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Atienden bien? (Is there good service?) This is what Chileans will ask about a fine restaurant. It’s important for business meetings, for dates, etc., to be treated well at a restaurant. And yet so often, it’s not the case.

A couple of years ago I was on a plane from Cartagena to Bogotá (Colombia), to catch my connecting flight back to Santiago. The guy sitting next to me on the plane had been in Cartagena for a Manpower (a company providing temporary office workers) seminar, and was flying back to his home city of Lima, Perú. We got to talking, and he was astonished by how poor the service was in restaurants in Colombia (to be fair, he was only in the coastal city of Cartagena, and I’m sure that things are speedier and more up-to-snuff in Bogotá, which is a major city and supposedly a new gastronomic hub in South America). He mentioned it several times, and finally, I had to remind him that as a person with money in Lima, he probably goes to some of the finest restaurants, and that Peruvian restaurants are known for their excellent food and impeccable service. (which is no less true at the fancier Peruvian restaurants here in Santiago, of which there are many).

“But you,” he said? “You’re from the United States! You should be accustomed to a high level of service!” He was surprised to hear that I wasn’t disgruntled by the insouciance, the ignoring, the long waits at the Colombian restaurants.

“Oh,” I responded. “But I live in Chile.”

And then it all became clear to my seatmate, who looked at me with pity and said the Colombian equivalent of con razón (you’re right, that makes sense).

It’s not that service is terrible everywhere. If you pay top dollar (peso?!) at a place like Infante 51, Astrid y Gastón, Ky or other good-food-high-prices types of places, you’ll likely get very good service and fine food. But you’ll pay dearly for it. I don’t mind fighting a little for my waiter’s attention if I’m paying cafeteria prices for the nibbles. What really irks me is the high price/poor service combo.

Which is why, after being told to “‘perame” (wait a sec) upon walking into the converted mansion/restaurant called Zully in my favorite little pocket plaza in Santiago, and then being told to pick whatever table we wanted in one small, hot room, and then being ignored for no less than fifteen minutes, we started to get prickly. Then came the “whaddya wanna drink?” without any mention of what the offerings were. We finally pried a juice (mediocre) and a bottled water out of the waitstaff’s hands, upon which we were handed a photocopied menu on plain white paper, stapled at the upper left corner, and creased, like a handout from a conference seminar you never made it to. All the while, the manager and several waitstaff hovered around the bar and ignored us. And we sat. I’ll admit it, we nibbled on the bread. The crackery thing with anise in it wasn’t bad. And then we got the check. A place that serves Waygu beef and thinly sliced scallops in a wine sauce can surely do better than ignoring two people for almost a half an hour. The appetizers ranged from 4,000 pesos to about 6,500 pesos, and the entreé prices were in the 10-15,000 peso range, minus the fancy beef, which cost more. (peso’s at about 660 to the dollar at the moment, and a salaryman’s lunch is around 2000-2500 pesos these days).

We finally escaped the restaurant, and fortified with the juice and water, ambled along to a restaurant several blocks away that’s always busy but that we’d never checked out. It was loud and kind of disorderly, with mirrors and colored disks glued to the walls to (I think) look like rising carbonation in a drink. The beer menu was extensive, with microbrew offerings that we know and like (Kross, Oceanik, etc). Within minutes of sitting down, the waiter came over, explained the specials and the strange menu offerings (lots of things on a bed of french fries), brought us a little bowl of popcorn and was generally present and pleasant. We got the special, which was seabass with a salad and a glass of wine, and another juice for the juice drinker among us. We walked out of there for about 12,000 pesos, which is a little less than $20.00, unangry, unannoyed, pleasantly full and only a little thirsty from all the popcorn (our fault, really).

I dislike the high prices bad food bad service combo.
I don’t mind the low prices mediocre food mediocre service combo.
But what I really, really love? it’s the low prices decent food good service combo.

Which is why I’m hereby giving Zully in Concha y Toro a polilla (moth) and D’angelus (on Brasil, a block off the plaza towards Santo Domingo) a mariposa (butterfly). Stand by for more exciting my-life-is-so-hard updates.

And also, I hope your vocabulary notebooks are filling up. Old ESL habits die hard.