There is something fundamentally sad about a bad restaurant, especially one where the people who toil there—from the overworked chef to the hapless waiter—are trying so hard. Perhaps it provokes a realization of the failures we often make of our once-promising lives. We all had potential once, but look where we are now. And in many cases, it's not for lack of trying. Instead, we're faced with the fact that our best may simply not be good enough. These were the thoughts I had at the Thomas Street Bistro as a depressing blob of cream cheese, speckled with desiccated salmon and surrounded by six Ritz crackers, whispered to me about my own mortality.
The Thomas Street Bistro is less like a restaurant and more like the home of a friend who fancies himself a cook. Six tables crowd into what would be the living room; the newly painted walls are adorned with artwork that yearns to look Mediterranean and tries way too hard for a certain carefree joie de vivre. Instead of a cosmopolitan French brasserie, the room reminded me of my great-aunt's stifling parlor. Mismatched china and paper napkins complete the picture of a dinner party gone wrong.
The Thomas Street Bistro offers six main courses, all of which come with the soup of the day, an appetizer plate, and dessert. As one of the owners, a friendly Frenchman from Toulouse, explained the menu, I had further misgivings. The spaghetti with chorizo ($10.99) sounded like something you'd eat in summer camp, the kitchen was out of the beef strips in red wine and orange juice ($15.99), and the "salmon fish" ($15.99) just flat-out scared me. So we chose the pineapple chicken ($13.99) and the bistro's signature dish, a Moroccan lamb and couscous tagine ($19.99). After we ordered, the owner/chef (who was also filling in as waiter that evening) warned us that he was a bit behind and he hoped we weren't in a hurry because we were going to be there "a long time."
He wasn't kidding. After an hour and a half, we'd gotten through a decent lentil soup and grazed on a buttery tahini and some damp feta with fresh tomatoes. And then our waiter brought out a "free appetizer" he described as follows: "It's salmon, smoked, from Alaska. With cream cheese. Sorry." I'm sure he was referring to the time it was taking to prepare our main courses, but to me his sorrow seemed to run deeper. And though I could commiserate with the failure, I couldn't get over the fact that on this cold night we had actually left our warm house, which was stocked with all sorts of tasty treats, and ventured into what was essentially a stranger's home for a well-intentioned, but poorly cooked meal. Caught between tears and laughter, I ate a Ritz cracker.
The entrées came, as I feared they would (I was slipping into a delirious depression by this time). My wife sawed away at her pineapple chicken to little avail, while I fixated on the one flaccid spear of asparagus sitting next to what she described as a "kind of salty" pile of white rice. Meanwhile, my lamb and couscous tagine had the look of the Sahara to it and was correspondingly arid. Despite a hint of complex spiciness in the couscous, the lamb itself was overcooked, tough, and tasting more of the refrigerator than the fertile fields. We pushed the food around our plates, trying in vain to make it seem like we'd eaten more than we had, before asking sheepishly for the rest to be boxed up.
Though dessert comes with every meal, when told it would take "some time" for it to be ready, we muttered apologies, paid the bill, and walked out into the rain.
Out on the street, I wondered: Why did I feel so guilty, so demoralized? I think now it was the pathos of the place. I go out to dinner to revel in the fleeting, golden, liminal moment when I am responsible for nothing more than appreciating the bounty of this world. All this light and sound and flavor. I love pretending, even just for a few hours, that it will never end. The Thomas Street Bistro did not allow me that fantasy. Instead, this meal reminded me of our very limited capacity for transcendence.
In the spirit of fair play (and with a certain amount of trepidation), I revisited the Thomas Street Bistro a few days later for lunch. Remembering how kind the owner seemed, how anxious to please, I committed myself to experiencing lunch with a completely open mind. Unfortunately, this blind optimism was short-lived.
When I arrived, the place was dark and empty. The soup of the day turned out to be a bowl of fresh iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and avocados drowning in oil and vinegar. And the entrée ($7.99), those beef strips that hadn't been available before, consisted of gristly chunks of meat in a sweet but overly salty sauce. I was about to describe the accompanying mushrooms and carrots as "good," but then realized they were simply less bad—the whole meal had the feeling of an average meal in a school cafeteria.
I left, again sorry for the owner, who does seem to be a nice guy. Something was different this afternoon, though. An epiphany perhaps. Life is far too transitory to eat bad food and feel depressed. So I went for a walk, already looking forward to dinner.
NOTE: This is a review of a restaurant that just opened. We'll probably send a reviewer back after it's been open a while, as things often change in a new restaurant's first months.