Nina and Tim Zagat

It was cold and clammy in Los Angeles yesterday, and the weather, coupled with a hefty helping of jet lag, kept us close to our hotel room much of the time. We ventured out only to visit Campanile, the modern restaurant at the site of Charlie Chaplin’s old studio on La Brea where we will unveil our new L.A. Marketplace Survey this afternoon. Apart from some fruitless visits to a few antiques stores along Melrose–which proved that in these parts “antique shopping” is a bit of an oxymoron–we caught up on our sleep and ordered room service: Cobb salads for lunch, steaks for dinner.

The downtime got us to thinking about meals from hell, and what can be done about them. For part of our job as surveyors consists of hearing complaints about the dining experience. Come with us on a guided tour of restaurant misery. And stick with us on this; while it may seem like an endless kvetch, we think there’s a cure that’s good for both the restaurants and customers.

Let’s set the scene. You’ve heard all about a hot new restaurant–one lionized by a restaurant critic who may or may not have been recognized and pampered–and you’re dying to try it. You call it up, and get a busy signal. You place that call again and again–thanking heavens for the redial button on the phone–only to get the same thing. Finally, the call goes through–and you get an answering machine that either tells you to call another number, places you in an endless queue, or subjects you to a maddening series of instructions. You long for the days of rotary phones. Or for your corner Chinese.

At long last, a human voice–or is it a computer’s? It informs you that there’s absolutely no way you can get into the place in less than a month, certainly not in prime time. You are told that you might be squeezed in at either 6 or 10, and with an hauteur that makes you feel like you’re getting a Papal dispensation.

As per the instructions, you arrive precisely at 6, only to have to stand seemingly forever in a crowded lobby. Of course, no one tells you even approximately when your table will be ready; instead, you have to check every 10 minutes with the maitre d’, who treats you like an annoying insect. Your only comfort is in sharing your dismay with equally treated fellow customers. Forty minutes later, you finally get seated–at an undesirable table, of course–only to be told that you have to clear out by 8. Meantime, no one has taken your drinks order or brought you water or bread and butter–the salt and pepper shakers look appetizing.

After another interminable wait, the waiter reads you a list of specials that is as long as Bill Clinton’s famous speech to the 1988 Democratic convention. (Also like the Clinton speech, the recitation does not include how much any item costs.) By the time the waiter ends his soliloquy, you can’t remember half the things he was ticking off. Then, five minutes after taking your order, the waiter returns–without apology–to inform you that several of your choices are no longer available. By now, it’s 7:30–30 minutes to ejection.

When the wine comes (yes, you ordered it, but it was so long ago, who can remember?), it tastes a little over the hill. Your three dinner companions concur. With some diffidence–after all, who really likes to complain?–you call the waiter over. Instead of simply offering you an alternative, he tastes it himself and pronounces it “just fine.” Then, he gets three other waiters to agree with him. The bottle stays put.

Finally, at 7:40, the main courses arrive. A fingerprint clear enough to convict a man of murder can be seen in the sauce at the edge of your plate. You have all of 10 minutes to eat; perhaps, you are told, you could place your dessert orders now. Shortly after the desserts arrive, so too does the check; you are asked to take care of it quickly. You pay, begrudgingly. And after you leave, when you’re halfway down the block, you see the waiter running frantically after you. “You forgot to leave a tip,” he says.

Exaggerated? Perhaps. But unreal? Hardly. Over the past 20 years of conducting our restaurant surveys, we’ve heard all these complaints, repeatedly. Poor service (63 percent of all complaints) is a plague–complaints about the food and prices barely amount to 20 percent. One doesn’t need a damp afternoon in a hotel room to enumerate the problems.

When, in the Course of Human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to rise up against such tyranny, we offer our own modest proposal: A Diners’ Bill of Rights, one designed to inspire a new dialogue between restaurant-goers and restaurateurs and to make the dining experience as pleasant as it always promises to be. This summer, we plan to invite leading restaurateurs from around the country to hash out the provisions of this document, one which, we hope, will soon hang prominently on the walls of every leading American restaurant. But a preliminary draft already exists at www.zagat.com, which we invite you to inspect and comment upon as founding mothers and fathers of the world’s first e-Bill of Rights. Tomorrow, we will discuss its provisions in detail.

Weather permitting, of course.