When I was a kid, my family patronized a chain of Italian-style pizza restaurants called Pizza Express. (This was in England, which is why you’ve never heard of them.) We went maybe twice a month, and I always ordered the American, which was the chainwide term for a pepperoni pizza. I probably ate about a hundred of them before I graduated to the Quattro Formaggi. They were always good, and all 100 of them were pretty much exactly the same from one branch to the next.
Until one evening the waiter brought my pizza with the crusts cut off. He explained, in a thick Italian accent, that the chef was very sorry, the crusts on this pizza had turned out poorly and he wasn’t proud of them, and so he had cut them off. He was making another pizza for me, the waiter said, but they wanted to bring this one so I could begin eating with everyone else. (Remember, this was a middlebrow pizza chain, and I was twelve.)
The waiter brought the second pizza around the time I was finishing the perfectly good crustless pizza. (The crusts weren’t my favorite part anyway.) I asked my parents if we would have to pay for both pizzas, and they explained that we wouldn’t. I was amazed. That anonymous pizza chef taught me something important—something about pride, and about how restaurants are not purely capitalist entities, or if they are they’re selling more than just food.
Last week I went to Tallula. Tallula is not a chain restaurant—I doubt there’s a similar restaurant anywhere in the world. The menu is an interesting Franco-Indian hybrid; the building is an old-fashioned Victorian in the Castro. The décor is maybe more creative than functional: it’s kind of cool to have the tables set up in closet-sized rooms and landings, but if your customers have to look at the menu one at a time, holding the table’s single candle up to each section in turn, there’s probably not enough light.
What with liking hamburgers and not having any money, I don’t eat in nice restaurants much. But you have to eat somewhere with tablecloths every now and again, such as on your girlfriend’s birthday. And when you do, the stakes are high, and so much can go wrong. Because food is what economists call an experience good: you can’t know for sure how much it’s worth to you until after you’ve bought it.
For an entrée I chose the tandoori-fired skirt steak. In retrospect, so much could have been avoided if I had chosen the lamb chops, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it: the decision made sense based on the information I had at the time. The steak was cooked with those red-orange tandoori-chicken spices on the outside (at least they’re usually red-orange when you get them on tandoori chicken; at Tallula it was too dark to tell). It was cut into thin slices and served in a saffron tomato sauce that tasted like a thinner version of the sauce you get on chicken tikka masala, which as everyone knows is the most delicious sauce that God has provided to enhance the deliciousness of His creations. This steak had the potential to be the kind of dish we’re always hoping for when we order something new: the unfamiliar dish that our palate somehow recognizes like an old friend.
But, y’know, of all sad words of tongue and pen / the saddest are these: it might have been, as John Greenleaf Whittier put it, because the meat had the consistency of a leather shoe. It took a full minute to cut each slice with a knife and another two to masticate it to a state of swallowability.
I have spent close to a decade in San Francisco. I can get a Niman Ranch beef sandwich for six bucks at not one but three different establishments within walking distance of my apartment. I had forgotten just how tough a crappy piece of meat can be. It almost made me nostalgic.
I would love to eat a delicious, tender piece of organically grown steak prepared in Tallula’s tandoori-and-tomato-sauce manner. I was disappointed. But I’ll get over it. I was assuaged by the memory of that Anglo-Italian pizza chef, and by the knowledge that the conventions of the restaurant industry include a mechanism for redressing the situation. I had never sent anything back before. So it was with a certain nervous excitement that I flagged down the waiter. “The steak,” I said, gesturing to it in the dim candlelight. “The preparation is delicious. But the meat is much too tough. I think I’m going to have to send it back and order something else.” I spoke clearly and courteously. I was careful to banish both rancor and timidity from my voice. I felt slightly proud of myself.
The waiter brought back the menu, and I asked him to recommend something. “If you’d like something softer, the chicken curry is cooked for several hours,” he said, as though my preference for chewable food was some strange quirk. (He wasn’t bullshitting me, though: the tender chicken fell right off the bone into the mild curry sauce, which tasted exactly like a jar of mild curry sauce.)
I’ll get to the rest of the food in a minute. What I’m talking about now is the moment when the waiter brought the check. “We have to charge you for the steak,” he said. (I am unable to locate this requirement in the state Food and Agriculture Code.) “But I went ahead and 50-percented you on the chicken curry.”
I am not one of those men who are always barging around asserting their rights and getting into picayune arguments with customer-service people. But I am a person who will drop $100 on a meal only once this year, and I know that when you send a dish back because it’s a $21 entrée made from meat they wouldn’t serve at Arby’s, it shouldn’t show up on your bill. The chef at Pizza Express, the guy who had too much pride to send out a pizza with burned or misshapen crusts, even to a twelve-year-old kid, would have considered Tallula a disgrace to his noble profession.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln thought the play was OK. There was a standout appetizer, the lobster and pea dhosa—a South Indian crepe packed with lobster meat and served in a lemony beurre blanc that was both luxurious and astringent. My girlfriend had trout in a milky curry sauce and liked it a lot, although I thought the sauce wasn’t really strong enough to stand up to the fish. There was a clever dessert that comprised two little crèmes brulees, one enhanced with tea and the other with mango, like a thickened mango lassi under a sugary shell.
But the aloo ticki—potato pancakes flavored with lemon, cilantro, and chutney—tasted just like the samosas you could get delivered to your house by a neighborhood Indian carryout. Along with the disappointing chicken curry, it suggests that the closer Tallula gets to straight-up Indian food, the less there is to set it apart from restaurants that charge half as much and don’t serve beef.
 Quick math break: The curry was listed at $16. They charged me $9 for it, which by my calculation is more than half of $16. Admittedly, it would be awkward to say “I 56.25-percented you on the chicken curry.” The inedible steak, meanwhile, was $21, of which I was charged 100 percent.