Dining in Sedona

Disappointing, I’m afraid to say.

Oak CreekEarly this year, in February, Mike and I took Mike’s mom to Sedona for an overnight trip. While we were there, we thought it might be nice to return in the autumn to enjoy the fall colors. After all, there are trees in the area. Oak Creek Canyon is full of them. We figured they must shed their leaves in the autumn like the trees we knew back east.

So we made reservations at Sky Ranch Lodge, one of Sedona’s best kept lodging secrets. We made those reservations in February for this past weekend in October.

One of the nice things about Sky Ranch Lodge is that they allow pets. This worked out really well for us because we wanted to do some hiking, which Jack the Dog loves to do, too. And, as usual, we had trouble finding someone to bird-sit for Alex the Bird (mostly because he’s mean to just about anyone except me). So we brought the both of them with us.

It was actually kind of comical. Imagine a Jeep Wrangler with the back seat pulled out. Now add a birdcage, a standard wheelie bag, a small cooler, two canvas bags of stuff, and a border collie/australian shepherd mix. All that’s in the back. In the front are two full-sized people. Now imagine this Jeep load driving from Wickenburg to Sedona, by way of Yarnell, Peeples Valley, Wilhoit, Prescott, Prescott Valley, Jerome, and Cottonwood. With a nice stop along the way at the Cornerstone Bakery in Yarnell (excellent, as usual) and Murphy’s Grill in Cottonwood (highly recommended). We arrived at 1:30 PM to check in and, after some confusion about the reservations (they were in Mike’s name, not mine), we were told to return at 4 PM when the room was ready.

We spent the next two hours traveling around the area, climbing up Oak Creek Canyon to the view point at top, and hitting the local natural grocery story, New Frontiers, where I was tickled to find a cheese counter with a man who actually knew about cheese. I left $98 there and we headed back up to Sky Ranch with two bags of cheese, crackers, and other snack foods.

Our room wasn’t a room. It was a cabin right on the mesa’s rim, overlooking the town of Sedona and all those wonderful red rocks to the north and west of it. Two queen beds, a kitchenette, sofa, table and chairs, gas fireplace, and private deck. I set Alex up on the coffee table and we spent some time unpacking. Then we watched the sun set from the comfort of the deck, each with a glass of wine and Jack curled up at Mike’s feet.

Very nice.

Dining wasn’t quite so nice.

Now if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that food is a major part of my life. I like to eat. I like to eat well. I don’t always get a chance to eat well, but when the opportunity is there, I usually take advantage of it. And since Wickenburg is not exactly a hotbed of fine dining opportunities (more on that elsewhere throughout this blog), any time we’re out of town is a potential opportunity for something new and different to eat.

Even the cheese counter at New Frontiers was something far and beyond what I can get at home, so it really isn’t hard to please me.

Last time we went to Sedona, we ate at Shugrue’s Hillside. It’s a relatively posh restaurant with $$$$ prices (in the usual $ to $$$$$ range). The food was fine but the waiter was absolutely horrible. He insisted on calling Mike’s mother “sweetheart,” even after we asked him not to. He tried serving our main course while we were eating our salads (no, I didn’t let him get away with that), and he made one other major infraction (which I can’t recall at the moment). He completely ruined my meal. An expensive meal that I paid for. I gave him a crappy tip and complained to the manager about him.

We didn’t go back there this past weekend.

Instead, we tried a place recommended by Dee at Sky Ranch: Savannah’s. It seemed like a nice enough place. But I made my first mistake when I asked the hostess not to seat us next to the live music. (I really don’t like loud music when I eat. Maybe it’s because I can’t chew, swallow, and listen at the same time.) She evidently didn’t have anyplace else to seat us indoors, so she took us outside to show us the “cabin,” which she said was a more intimate dining room. FIne with me. Unfortunately, she stopped at what appeared to be a tent that had been erected along the way. It was decorated with black and white sparkly fabric and had white Christmas tree lights all over it. There were people sitting at tables eating and outdoor heaters keeping the enclosed area warm. It looked like a wedding reception sans bride and groom, with a handful of guests who didn’t know each other.

“Unless you’d like to eat in here?” she suggested. She looked at Mike.

Mike was zoned out from the cold he’s battling and hadn’t heard about the intimate dining room that was a bit farther down the path. “Fine with me,” he said. I kept quiet. Mike’s a lot pickier than I am about where we sit in restaurants and I was afraid he wouldn’t like the other option.

So she sat us in the tent.

I watched a waiter greet another table. He was extremely professional and pleasant. At least we’ll get good service, I thought to myself.

Wrong! Our waitress bounced up to the table. She was typical dumb blonde material, about 22 years old, and dressed in a ridiculous outfit that included a short black and white striped skirt (think referee), black pants, and a black shirt. She told us briefly about the specials, managing to make them sound not very special at all, and made some inane comments which completely turned me off. Then she bounced away, leaving us to stare at each other in dumb shock.

At the next table, the professional waiter was providing detailed information about the specials, filling us in on what we’d missed by sitting at the wrong table. In a tent.

The beverage consultant, Steve, greeted us next. He looked like a cleaned up hippie, but was also professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. He promised to return once we’d studied the wine list.

After a while, our waitress bounced back in to take our order. We ordered Chateaubriand for two. The restaurant had “toppings” and sides. Toppings were additional sauces or other things that you could put on top of your meat. She suggested hollandaise — which made me cringe. We both chose caramelized onions. She then attempted to take our beverage order. At first, I told her the wine we’d been thinking about and she wrote it down, but then I told her I wanted to consult with Steve to get his opinion. She disappeared to get him. Heck, if there’s a beverage consultant available, I may as well make use of his services. I could learn something new.

Turns out, the wine I’d chosen was no longer available — how would the waitress have handled that, I wonder? — and Steve suggested an alternative. When he returned to serve the wine, I was very glad. Just the other day, some dimwit waitress had tried to serve us wine and had spilled a good portion of it on the tablecloth and all over the outsides of our glasses. Steve was extremely capable and — dare I say it again? — professional. That’s a nice thing. When you’re spending $50+ on a bottle of wine, you want all of it to get in your glasses. (And yes, I know that $50 isn’t a lot of money for a bottle of wine in a restaurant. But that’s about the high end of our budget, so it’s a lot to us.)

The dippy blond remained outside the tent for about 20 minutes. We talked and watched the other diners get service from their servers. Then she bounced back in with two shot glasses of an extremely icy sorbet. Raspberry and basil, she said. Okay. She bounced back out. We ate it. It was weird but not bad. Just icy. Like with little bits of ice in it.

The busperson (is that what they’re called these days?) appeared to remove our empty shot glasses. Even he was giving better service than our waitress.

She bounced in after another fifteen or so minutes to tell us that our meal was next. While we waited, we watched the other tables be served salad by one of three different servers. One of them (a woman) had tattoos on her back. She’s also the one who told the table next to ours that there was chocolate soufflé for dessert, but it needed to be ordered with dinner because it took 35 minutes to make. Chocolate soufflé! Now that’s not something we’re likely to get in Wickenburg.

When our waitress bounced back in with our meals, I said, “I heard a rumor there was chocolate soufflé for dessert.” To her credit, she didn’t miss a beat. “Did you want some of that?” she asked. “I’ll put in the order.”

We started eating our excellent meal. The beef was tender without an ounce of fat on it and cooked to perfection. The accompaniments were delicious. And the wine was perfect.

But I think I had scared our waitress with my soufflé comment. She started checking in on us. She’d bounce over to the table and ask how everything was. Then she’d pick up the wine bottle and gingerly pour about 1/2 ounce in each glass. She did this three times. I think she realized that her tip was in jeopardy and was trying to make up for it. Too little, too late. I was still wondering why we were the only people in the tent who didn’t get salads.

She returned after our plates had been cleared and took orders for coffee (me) and tea (Mike). She brought them quickly. My coffee was cold and weak. That probably isn’t the restaurant’s fault. Most restaurants seem to serve coffee-flavored water. Unfortunately, I like the kind of coffee you can’t see through if you pour it in a glass cup.

Then she brought the soufflé. She placed it in front of Mike, dug a little hole in it with a spoon, and poured some kind of sauce in the center. Then, thankfully, she went away.

The soufflé was out of this world. Worth sitting in a tent to eat. And worth dealing with an airhead bouncy waitress.

She bounced back with the coffee pot to warm my coffee and bring the check. I told her not to bother; the coffee was too weak to drink. She offered to make me a fresh pot. I told her not to bother (it would just be as weak as the first pot; that stuff is premeasured), that I’d just finish my wine. She looked at the check and said she’d take the coffee off of it. I told her that wasn’t necessary but would be nice.

I paid the bill. I didn’t give her a good tip. But I didn’t stiff her, either.

All the way back to the lodge, Mike and I debated how a good restaurant could hire a waitress like that.

My Jeep in SedonaThe next day, we took the Jeep and Jack the Dog out on Sycamore Pass Road, which winds through the desert to the Dogie trailhead. We went for a short hike and I managed to twist my ankle so badly that I thought for a while that it was broken. Mike and Jack hiked without me, leaving me in the shade to study the maps and think deep thoughts about nothing in particular.

Afterwards, we went back into town, where Mike bought an ankle brace for me. We put it on, then headed out on Dry Creek Road in search of a good picnic spot. Mike found a good spot on a little hill just before the second trailhead. It looked out on the red rocks with a golf course and very large house beneath them. Picturesque. We set up the folding chairs I keep in the back of the Jeep and used the top of the cooler as a table. Then we dug into that wonderful cheese, along with some olives and salads we’d also bought at New Frontiers.

TlaquepaqueLater, we visited Tlaquepaque. Although the merchandise in the shops is generally priced above our budget, it’s a very pleasant place to walk around. My bum ankle slowed me down a little, but we still managed to stroll the whole place before returning to the Lodge.

Dinner that night was another less-than-perfect experience. It was a Sunday night and we figured that with all the weekenders gone, we’d have no trouble getting a seat in a restaurant. Not true.

The first place we went to, a Japanese place on Jordan Road, had some empty tables, but the person at the desk told us they were “completely full.” I like to think that he was talking about people who had reservations and were expected shortly. They didn’t have a sushi bar to sit at, so we left.

We left Uptown Sedona and headed west on 89A. Mike was looking for a restaurant he’d seen earlier in the day. We couldn’t find it. We wound up at Reds, the restaurant in the Sedona Rouge hotel. It was about 6:30 PM at this point and only half the tables in the smallish dining room were full. A hostess seated us with a pair of menus, along with what she said was the Specials menu. It was a Dessert menu. We watched one waiter go from table to table, apologizing for the wait. That’s when we realized that there was only one waiter. Good thing the restaurant wasn’t full.

We didn’t have to wait long at all for the waiter to visit us. He traded the dessert menu for a specials menu and took our drink orders. The hostess brought them a short while later. When the waiter returned to take our order, we ordered three appetizers off the two menus. We weren’t terribly hungry so soon after our huge cheese lunch. We like variety in our food and often order a bunch of appetizers rather than two main courses.

Little did I know it then, but this would put us at the very bottom of the waiter’s priority list when the restaurant started to fill up. We waited a good 20 minutes for the first appetizer and then another 15 minutes for the other two. The waiter was working on all the tables around us, handling them rather well. He had a full staff of buspersons to help him out with the basics like clearing plates, filling water glasses, delivering food, etc. But somewhere between the first appetizer and the second two, he began to openly ignore us. He asked the couple at the table beside us how their salad was three times (the last time, the salad plates had already been cleared), but didn’t visit us at all. This continued after we finished our meal and the plates had been cleared. I was looking forward to the banana crepe I’d seen on the dessert menu, but I had no opportunity to order it. We sat for at least 20 minutes waiting for him to come by or to get the opportunity to flag him over. He was completely ignoring us and doing it in a very obvious way.

He finally stopped by and offered us our bill. He did not ask if we wanted dessert or coffee. Just the bill. Since I didn’t want my dessert for breakfast, I took it.

Now I don’t want you to think we ordered three appetizers because we’re cheap. That’s not the case. Our bill for two drinks and three appetizers came to over $70 — which is the same as it would have been if we skipped the appetizers and ordered two entrees. And I don’t think I’m being unfair to the waiter in expecting him to pay a little bit of attention to us, even though the restaurant was filling up and he was the only server. I just think he was suffering from what Mike and I now call the “Sedona Syndrome.”

The Sedona Syndrome is a hospitality industry affliction. Its symptoms include a poor attitude toward the throngs of tourists that flow through the place on a regular basis. Since most of these people don’t live in town, hospitality people don’t have to worry about return business. And since there’s such competition for restaurant seating, they can treat customers any way they like because there’s always someone out there to fill a seat. In other words, service doesn’t matter.

This, I believe, is the fault of the customers. People are so willing to accept poor service that few hospitality industry folks in tourist destinations (and elsewhere) are motivated to provide good service. After all, why go the extra mile if your clientele are willing to settle for the first 20 feet?

The next morning, we went to the Sedona Airport Restaurant for breakfast. (Pardon me if I don’t link to their Web site; it revolves around a stupid animation with music and I just can’t support that kind of Web work.) We sat by a window overlooking the runway and had a good, inexpensive meal served by someone who actually seemed to care that we were there. The best service of any restaurant we’d visited in Sedona.

Later in the day, on our way back to Wickenburg, we stopped at the Asylum at the Grand Hotel in Jerome for lunch. I highly recommend this place. It sits high on the hillside, overlooking the Verde Valley. We had an excellent lunch of interesting and well-prepared food served by a waiter who was pleasant and attentive. Our lunch with tip wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny.

But that was to be expected. We were not in Sedona.

What do you think?