We swung open the front door of Michael Anthony’s at 7:45 on a Saturday night. What little sunlight was left illuminated the employees huddled around the hostess stand. In unison they jerked their frazzled faces toward us. They were like baby rabbits caught in high-beam headlights. I could smell their fear. Instinctively, I knew the restaurant was out of control.
If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you’ve been there. Perhaps the hostess seats tables unevenly, a chef or dishwasher walks out, or servers don’t show. The result is a managerial nightmare. Front-of-the-house frustrations touch off hair-trigger emotions in the back. Employees operate on pure panic. And once the rhythm of a dining room is out of whack, there is no turning back.
No turning back for us either. We’d driven too far to go home. A hostess assured us “she needed a few minutes” to get our table for five ready. She steered us around the corner to the bar, where the bartender asked us if we’d like a cocktail. Not intending to wait long, we declined. That was our first mistake.
From our position on the far side of the bar, we could see most of the dining room, with its rich tones of tawny wood and soft lighting, which would have been serene if it weren’t for the blur of servers buzzing around like mad bees. We could also look directly into the kitchen, where chefs and cooks were jumping around as if the floor were covered in hot coals. They were jockeying for position, dropping plates, and clashing pans. For me, a former kitchen employee, this was like witnessing live torture.
Forty-five minutes later, a waiter approached us and asked, “Are y’all tired of waiting yet?” This is fine if you’re waiting for pancakes at IHOP, but it’s not fine for a restaurant with “fine dining” in its name.
We followed him to a sexy, chocolate brown banquette in the back of the room. “So, I can tell you about the specials because that’s the only food they’ll let us taste,” he said. When I asked his opinion on a bottle of wine, he said it was “awesome.” After I ordered it, he pointed to the list and stuttered, “Well, that wine is good, but this one is better. But yours is still good. It’s just that this one is really great.” When asked what made the other really great, he just looked at me and shrugged. He apologized for his “paux fas.” Twice.
Fortified by wine, and with a menu to read, we surveyed the dining room, which was loaded with bejeweled, well-heeled customers. These are people who’ve had their fair share of dinners at the local Outback, and they’re tired of driving into Dallas for an upscale dining experience. Southlakers have money: the average cost of a home in 2005 was $513,000. They want fine dining in their expensive backyards. And, on certain nights, they are getting it at Michael Anthony’s.
As we noshed on a watery shrimp cocktail and a bland escargot and wild mushrooms covered in a pouch of puff pastry, our evening took a turn for the worse. The couple from hell was seated next to us.
They were thirtysomethings basking in the luxuries of suburban life. She, a thin, fashionable, chain-smoking woman with a Prada bag (fake). He, a thicker, not-so-fashionable, chain-smoking guy with polished boots. And a cell phone glued to his head.
When the waiter poured their wine, Mr. Southlake transferred the phone to his left ear so he could sample it. “Dang, wouldn’t you say that was about a $5 million deal?” he roared into the phone as he winked “okay” to the waiter. “Lemme talk to him,” said Mrs. Southlake. This went on for two hours.
Now, I know you can’t blame a restaurant for its customers’ bad behavior, and I am not saying Michael Anthony’s customers or Southlakers in general are ruder than diners anywhere else. I tell this story because it can happen at any restaurant. And it only becomes a problem when a customer complains and management can’t—or won’t—take control.
And that’s exactly what happened to us. When our waiter arrived with entrées, we pointed to the menu, which asked customers to turn off their phones in the dining room, and nodded toward Mr. Southlake. “There is nothing I can do,” he said. “They’re regular customers.”
As the telethon continued, we sampled a wildly erratic selection of dishes, including a signature 16-ounce, bone-in filet with a price tag of $47. The tender meat was cooked to a lovely rose color, and the meat dissolved as softly as sea bass in the mouth. The pan-seared veal chop, advertised as 14 ounces, wasn’t half that. I carved only seven bites from the bone. (Another night, the chop yielded 16 bites.) Herb-crusted free-range chicken in a fig demi-glace with Brie whipped potatoes was a thing of beauty, as was the house-made mozzarella and tomato salad. The crab cakes were more cake than crab and looked like two baseballs. And they were cold, so we sent them back. The cakes returned warm, but the side of sweet potatoes returned cold. We sent it back again, and got hot potatoes and cold cakes.
Although subsequent visits showed that the restaurant has possibility, if I weren’t a professional diner, there would have been no additional visits. By going back, I learned one thing: the well-intentioned kitchen and staff are consistently inconsistent. And consistency is the most important quality in a restaurant—especially an upscale one—because it’s the only thing that inspires repeat business.
Owner Rocky Sofio does a fine job at his Sofio’s Italian Grills in Flower Mound and Irving, and he knows how to make delicious ice cream. We enjoyed a different creamy flavor each time we dined at Michael Anthony’s.
But our first visit didn’t end sweetly. As we stood to leave, I turned to Mr. and Mrs. Southlake, and before I could finish saying, “Thank you for talking on the phone,” Mrs. S snapped, “That is the tackiest top I have ever seen!” Then Mr. S shouted, “You’re the biggest bitch I’ve ever met!” General manager Jeff Armand was on the scene in seconds, and soon he was escorting us to the front door. Apparently our three-and-a-half-hour dinner was over.
More competition in Southlake’s upscale dining market may help refine Michael Anthony’s, but until they instill grace and thoughtfulness into the service, the restaurant will remain as tacky as my black sweater. 2750 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake. 817-749-0377. $$$.
Update: Michael Anthony’s Fine Dining has closed.