Readers Dish: Tales of Dining Out—A Mouthy Waitress, the Thunderbolt Salad, and the Operatic Mama

Dining out is one of life’s great pleasures . . . for the most part, anyway. When things go awry—a planter suddenly drops onto your head, an aging belly dancer shimmies up while you’re eating, or an Armenian musician obliges you to get up and dance—it might put a little dent in your gustatory pleasure. On the bright side, though, what a tale you can tell!

Thanks to all the voters in our annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant Contest who shared their memorable anecdotes about eating out. And congratulations to Cadry Nelson for the winning story!


Dancing the Night Away

When my husband and I visited an Armenian restaurant one Friday night, we thought we’d wandered into someone’s wedding reception. There were loads of families around long, elegant tables and even a musician singing romantic songs. The host told us that it wasn’t a wedding, they were just offering live music on Friday nights.

As luck would have it, the host sat us next to the musician. He was singing Armenian songs, but after we ordered he dedicated a song to us and encouraged us to dance. We felt a little peculiar. No one else was dancing, but we didn’t want to offend him. So we danced and sat down. My husband tipped him. And then a couple of songs later, he dedicated a song to us again, and again encouraged us to dance. A few songs later—the same thing. And before long it was feeling like quite a workout, and an expensive one at that.

Then he began a very festive Armenian song, and everyone from the other tables—old men to young children—excitedly got up to dance. We were timid at first, but the other restaurant-goers taught us the moves as we went along. Soon we were waving, spinning in circles, and kicking.

I don’t know if the musician was a friendly guy or just looking for some creative ways to get tips, but we ended up having quite a lot of fun that night and danced off any of the calories we ate. Still, after that, we remembered that if we were going to that restaurant on a Friday night, we should be prepared to dance for our supper.   —Cadry Nelson, Iowa City

No Electricity? No Problem!

I was eating at Top of the Rock in Fairfield when the power suddenly went out. The whole block had experienced a blackout. We had already placed our order, and we weren’t sure what to do. The staff was efficient and friendly. They added more candles, got some flashlights, and continued to prepare food. Thank goodness for gas stoves! They worked like crazy to make sure our meal was still enjoyable, even in the dark. It turned out to be a very fun evening, and I’ll never forget how hard the staff worked to be flexible problem-solvers.     —Tena Nelson, Fairfield

Frequent Diner

A few weeks after the Augusta opened, [owner] Jeri called me on a snowy winter afternoon to tell me that, due to the blizzard, they were going to go home after brunch so she didn’t want me to come down assuming they’d be open. Since I didn’t have a reservation, I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or honored. That tells you how many times I frequented their restaurant during its first months.   —Lynn Conway, Oxford

Where’s That Gas Station?

I had just completed grad school. It was the autumn of 2009. My fiancée (now wife) had invited her mother to visit Fairfield for the weekend. On the way to town, her mother experienced car trouble and left her Beetle at a gas station in Washington. When I arrived home from a long day of teaching at the high school, my wife informed me that we needed to go to Washington to pick up the car. Feeling stressed, I got in the car and dozed in and out of sleep as we made the journey to Washington.

As we drove into the outskirts of town, I questioned why we hadn’t stopped at the station where the car was being fixed. My wife said it was actually at a different station. I wasn’t paying close attention at that point, so a few minutes later I barely noticed when we pulled onto the square and parked outside of Cafe Dodici—one of my most favorite restaurants. Finally, it all made sense. There was never car trouble. There were no required trips to a Washington gas station. I was being treated to a lovely, celebratory evening. The meal was marvelous and [owner] Lorraine even treated us to some wine through her unique decanter.

Although I’ve had many memorable meals there (Valentine’s, anniversaries of friends, just for fun), that has always remained a favorite. On a side note, my wife nearly cried the whole time because she doesn’t like to lie. That’s pretty funny in and of itself. —Kevin Hosbond, Fairfield

The Unexpected Guest

We were having an early supper at a national Italian chain after shopping all day. We were enjoying the Chicken Marsala when a spider the size of a dime dropped down in front of me at eye level. We stared one another down for a split second before I let out a blood-curdling scream—all the wait staff came running, diners around us froze, and my sister killed the spider. My heart stopped beating out of my chest and the embarrassment subsided. For my misery and my sister’s heroic deed, we were rewarded with four desserts on the house. —Dianne Panek, West Burlington

Losing My Marble

On my first date with my now husband, he took me to Regina’s in Fairfield (now Vivo). Somehow, a corner of the marble table ending up breaking off during the date. I put the piece in my purse, as we had a friend that was studying geology and we joked that we would send it to him to see if he really knew his stuff. It sat around my apartment for several months, and I never noticed that it went missing. That year I received it for Christmas, perfectly polished and shaped into a necklace pendant so that I would always have a memento from our first date. —Ashley Manning, Fairfield

Baby Doll

My first meal out after having my son was at Atlas in Iowa City. Rex was sleeping so peacefully in my arms that everyone thought he was one of those fake dolls used to teach high schoolers about babies. —Sarah Juhl Halsrud, Tiffin

The Great Escape

My husband and I, on a mission to be adults, made a narrow escape from the kids to go to Williamsburg to shop. On the way home we remembered hearing about Augusta, and were able to walk in 40 minutes before closing and receive fabulous service and wonderful food. It was cozy and romantic and welcoming. We loved it so much we snuck away again the next weekend to do brunch, and once again we were not disappointed. I think from now on when we need to have a little getaway, it will be to the taste of Augusta and the New Orleans style. —Kim Geerdes Hastings, Iowa City

Jelly Belly

Many years ago my brother and I visited a new vegetarian restaurant in Las Vegas called Food for Thought. We soon discovered that the restaurant’s claim to fame wasn’t its food but its over-the-hill belly dancer, who would shimmy her flagrant belly up and down the aisles while we were trying to digest our food. When she saw that we were paying more attention to our food than to her, she parked herself in front of our table and stepped up her annoying gyrations at warp speed. She was determined to get a reaction from us, but we were equally determined to ignore her. Thankfully, the canned music eventually stopped, and she was forced to retreat and leave us in peace. —Jim Fairchild, Fairfield

Heads Up!

My daughter, husband, and I picked my son up from work at the then-new mall in Coralville. We stopped at a newly opened restaurant to get dessert.While waiting, a plant basket overhead fell and landed on my husband’s head, dirt and plant everywhere. The waiter, horrified, asked my husband if he was okay, and he said, “Yes, luckily it hit me in the head.” We laughed. The waiter returned to check to make sure, and husb said, “Did I mention my wife was an attorney?” Husb was fine, teasing the waiter. I am a lawyer, though, and the waiter returned with the manager and insisted on paying for the meal. We all laughed, and my daughter said, “Guess we should have ordered more than dessert!” —Julie Gilmere, Washington

Celebrity Crush

I was a waiter in Los Angeles for 18 years. I waited on so many celebrities, I’ve lost count. I once waited on Paul Stanley (lead singer of KISS). As I was approaching the table, I was imagining him in his make-up, the big boots, the girls, the rock star life. When I got there, he was reprimanding his son for eating too much bread before dinner. A typical dad. There went my impression of the rock star life.

Kelsey Grammar once had me sit at his table and share some wine. I bought George Carlin lunch. I said, “Thanks for making me laugh all those years!” He was truly moved.

I worked at a seaside restaurant on the deck. I was trying to read the computer in the sun when a huge shadow blocked the sun out. I turned around and there stood Shaq. He was like a mountain.

I was once reciting the specials to Cindy Crawford. She looked up with those brown eyes and I couldn’t remember the words. I don’t think I was the first guy it ever happened to with her.

I was waiting on two girls from New Jersey. They asked me if any celebrities ever came in. I wouldn’t dare tell them that Bruce Springsteen was only two tables over. He had a hat over his eyes, incognito.

Anyway, they’re all just real people, they like to eat, too. I tried to treat them just like every other customer, and I think they appreciated it. —David Patterson, Fairfield

Keepin’ Cool Around Ashton & Demi

I helped fill in one night as a bartender at the Augusta, and coincidentally, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore stopped in and ate with their family. Out of sheer excitement, I wanted to turn to Facebook and post about being so close to such great celebrities. Jeri (owner) looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare, they are treated like anyone else.” Out of sheer fear, I looked at her and agreed, because she wants everyone to be treated fairly and have the same experience.

The owners, Jeri and Ben Halperin, are absolutely amazing people who want everyone to share in the same normal experience of New Orleans cuisine. I could not ask for a better place to sit down and eat. Everyone remembers your name, face, and makes you feel welcomed every time.       —Amy Ellis, Oxford

Say “Adios” in Chinese

We always love the familial atmosphere at Family Buffet in Fairfield, and recently one of the workers, named Rex, took a liking to our kids. Our kids grew up in Costa Rica, and told Rex that they speak Spanish and English, but are just learning some Chinese. He spoke a little Spanish. They went back and forth teaching each other phrases in Spanish and Chinese, and we got pretty funny looks as our children were calling out “Adios” to the Chinese restaurant workers on the way out the door. The whole place was smiling. —Scott Timm, Fairfield

The Dangers of Rushing

We had to chuckle. A large group of diners, seated in the area adjacent to our table, had one fellow who had obviously dressed in a hurry to make it to the table on time. He was wearing a very unusual shirt. As we studied it, we soon noticed what made the pattern and color so unique. He had his shirt on inside out, as evidenced by the tag sticking straight out from the neckline. We had to share it with our (and their) waitress, who said it made her night. We were careful to not say it loud enough for it to be overheard, although we were falling out of the booth laughing. —Karen Heineman, Washington

The Stars at Revelations

My favorite celebrity encounter at Revelations this year was Russell Brand. He came up to me, like he had to introduce himself, and said, “Hi, I am Russell.”

Mike Love of the Beach Boys, on one of his many visits to Fairfield, stopped by my table to meet my son. (Okay, we go way back and I had my own Beach Boy nickname when I hung out with the band, in the day.) But whether it is Katy Perry, David Lynch, or or an up-and-coming Fairfield author, artist, or musician, they typically make the scene at Revelations or nearby Cafe Paradiso. —Burt Chojnowski, Fairfield

Open, Just For You

I had been to Augusta once before, but my husband had never been. I thought the food was so good, we drove all the way from Galena, IL, on a whim. We made it right before close, and because we called ahead for directions, they not only stayed open for us, but took our order and had a very nice Father’s Day dinner all ready for us (prime rib). Now that is hospitality! —Assandra Anzelone, Waukegan, IL

Huckleberry Pie, My Oh My!

The Korner Kafe where I lived in North Idaho was a diner and the food was average. A vegetarian, I usually stuck with a grilled cheese, french fries, and a limp green salad. But they did offer a fantastic huckleberry pie, an incredible huckleberry pie in the summer season. I love huckleberries. The sweet/tart taste of a fresh huckleberry is indescribable and addictive and far surpasses the mild blueberry Northeasterners love. So when I returned years later, as part of two couples sharing a lakeside rental for a month, I made sure we stopped in at the Korner Kafe for that pie.

I have some bad habits. I won’t bore you with the whole list here but I will share one. If I’ve finished something I love to eat, I lick the plate. And I’m not talking taking my finger and dipping it into whatever sauce or bits are left stuck to the plate and discreetly putting my finger in my mouth—I’m talking picking up the entire plate or bowl if my tongue can reach into the bottom and licking it up like your dog does. I usually do this when I’m at home, alone.

The cafe was empty with only one other table seated. I ordered the pie a la mode. In fact, everyone ordered pie and ice cream and then, completely oblivious to where I was and what I was doing, I picked up the white standard cafe-issue buffalo china plate and started licking. I finally looked up and saw the facial expressions at my table as my friend nodded across the room  to a spot where our waitress and the cook who had come out from grill to join her employee stood staring at me. The cook slowly wiped her hands on her apron and said, looking straight at me, “I’ve never seen that before.”

Really? Was I the only one in the history of this cafe who had picked up a plate and licked it? There must have been some two-year-old in North Idaho who made the same social blunder in a public space. The generous-minded waitress saved the day by suggesting, “Would you like another one of those?” Well, why not? I was on vacation and who knows when I would have another opportunity? I’d like to say I offered to share that pie with the others at the table, but I can’t. And I’m pretty sure I licked that plate clean. —Mo Ellis, Fairfield

A Mistake Pans Out

Truly, I wasn’t trying to show off. I did not look at the cost when I ordered the lamb. Oh my oh my oh my! The order had been placed, the pistachios were chopped, and it was too late to back out. I was willing to embarrass myself to change the order. Dodici said, “Just try it. We’ll make it right.” WOW! Well worth the price. They were friendly and understanding and now, well, it feels like home. Thanks, Cafe Dodici. You showed me that “mistakes” can be wonderful and give more than just a surprisingly delightful meal. I love ya! —Sharon Armstrong, Washington

Chef’s Table—What a Night!

I recently had a celebratory dinner at Chef’s Table in Iowa City. I’d been eyeing the place for months, noticing the gorgeous interior stone wall from outside, and I’d even read a feature about their wine selection in my Food and Wine magazine. So I was quite excited to finally take the plunge.

Our server was wonderful—attentive, though not overly so, helpful in choosing a bottle of wine, and quite personable (he even gave us a tour of the restaurant, including the pristine kitchen, at the end of the meal). Everything was timed perfectly.

And, oh, the food! Melt-in-your-mouth good. Flavors I never would’ve thought of putting together mingled delightfully on our palates. And we even had room for a most incredible dessert.

What a special evening to have shared with a special person. I wish everyone the same experience at this one-of-a-kind restaurant!       —Nina Benjamin, Fairfield

Famous in Germany

I went to Holland and coincidentally met a friend who introduced me to her new son-in-law from Germany. When he heard I was from Fairfield, Iowa, he said, “I love the coffee at Paradiso!” This is a true story. —Leigh Mahaney, Fairfield

Raising Heck

Once I brought my 4-year-old nephew to Jack’s Diner in Lowell, Massachusetts. We sat at the counter eating our lunch, when who should sit beside us but the King of the Hell’s Angels. I mean, a big leather-panted, tattooed, unshaven, chain-bedecked, sunglassed motorcycle tough guy. Nothing was wrong until little Tommy said, “Auntie, that man is really fat. And he is dirty. And he smells.” Well, the King was a gentleman and smiled at us. I swallowed but couldn’t quite eat with as much gusto as before. Tommy was an honest boy. —Raven Garland, Fairfield

I’ll Take Credit!

Many years ago, in Omaha, I took a group out for a business dinner. I did not know that the restaurant provided a wonderful mariachi group who strolled around and sang. When they came to our private dining area, my guests thought I had arranged the entertainment just for them! I never told them differently. —Jill Goldesberry, Conesville