Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

The Burger That Wasn’t

October 17, 2008

I’m not sure why I continue to be fascinated with service industry outlets that are so stubbornly non-user-friendly. Maybe it’s my past retail experience that’s fatigued my belief in the maxim, ‘the customer is always right.’ Or maybe it’s inspiring to be around places that are so good at what they do that people will put up with all of their peccadillos. Maybe it’s because food is one of the last bastions of fierce independence and proprietary pride. All I know is that I should be offended when I go to Bahn Mi (where you get the coffee they serve– strong, sweet, and syrupy with condensed milk– and no, you can’t have oil and vinegar on your sandwich) or Murky (where they tell you what you may order, and where they simply stopped brewing decaf) or any purveyor of Peruvian chicken (where you can have anything you like, as long as it is chicken and fries), but I’m not. If a banker or doctor or grocer or retailer ignored my wishes or refused to listen to me, I’d never go back. But give me something yummy and a slap in the face and I’ll beat a path to your door.

“Ray’s The Steaks” has not only an cringingly awful name, but an impeccable reputation for the very finest steaks in the DC region. This is in spite of the fact that the proprietor (whose name is actually Michael) is a notorious curmudgeon and his staff is a wee bit inhospitable. Furthermore, there is little parking, no valet, and the restaurant itself is noisy, small, and dominated by the open kitchen. Outside, a hand-scrawled sign makes the situation as clear as gin:

No Reservations
No Parties Bigger than 6
No Incomplete Parties

And the posted menu goes to great lengths to let any potential diners know that you simply cannot have most of the steaks cooked ‘well’. We once stopped by the half-full restaurant late one evening for some dessert (their pie is otherworldly) and were turned away. And yet folks will wait in a small mob outside to get in, night after night after night. Powerful people with suit pockets full of money will stand in the cold with everyone else. It’s just that good.

So the other day as we were completing a morning of errands, we decided to stop by Ray’s. Not for a steak, but to check out the new and already-famous burger joint that ‘Ray’ opened next door. Except that it’s not next door. A piece of paper taped to the window of Ray’s pointed the way a few doors down. Where we discovered why we had trouble finding it in the first place: there is no sign. Just a small dining room behind a locked door. That’s right, the world’s best burgers aren’t available for lunch. What were we thinking? Why would they want to open at noon, when hungry office workers go foraging for food? Instead, they proudly lock the door until all of those customers are on their way home at night. And I’m sure the place is packed whenever they do open the door. It’s Ray’s of course.

Maybe in a world awash with choices, we subconsciously yearn for someone to limit our options. Maybe we like feeling as though we’re in on something secret. Or maybe all of this brusque customer service hearkens back to a bygone era. All I know is, I long to be a part of something so refreshing and compelling that people would jump all manner of hurdles to get to it.

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4 Responses to “The Burger That Wasn’t”

  1. I once read a paper on the early church which I have lost, so I can’t cite it properly. But the thrust of this paper was the idea that in some time-state of the early church, the worship service was not open to anyone wandering off the streets. If you wanted in, it might take a year before you were let it the doors to sing and break bread.

    It seems like you need to decide what you fear most. If your worst fear is that you might lose your one chance to save someone, then you will have these wide open doors with signs and convenient hours. But if what you fear is that the quality of what happens inside the doors might be compromised, you act in this odd way where you turn away the very people you want inside, knowing that when they do get inside, it will be worth waiting for.

  2. Danielle says:

    There’s a place in Chicago called The Weiner’s Circle that’s like what you described. Rude, dirty, insulting. But oh so tasty. Sneer at me when I ask where the bathroom is if you must, but don’t forget to put cheese on my fries!!

  3. Kelly says:

    We decided to pay Ray’s a visit yesterday and it was well worth the crowded wait. The service was actually quite friendly…Graeme received a free root beer and the servers kindly and quickly prepped a table for our wild kids. And the burger…really quite amazing. Don’t ask for fries, a beer (or chicken nuggets), though.

  4. kate says:

    I think it’s that hoarding mentality — if we can’t have it exactly as we want it, all the time, then it MUST be REALLY worth trying hard to get. Probably makes it taste/seem all the sweeter when we do get it, too.
    Then again, there’s the comfort/loyalty factor of knowing that some old friend has seen you through the lean times and will always be there. Hence my affection for Starbucks and, occasionally, McDonalds. As they say — where in Europe can you find guaranteed clean(ish), free toilets? Just one McPlace, baby.

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