Fine Dining in Wickenburg

One of the drawbacks to living on the edge of nowhere.

One of the gripes most people who didn’t grow up in Wickenburg share is its amazing lack of dining opportunities. You’d think that in a town with a population that swells to 10,000 people in the winter months, a town that’s the biggest thing around for the tiny towns within 20 miles of it, a town with people from all over the country and at all income levels — you’d think a town like that would have more than a few good restaurants. You’d think, right? Well, we have less than a few. I could count the ones I’d eat at on both hands; I could count the ones I actually like on one hand.

We have some friends who eat out all the time. It think it’s because Judith (the wife of this couple) doesn’t like to cook and Jim (the husband) probably can’t. They live in Wickenburg and money is not a problem. I know they’d love to spend money on a truly good meal — a meal that might appear on the cover of Sunset magazine or as a handful of recipes culled from back issues of Gourmet. Heck, I’d love to join them at that meal. At least once a week.

Anyway, they cycle among their favorite four or five restaurants in town, visiting each of them at least once a week on average. They’re regulars in these places. They go out to eat early and spend at least an hour on cocktails before ordering. Most of the restaurants understand this routine and cater to it. Occasionally, a new waitress won’t get it right away and Jim has to get loud. We’ve been with him when this happens and it’s kind of funny to see the reactions of other diners.

Jim and Judith recently invited us to join them at one of Wickenburg’s “fine dining” establishments. I put “fine dining” in quotes because that’s how the restaurant advertises itself. That’s not how I would describe it.

Mike and I had sworn off this restaurant several times. But without much variety in town, we always talked ourselves into trying it again. Midway through the meal that we’d come back for, we’d swear we’d never return. But four or six months later, there we were again, ordering overpriced food served by an under-trained waitress.

This is the same restaurant where I had my classic Wickenburg wine tasting experience. I tell this story to people who don’t understand what we’re dealing with here in Wickenburg.

I went out to eat with another couple. It was just me and the other couple at the table: two women and a man. The waitress brought menus and I asked for wine list. She brought it to me. While she was doing something else at other tables, I discussed the wine options (which were limited) with my friends. We decided on a bottle of wine. The waitress came back and I ordered the wine. I also gave back the wine list. The waitress went away. She came back a few minutes later with three glasses, the bottle of wine, and a corkscrew. She distributed the glasses, then opened the wine, placing the cork on the table in a neutral position. I can’t remember if I reached for the cork to examine it. She then proceeded to pour a sample of the wine into the glass in front of the man at the table so he could sample it.

The three of us were in shock. My friend tasted the wine, said it was okay, and then let her pour the rest. She went away. And the three of us put our heads together and talked about what she had done.

Now if you don’t know what the waitress did wrong here, you’re reading the wrong blog. You probably don’t get much about what I say anyway. This weekend, get dressed up, take your significant other, and go out to the nearest five star restaurant. Make sure you order a bottle of wine and observe the way it is served. Just for kicks, let the woman at your table (if there is one) do the ordering. Not only will you get a great meal prepared by a chef who knows what he’s doing and has a little imagination, but you’ll have great service. You’ll pay for both, of course. And you’ll learn how wine should be served.

On that day, my friends and I agreed that either she should have let me taste the wine since I ordered it or she should have asked who would like to taste it. To automatically assume that it’s the man’s job to taste the wine is old fashioned, sexist, and completely uninformed.

But that’s what we’re dealing with here.

Jim and Judith go to this restaurant on one particular day of the week for their special. It’s the same every week: fried chicken. Yes, fried chicken in a “fine dining” establishment. So when Judith invited us to join them, I tried to focus on the social part of the outing. Jim and Judith are lots of fun. Jim talks helicopters, Judith grills us on our lives, and Mike teases them both about Junior Bush. We always have a good night out with them no matter where we eat.

Jim and Judith were there before us that evening with drinks in front of them. When the waitress came, she didn’t seem too happy to see us. Maybe she knows my reputation in town. (If I cared about that, do you think I’d be writing this?) Mike ordered a Tanqueray and tonic (always wise to specify brand name for alchohol in Wickenburg) and I ordered a martini.

“On the rocks?” the waitress asked me.

Now I fully admit that I don’t drink martinis very often and I don’t know very much about how they’re served. But I’ve never seen a martini served on the rocks. Usually, they’re put in shaker with ice, shaken, and strained out into a martini glass.

“Straight up,” I told her. “But very cold.” That was my attempt to hint about the shaker and ice. “With an olive.”

She brought Mike’s gin and tonic without a lime, which he had to ask for. And she brought my martini in the kind of glass you might see a Manhattan served in. It was definitely not a martini glass. But okay, maybe they were out of martini glasses. Maybe the dishwasher hadn’t gotten around to them yet. You can’t criticize a restaurant for the wrong choice of glass, can you?

At least that’s what I was telling myself when Mike’s lime squeezed onto my forehead.

I looked around the restaurant. “I’m the youngest one here again,” I told Judith. I’m forty-four. This was one of Mike’s complaints about the place — that only old people ate there.

She looked around. “You and me,” she said.

Funny how being the youngest person in the room still doesn’t make you feel young.

After a while, when Jim was ready to order, the waitress came back. Jim, Judith, and I ordered the fried chicken. Mike ordered the fettucini.

“The alfredo?” the waitress asked him.

He looked at her blankly and reopened his menu. “What other kind of fettucini is there?” he asked, obviously surprised that he’d missed it. After all there were only a dozen entree choices on the menu.

“Well, there’s another dish that has fettucini on the side,” she said.

He stared at her. “Alfredo,” he told her calmly, closing the menu.

The waitress went away. We didn’t talk about her behind her back. It just wasn’t worth it.

The owner came by our table for a visit. He was obviously very chummy with Jim and Judith. “Did you order the chicken?” he asked.

They told him they had.

“Good thing you got your order in. There isn’t much left.”

Then he disappeared back toward the bar.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Mike said. “It’s Swanson’s.”

We sat through the restaurant’s unusual salad ritual. The waitress comes with four plates of mixed lettuces and a cart with salad fixings. Things like cherry tomatoes, red onions, beets, croutons, and dressings. She then asks each person what they want on their salad. Whatever you say you want, she puts exactly two of them on your plate. Two tomatoes, two cucumber slices, two beet slices — you get the idea. I think she might be more generous with the croutons, but I don’t know — I’ve never eaten with anyone who has asked for them. She repeats this process for each person at the table. I’m pretty sure the dressings are bottled.

Did you ever eat at a Lowry’s restaurant? Its a rather nice restaurant that specializes in prime rib. I’ve eaten at Lowry’s in Chicago twice and Beverly Hills three times. They have a weird salad ritual, too. They come to the table with a cart that has a big bowl of salad on it. The salad bowl is sitting on an even bigger bowl of ice. While you watch, the waitress, who is wearing a plain gray uniform with a white apron and a very low cut neckline, spins the salad bowl on the ice bowl, pouring in the Lowry’s dressing (available for sale in the lobby) from as far up as she can reach. She then tosses the salad, dishes it out, and retreats.

This Wickenburg restaurant reminds me of that. But at Lowry’s the salad (and the rest of the food) is good.

The food came a while later. The waitress gave Jim and Judith nice looking plates with plump pieces of chicken and good helpings of vegetables. She gave me a plate that looked like the chicken pieces had been collected from other people’s plates. Okay, so it didn’t look that bad. If it did, I wouldn’t have eaten it. Mike’s fettucini looked like it was absolutely smothered in a thick white sauce. He asked the waitress for fresh ground pepper and she didn’t look very happy to bring it.

We were in the middle of the meal when the owner came back. He started chatting us up and I had a strong suspicion that he’d had a few drinks at the bar. Before we knew it, he was talking loudly about the 10 acres of land he owned in town, telling Jim he ought to buy it and build a house there.

“Not likely,” I said.

Jim and Judith have their house on the market for a cool $3.5 million. When that sells, I don’t think they’ll be spending much time eating fried chicken in Wickenburg.

The owner looked at Mike. “You’re a pilot, too?” he asked.

Mike confirmed that he was.

No one told the man that I was also a pilot. I don’t think he would have comprehended that anyway. A woman flying an aircraft? A helicopter? How could that be? She can’t even sample the wine at dinner!

He continued talking loudly about stuff that wasn’t important, passing an inappropriate comment about his wife hating him along the way. I concluded that he was drunk and hoped he’d go away soon. Maybe I sent him some silent messages that penetrated, because after a while he left.

The busboy (who was younger than me), offered to take Mike’s plate away. Mike said he wasn’t finished eating yet. I laughed a bit louder than I should have. I think I was beginning to lose it.

We finished eating and the waitress came over with the dessert tray. I’d been watching this dessert tray since we came in. It was on a stand not far from our table, just outside the kitchen door. The waitress would bring the tray to the table and, if you wanted something, she’d pull it off the tray and give it to you. Then someone would replace whatever had been taken with a fresh portion from the kitchen.

Now I had a serious problem with this. Suppose I wanted a piece of Boston cream pie. But suppose that no one else had wanted a piece of Boston cream pie all evening. So at 6:30 PM, I’d be getting a piece of Boston cream pie that had been put out on the tray at 4 or 5 PM when the tray was made up and had been sitting there all evening. One to two and a half hours, in this example. I wouldn’t eat Boston cream pie at home that had been sitting out that long. Why would I eat it in a restaurant?

None of us had dessert.

We left not long after that. Mike and I swore once again we’d never go back. I decided to invite Jim and Judith over for Swanson’s fried chicken one night.

Mike was up half the night, making trips to the bathroom. There’s something to be said about ordering the special.

What do you think?