The Southern: Off the Rails?

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With even the best restaurants suffering through the occasional off night, an underwhelming visit on a single occasion needn’t be disqualifying. But restaurants that are relatively new and expensive ought to be consistently on their game during the critical first-impression phase where reputations and repeat business are built. Surely owner Tom Morales and chef Matt Farley, the experienced hands behind The Southern (which opened in the Pinnacle building downtown in April), know this — which makes the service disaster that was our dinner experience there Saturday all the more perplexing.

Granted, at night's end the restaurant's response was commendable, and the way a restaurant handles dissatisfied customers is one forecast of its ultimate success. Most everything up to that point, however, had been the opposite of Southern comfort.

The capital crime of the evening was food that arrived cold — three of four entrees at the table. Fish and grits featuring cold grits. The custom cut steak with cold fries. The filet with cold whipped potatoes and cold fried onions. When the staff was alerted, plates were whisked away for a redo with the appropriate apology — and then returned 10-15 minutes later with astounding results. The setup for the filet — again and still cold. The custom cut steak somewhat warmer, but only warm — ordered medium rare yet served essentially raw. And the fish and grits obviously the same plate of food warmed over. (We watched a solo diner at the next table over go through essentially the same dance.)

Some observations about how the front of the house operates:

- When a table orders cocktails and also puts in an order for starters, you don’t bring the starters before the cocktails.

- When a table orders a bottle of wine to go with entrees, you don’t bring the wine five minutes after the entrees (did I mention they were cold?) are served. Actually, the waiter first had to come back to ask us again which bottle we had ordered, that question posed after entrees were already on the table.

- When diners who are already unhappy because they sent food back to the kitchen suggest you could pacify them in the meantime by bringing a few more of those fabulous (and they are fabulous) white cheddar biscuit-roll things, they shouldn’t have to make that suggestion three times. We never did get any more biscuits.

- At a restaurant with some entrĂ©e prices that begin with a 4, diners should not have to summon staff to get silverware and water refills. And the question “Do you want to keep that [already used and dirty] fork?” should be banished.

It felt like a systemic failure, which hardly fits with the place’s Morales-Farley DNA. It’s worth mentioning, however, that when the bill arrived, the restaurant to its credit had removed pretty much all food from the bill.

Our waiter was clearly chagrined and apologetic, although the manager we connected with after the second round of cold food seemed hassled and uninterested in petty matters like unhappy customers. At one point I asked the server if they were understaffed this evening, and he said no. Plus there were some empty tables, so we can’t chalk it up to an overbooked frenzy kind of evening.

Finally, alas, you might want to bring your own hand towels, since (forgive me for piling on here) nobody apparently is paying attention to whether or not the restrooms have any. Nifty "sink," though.

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Update: Since this post appeared, I have been contacted directly by The Southern's management, conveying an apology for the experience and inviting me back for another visit on their dime. I declined the on-their-dime part in deference to the Scene's standard practice of paying for restaurant meals, but I appreciate the offer and I certainly will be back.

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