Coastal Commuter

Service with a smile or a sneer

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly comforting whenever I walk into my favorite cafe, and the barista only has to see me to begin brewing up my “usual.” That’s how it goes on Russian Hill. And I finally felt as at-home in Los Angeles as I am in San Francisco when I realized that three different counter-people at the Solar de Cahuenga in Hollywood didn’t even bother to ask what I wanted as I approached them. They just turned to the employee at the espresso machine, said, “Single long shot,” and then rang me up with a smile.

Most of us on the social ramble who frequent specific coffee shops, restaurants, and bars can proclaim ourselves regulars without much dispute. We try to be genial with the staff, we tip, we sometimes know the management, and we frequently interact with other regular customers. If there’s any friction, it’s generally mild. And repeat business suggests the presence of good and friendly service.

But what of those who own or work at drinking and dining establishments and are best known for their hostility to patrons? They are out there. I’ve seen them and been abused by them in San Francisco and at certain of my haunts in Los Angeles. And some of them are legendary in their vitriol. You can imagine that quite a few people would go out of their way to be dissed by a master. Call it Don Rickles Syndrome, after the beloved insult comic who built his career on skewering audience members and celebrity friends while on stage.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would have willingly gone to the charming and atmospheric Persian Aub Zam Zam bar on Haight Street and goofed around and hemmed and hawed with the intent of being told to leave by proprietor and master martini-maker Bruno Mooshei. The surly Bruno who died in 2000 dismissed people from the bar before they even ordered if he thought they weren’t serious or if they didn’t fit his particular customer profile.

The “Seinfeld” TV sit-com introduced America to the Soup Nazi character — a cruel Eastern European chef based on a real New York figure with a reputation for refusing to sell his soup to any potential patron wasting his time by asking needless questions. Bruno was doing it with cocktails years before the words, “No soup for you!” became a catch phrase.

In an unassuming Studio City strip mall on Ventura Boulevard in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, the issue was sushi, not soup or booze. Kazunomi Nozawa ran his critically lauded, sparsely decorated, no-reservation Sushi Nozawa with an iron hand (wielding a sharp sushi knife) until he closed the restaurant in 2012 after more than 25 years. Nozawa — its one and only chef — was as renowned for his dour manner and his insistence that you simply accepted and ate whatever delicacies he prepared for you as he was for the glowing reviews of his food. And a parade of people including the famed likes of Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening would line up to be in his imperious presence, even with the knowledge that they might be booted for ordering something as pedestrian as a California roll.

I’m sure there are folks who bitch about the service at Gary Danko or La Folie, although I’d wager that those are relatively isolated incidents. Conversely, I’m pretty certain that most tourists and locals queuing up to get into House of Nanking on Kearny feel beleaguered and disrespected by the curtness of the host and the waiters as they’re shuttled through the long-running Chinese eatery. It’s all about gettin’ ’em in, gettin’ ’em grub, gettin’ their money, and gettin’ ’em out.

And if you aren’t a hops-savvy, malt-wise lover of fine beer and ale, you might believe that the knowledgeable barkeeps at no-nonsense brew pubs like S.F.’s Toronado and L.A.’s Glendale Tap are on the condescending side — especially if you’re confused about what you want in a place that caters to connoisseurs. You might be right. They may just be tolerating you. But if you really want to be treated with disdain, you should check out the dive-y Hop Louie in L.A.’s Chinatown — where the vibe is kinda cool (in a dank, dark, exotic film-noir way), the cuisine is a cliché, and the service is downright rude. I get the sense that Bruno would approve.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s “David Feldman Show” and “Thom Hartmann Show” and on “Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast,” available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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