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Keeping diners happy can be tough, but not 'Impossible'

Have you noticed any of your favorite standbys slipping?
Posted 10:19am on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

It's quite possible that I've been watching too much Restaurant: Impossible. How else to explain my urge to start screaming at someone -- anyone! -- at a few of my favorite local restaurants lately?

For the uninitiated, Restaurant: Impossible is a Food Network show that features a python-armed, sharp-tongued British chef named Robert Irvine who is invited to a "failing restaurant" to help turn it around in two days, with $10,000. The show is addictive, not because of its formulaic approach to fixing the fundamental problems many restaurants face -- the menu's too big and unfocused, the staff is poorly trained, the kitchen and decor are shabby -- but because Irvine dishes up a heaping helping of tough love to the owners and anybody else whose job it is to make sure customers get their money's worth.

I eat out a lot, which hardly makes me a culinary expert, but it does mean I'm a fairly discerning restaurant patron. I've also worked as a waiter, so I am fairly understanding when there is the occasional and inevitable service gaffe. (I once mistakenly poured ice water down the back of an unsuspecting senior citizen at the Blue Dolphin in Tamarac, Fla., and to this day I feel bad about it.)

But my restaurant patience has been tested recently -- and, surprisingly, it hasn't been by any of the new places I've tried. It's been by a few of my ol' reliables, which is why I've decided to channel my inner-Irvine.

Fuzzy's Taco Shop, I applaud your whirlwind success -- you're up to 42 taco shops in seven states now. But if I get one more stale taco shell, one more lumpy batch of cold garlic shredded beef, or one more order of stale chips, I'm going to take my weekly business elsewhere.

Fuzzy's has been one of my go-to restaurants since it opened on Berry Street in 2001. It's an unabashed campus dive that serves inventive, affordable and usually solid Baja-style Mexican food. But on my last few visits to the flagship near TCU, I've left with a bitter taste in my mouth -- and I've begun to wonder if Fuzzy's has become a victim of its own success.

As Robert would say: "Just fix it!"

A few days later, at Frankie's Sport Bar & Grill in downtown Fort Worth, I was befuddled when the server brought out an order of my beloved Walter Payton wings -- spicy with a touch of "Sweetness" -- and they didn't resemble the dish I'd enjoyed about 15 times before.

Nicely, I asked if perhaps they'd gotten the order wrong because the wings were barely sauced and yellowish. The Walter Paytons had always been a beautiful ruby red. The waitress triple-checked and determined that they were, in fact, the Walter Paytons. The recipe had changed, she said. I took a bite, paid for my iced tea, and left feeling as if Frankie's had pulled the rug out from under me. (Insert Robert Irvine scream here!)

Finally, I was having what I'd hoped would be a quick and quiet Sunday dinner at Cafe Brazil in Fort Worth. The place was fairly empty -- construction on Berry Street probably doesn't help -- but judging by the service you'd have thought the place was packed. Our waitress was gone for long stretches, and 30 minutes after ordering our breakfast dishes, the food hadn't arrived. I flagged another server, and a few minutes later, our waitress came by to say she'd forgotten to put in the order. She comped my son's hot chocolate, which was nice, but then we endured another long wait after the meal. Finally, I found the same guy who'd helped me earlier and asked him to take my money. When he asked, "How was everything," I said, "OK, but I only wanted to have dinner here. I wasn't planning on moving in."

That's the closest I come to unleashing a Robert-like rant.

One of the reasons I enjoy Restaurant: Impossible is because it articulates just what a high-wire act it is to run a successful restaurant. A couple of wobbles and down you go.

I don't want to see that happen to any of my favorite local spots. And to be clear, Fuzzy's, Frankie's and Cafe Brazil are not failing. But successful restaurants can't relax, either. In restaurant-rich DFW, we have hundreds of other choices just begging for our business.

Running a restaurant is darn near Impossible. But don't make it impossible for us to remain your loyal customers.

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