggest station. I didn’t have the seniority for that, but it was a decent four-table station which included two six-tops, a four-top, and a two-top. The couple—both relatively attractive, well-dressed, and I guessed about 10 years older than I was—who star in this story were sat at the two-top. They weren’t especially demanding. In fact, they had been downright patient considering I had sixteen dolled up teens at my other three tables.
I was a strong server and knew how to control my tables without it being obvious or off-putting, which is why I had that job in the first place, so even with my station filled as it had been that night I was busy but hardly overwhelmed. (We had great support staff, as well.) After showing up at my table with cocktails in hand (not unusual but they were added to the check I handed guests unless they settle up at the bar before being seated in the dining room), ordering starters, a couple more cocktails, entrees with a bottle of decent red, dessert, a bottle of port, and coffee, they waited until just before I had to bring separate checks (yes, we let the prom kids do that even though we didn’t allow anyone else to do it for more than a single split and never for any table larger than a four-top) for my two six-tops and asked if they could get their check before I had to take care of that task. Of course, I obliged since I had their check ready to go. I thanked them for coming and told them I hoped to see them again soon. Then, I stepped out of the room and into the kitchen. That’s when they decided to strike, and it’s also when they clearly showed that they had not familiarized themselves with our procedures.
Take note for a moment that I said I needed to bring separate checks, not that I needed to prepare separate checks. We had a cashier who sat right up front by the door (like I said, old school place). They had to walk right past her to get to their table. Everyone did. She wasn’t exactly conspicuous, but one wouldn’t need to turn one’s head to see her either. Except, it seems they had either missed her being there or they simply didn’t put things together. You see, the entire time I worked there, I never once prepared a check of my own. I put in the order to the kitchen, but when it was time for a check I would drop the order ticket on her counter. She made certain that everything was correct, printed up a check, placed it in a booklet, and put the booklet in the rack for that particular station. We would see our number light up above the kitchen entrance to let us know it was ready. That couple had camped a bit, which had given me a chance to get ahead of things, and that was their ultimate undoing.
As mentioned, I popped into the kitchen, and they clearly took note of which direction I turned. They then waited a moment to begin casually strolling out. When I stepped back out of the kitchen a moment after that, I just caught sight of them turning the corner to walk out of the place. There was no indication that my separate checks were ready, so I walked over to my section and the second I saw the table I had a strong feeling something was wrong. The booklet with their check was on the table exactly where and how I had left it. That’s not necessarily a guarantee that they had ignored it, but they would have had to leave cash since I hadn’t taken a card from them. Sure enough, he had done nothing more than write, “Too bad. So sad.” on the check with a frowny face. I scooped up the booklet, dropped it in my apron pocket, and started speed-walking down the hall toward the front door. As I was passing the cashier, I noticed that the manager, Vernon, was right there and quietly told him a check was walking right that second as I was cruising past. Like I said, this is the sort of place where one does not run, and even a speed-walk is going to attract some attention. Vernon signaled that he understood and I kept right on cruising out the door just in time to see them waiting at the valet station. (We didn’t normally valet, but prom season didn’t result in as many limo rentals back then and parking got scarce quickly.)
The moment I saw them I said, “Excuse me, sir.” He ignored me. I spoke a little louder still walking toward them. He still ignored me. I hadn’t said anything about the check up until then. It’s unlikely that someone could walk a check by accident, but we at least had to pretend that was a possibility. After the second time of being ignored, and just as their new, red Mercedes pulled up, I said quite loudly, “Excuse me, sir, but you neglected to pay your check!” He never turned toward me despite the fact that I was getting close, but he said something to his companion as he held open her door, who giggled as she seated herself, and walked around to get into his car. His companion couldn’t stop herself from looking a bit flustered, and we briefly made eye contact. I knew what was up, but she had no idea what I was about to do.
As my fellow servers can attest, the last thing one wants to do is fuck with a server when the solution to such fuckery requires nothing more than pen and paper. Servers always have both. I also generally kept a fat Sharpie in my apron pocket, as well. Never know when you might need one, and I had just found the time. So I walked about 10 feet in front of their car—still on the curb because a walked check isn’t worth dying for, for fuck’s sake—whipped out my Sharpie and pad, jotted down his tag number in big characters, and looked up just in time to see him put his car in gear and give me the biggest shit-eating grin he could possibly muster. I just held up my pad and slowly tapped it with the back end of my Sharpie as he passed me. That grin didn’t last. He stopped a few feet past me, and I walked up to his window. He didn’t roll it down, so I just leaned over and said loudly, “You can either deal with us or the police. Your choice.” He put the car in park, glared at me from the other side of the glass, and started to get out. I got the feeling he was going to try to intimidate me, but he never got the chance. Just at that moment, Vernon walks up and who’s walking right behind him but the owner.
Now, even on a busy night, I knew when the owner was on site. We all liked Mr. Ross. He chose us, personally, as his wait staff, and he always had our backs. He took care of his, and when he was around for a service he would come chat with us individually, just catching up. So I was surprised to see him.
He walked up to me nonchalantly and said, “Hi, jshubbub. How is your service going this evening? Everything good?” I was a little unsure of where he was going, but I played along by replying, “Everything has been great until just a moment ago.” Mr. Ross, clearly play-acting at this point, looked taken aback and asked what the matter could possibly be. I simply nodded toward the guy trying quite unsuccessfully to look as though he was being severely put upon and said, “This gentleman had an issue with his bill.” Then I excused myself to go back to my tables, but Mr. Ross stopped me, told me they were being seen to, and asked me what I meant. The guy decided that then was the time to make his play, but Mr. Ross simply held up his hand to indicate to him that he should probably hold his tongue without looking away from me and asked me to explain. I did.
Mr. Ross took a beat as though he was considering matters, and then he turned to the guy who clearly expected to be given the opportunity to give a different story. Instead, Mr. Ross asked, “Was something wrong with your meals?” The man answered quickly, “No.” Before he could say anything else, Mr. Ross asked, “Was something wrong with our service?” The man answered even more quickly, “No, but I received an emergency call and we left without realizing we hadn’t paid our bill yet. I was just going to explain the situation to jshubbub, but he started threatening to call the police before I could.” It was odd to hear about the call because, as mentioned, this was the mid-’90s. Mobile phones weren’t small at that point. If they weren’t hard-wired into your vehicle then they had to be carried around in a shoulder bag that looked as though you were planning to order a nuclear strike. They were quite uncommon and enormous, and if he had taken a call on a mobile phone at his table then it would certainly have been noticed. Hell, even if he hadn’t received a call, the phone would have been noticed. It had not been.
Mr. Ross, just reeling out the rope this guy was hanging himself with as fast as he possibly could, innocently asked, “You received an emergency call on our phone?” The man said no, but he didn’t elaborate. In fact, he clammed up. Everyone there knew he had taken that fateful step too far by lying about a phone call, but Mr. Ross wasn’t letting up. Rather than carrying on with another leading question, Mr. Ross kept looking the guy in the face without saying a word. Just letting the guy stew in it until it was clear that the beads of perspiration on his forehead were not, in fact, due to the warm evening. It was then that I remembered that I had the guy’s check in my apron pocket. I had been so fascinated by what was unfolding in front of me that it hadn’t occurred to me until right then.
I pulled the booklet out of my pocket, opened it, and handed it over to Mr. Ross. He looked it over carefully, and you could see the look of panic start to creep over check walker’s face. Finally, the guy can’t take it any longer and admits that they had walked out without paying, but he claimed to have done it because he had forgotten his wallet and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of his date. Mr. Ross gave him another long look, glances back down at the check, reads out loud “Too bad. So sad.”, and just as the guy decided he needed to say something in reply Mr. Ross jumped in and said, “You do know that if I call the police, and it turns out that you have the means to pay your bill in your possession, things are going to go very badly for you, right? I will press charges, and I will see that you’re prosecuted. I’ll make time for it.”
At that point, the guy knew he was caught, but you could still see him trying to come up with a way out. Then I heard the weariest voice I had ever encountered up to then in my still relatively young life as the woman in the car said, “Just pay the goddamn bill. I’m ready to go home.” We all looked over at the car, then back to each other, and the guy reached into his jacket pocket to pull out his wallet. Mr. Ross, however, stopped him as he began to open it. “Your check comes to $304.77.” (Yes, I still remember it. That comes to just over $508 in today’s money.) Then he went on, “You will pay your bill in full, right now, and you will tip jshubbub 20%. That is non-negotiable.” Check walker gets a look on his face and says, “I’ve only got hundreds.” Mr. Ross let out an actual laugh, turned to me, and said, “jshubbub, it looks like you’re getting more than 20% on this check.” The walker clearly did not like this turn of events, but he was screwed. He pulled out four $100 bills and handed them over to Mr. Ross. He thought Mr. Ross was done with him. So did I. We were wrong. Mr. Ross stopped the man before he could get back into his car and said, “We’re not finished.”
Mr. Ross then pulled a damn loupe out of his pocket, along with a pen light. He handed the light to Vernon and told him exactly how to hold it. Then he set about closely examining the bills very seriously. After carefully checking each of them, he tucked the loupe in his pocket, took the pin light from Vernon, put it in his shirt pocket quite deliberately, and turned his attention back to our check walker. He gave him the beat he had been using to torment the poor bastard since the whole thing began and then said, “All right. We’re done, but you are not welcome here again. I don’t want your business. I don’t want your family’s business. I don’t want your friends’ business. If you return, I will have you arrested for trespassing. I have a photographic memory, and I will remember you.” (He really did. It was uncanny.) Mr. Ross didn’t get a response so he asked, “Do you understand?” The guy said he did. Mr. Ross then leaned down to speak to the woman in the car and asked her if she understood. She said she did. Mr. Ross told them to leave immediately, and we watched them go.
Mr. Ross told me later that his father had been a banker who insisted that his son learn the business. Apparently, by the time he was 10 his father would have him at the bank every day during school breaks, and he would require Mr. Ross to confirm the authenticity of bills until he got better at it than his father’s employees. (Banking was different back in the day.) He also admitted that he didn’t need to check the bills as long as he did. He knew immediately that they were authentic, but he had no problem fucking with people who tried to steal from him.