Let’s get one thing straight at the beginning, before we examine The Little Lion, the astoundingly amateurish restaurant in Philadelphia that, if out-of-towners visit it in any sort of numbers during this, our tourist high-season—or, worse, if delegates visit it during the Democratic National Convention, and then go home to their far-flung locales across this glorious continent-spanning nation of ours, to Dubuque, to Peoria, to Buffalo and Daytona Beach and Reno and Waco and any of the thousand-and-one Springfields dotting the land like so many freckles on a ginger’s cheeks—could single-handedly undo the sterling reputation we’ve so justifiably earned over the past several years as one of America’s top towns to eat in.
So here we go, the one thing we need to get straight at the beginning: The customer is not always right.
Now, I know that this flies in the face of so much received wisdom in the restaurant business, but there are, indeed, times where then customer is just plain wrong. My favorite example is in Marc Vetri’s 2014 column for the Huffington Post about his experience with gluten-phobes (not people suffering from Celiac disease, which is serious and frightening) at his flagship eponymous restaurant, and the guest of his who proclaimed throughout the meal that she was unable to consume gluten—which she also insanely believed was contained in risotto, which it’s not—yet ended her repast with a beer. That customer? She’s not right.
Or the big spender with the barely hidden inferiority complex who keeps on sending back bottles of wine after tasting them because they’re “corked” when, in actuality, they’re not, and he’s just showing off for his friends at the table in some sort of delusional power play. That customer? He’s not right.
But this customer (i.e., me)? I’m not those people. I know how hard restaurant work is. I respect the heck out of the people, front and back of the house alike, who labor to create a memorable experience. A great restaurant is like a ballet, and the servers and chefs and line cooks and managers all have to play the role of choreographer and dancer and member of the pit orchestra, at the same time! So, no: I’m not a restaurant ball-breaker. And I don’t go in expecting perfection with every meal, for every morsel of food to change my life and give me religion, to remind me of the jolt of electricity the first time I locked eyes with the woman who would one day become my wife and the mother of my daughters, or the joy I feel when, that inevitable autumn Saturday every year, I happen to flip the channel to The Godfather on TV and joyously, unexpectedly fall down the rabbit-hole of the Corleone family saga.
Most of the time, I just want a good meal, solid service, and a drink or two.
What I got at The Little Lion was insulted, questioned, and, tacitly, informed that my salad greens come from a bag that’s delivered from a warehouse.
It all started out pleasantly enough. My wife and I were out with good friends on Saturday evening for what we hoped would be a nice meal before seeing The Alabama Shakes at the BB&T Center in Camden, NJ. Drinks were ordered and they arrived without too much of a wait—which seemed about right, as the restaurant was bustling but far from packed. My cocktail, an underwhelming glass far too lacking in acid to possess any energy whatsoever, was forgettable but not actively unpleasant: The “Sleepless in Seattle” of drinks. Fried green tomatoes were so overloaded with stuff—ranch, pimento cheese, bacon tomato jam—that the ostensible anchor of it all (you know, the tomato) got lost. BBQ chicken thigh sliders were cloyingly sweet enough that even the sad little slices of bread-and-butter pickles couldn’t perk them up. (Also, can we please have a national moratorium on (a) sliders, which are about as exciting these days as reruns of old Oscar ceremony acceptance speeches by actors we don’t know who starred in movies that are no longer relevant, and (b) calling every piece of protein that’s slathered with some sort of sweet-smoky sauce “BBQ?” Because it’s not, and it never will be, and it does a disservice to real barbecue, one of America’s great contributions to global culinary culture. This means you too, weekend grillers across this land: Just because you throw some meat on a grill and slather it with Sweet Baby Ray’s or some other excuse to consume high fructose corn syrup doesn’t make it BBQ. It just makes it overly sweet protein, probably overcooked, on a grill.)
But back to The Diminutive Jungle Cat.
Char-grilled oysters reposed, desultory and flaccid, beneath a barely crunchy crown of bread crumbs, shallots, parmesan, garlic, and lemon. Roasted heritage carrots were inexplicably watery and thoroughly devoid of perceptible seasoning.
And then the Kale Caesar Incident happened.
My wife ordered a dish listed on the menu as, well, Kale Caesar. What arrived was a salad based on spinach, with nary a leaf of kale in sight. When our server came over to check on us—and she was excellent, a friendly, kind person who deserves to work at a far better restaurant than The Sad Kitty—I mentioned that it would have been nice to be told beforehand that the kale was being substituted with spinach in the salad. She apologized, went back to find out what had happened, and, a few minutes later, our table was beset by a manager with all the charm of Donald Trump on a bad day whose opening gambit was something along these lines: Is this the table with the kale problem?
That’s not verbatim, because I wasn’t taking notes at the table, but it’s close, and certainly hews closely to the nib of what she was saying: That I am an idiot, incapable of discerning the difference between spinach and kale—which have about as much in common, both aesthetically and from a flavor-and-texture standpoint, as, say, a great dram of single malt Scotch whisky and, I don’t know, licking the leg of a rocking chair.
I didn’t want to argue, and my wife had already begun kicking my shin under the table—apparently she saw that Lou Ferrigno look in my eyes, though at 156 pounds, I’m not likely to go all Incredible Hulk on anyone anytime soon—but there was no way I could let that slide. It’s spinach, I said. I mean, I know the difference between kale and spinach.
This mind-bogglingly tone deaf manager could have ended it right then and there by apologizing again, offering to bring a different appetizer, and admitting to the error. Instead, she told me that she’d been back to the kitchen, seen the bag from which the greens came, and it was labeled as kale. So maybe, she proceeded, it was a mixup at the warehouse. It was at this point that I told her that maybe she didn’t want to let her guests know that their food is delivered by a truck carrying goods from a warehouse. I don’t need all of my ingredients to come directly from the farm, and I’m not some delusional hipster with a militant farm-to-table streak who believes that those practices are always feasible or affordable. But here’s the thing: Don’t evoke images of the truck backing up to the loading dock when a guest is consuming a $9 salad.
At this point my wife had shattered both my tibia and fibula bones into a thousand pieces each with her jack-hammer kicking under the table, so I ended the conversation. A few minutes later, another emissary from Planet Tiny Pussycat approached the table…but again, the lack of empathy or (I have to make up a word here) apologosity was stunning. He did apologize, but it was the kind that I offer the Missus when I know I’m wrong but don’t want to admit it. He said he’d take the salad off our bill and then asked what else he could do. I said that maybe, since entrees had been delivered several minutes prior to his tableside visitation and appetizers had not yet been cleared in their entirety and my fork had never been replaced, that he could arrange to get me one. Oh, he said. Your server should have done that, but she’s in the back really upset about this whole salad thing.
Tacit translation: I should feel badly for having put her in such a state.
Also: That the emotional distress of a single server, when there are plenty of other front-of-house folks working the room who seem to be feeling fine, any one of whom should have seen the lack of adequate utensils or plate-based real estate, is justification for not giving me the tools I need to consume my cole slaw (interestingly enough, the best part of the meal.)
By the point, there was no way our meal could have been rescued. Jon Stewart himself could have walked into the restaurant, sat at our table, and regaled our table with his take on the Republican National Convention the week before, and then offered us use of his private helicopter to fly to Camden instead of dealing with the ferry, and still it all would have been a lost cause.
So after working our way through the rest of the meal (and I do mean working, because the food we were served was far from pleasurable, including the ho-hum ribs and their accompanying starch-bomb fries and the mac and cheese that, to anthropormophize that pasta, would get its ass kicked by just about every other mac and cheese preparation at the Pasta Valley Elementary School recess yard) we just asked for the check. When it arrived, the offending salad was comped, as was one of my beers. The remaining bill, for four of us, post-tax and pre-gratuity, was $137.43.
I’ve never before spent so much money in exchange for so little pleasure. But that’s not what concerns me. What does cause my food antennae to start twitching is the cynicism of the management of The Little Lion, as well as the sub-par excecution of the food that I experienced. As someone who’s deeply proud of our city’s food culture, I am painfully aware that this place is a throwback to a different time Philadelphia’s food life, a less joyous time. It’s not who we are now. It’s not any of the other remarkable restaurants throughout the city that, without question, are the equal of their counterparts in New York and Paris and Los Angeles and Rome and Buenos Aires and beyond. It’s just a sad little lion, desperately in need of some guidance. Or perhaps even a time-out.