Times (and services) have changed
by Roberto Marshall, expat living in Ostrava
When you’ve lived your life in New York and then decide to settle in a foreign land, there are things you miss and there are things you can’t replace. Family, friends, the Atlantic coast with all its white, sandy beaches, nightlife, and that special energy only found in the city that never sleeps are just a few that come to mind and roll off the tongue when asked what I miss the most from back home. Right at the top of that list, as well, is a culinary experience that is almost impossible to match anywhere else in the world. With over 26,000 restaurants and over 5,000 new ones opening every year replacing the ones that can’t compete, and with a great appetite for both traditional and exotic dishes, my greatest challenge was always to decide what to eat that day. Granted, when I picked up and left for post-communist Czech Republic to reside with my Czech wife here in Ostrava, I had to mentally prepare myself for all the changes and, sadly, adapt to a restaurant culture much different than the irreplaceable one I had been accustomed to my entire life.
Sure, comparing Ostrava to New York is not really fair play. I understand that. But it was the only measuring stick I had, so please don’t judge me for my standards as I tried to get used to life in a new country. My first trip here was in 2001 and, obviously, there have been many changes since. In this blog, I will address not so much the level of the food itself (which I remember as a pretty scary experience at the start), but the level of service that always seemed to evade me. New York restaurants are huge on service. And I don’t mean the kind of service with a plastic, friendly smile that is often referred to by Czech friends who have been there to see it for themselves. I mean the service that guarantees you get what you pay for. Sure, Michelin stars are as valued in New York as anywhere else in the developed world, but the true life or death factor in New York remains the experience, which basically amounts to the quality of the service. I was used to getting a complimentary coffee and dessert if I waited to long to be served. Now I had to settle for the “not my problem” approach and an angry frown if I dared to mention my meal was cold. This was a huge leap for anyone to manage, nevermind someone who paid his way through college by working in some of the best restaurants in NYC.
So that is where I will start my blog – with the miraculous leap in quality of service here and sharing where fellow-expats can experience such improvements in, and around, Ostrava. My first accolades, without a doubt, must go to Restaurace Barbara in Havířov. Although none of the waitstaff speak English, nor had they even translated their menu until learning of this blog, Barbara maintains a somewhat cosmopolitan feel in an otherwise uninteresting mining town. And, although Havířov does not necessarily rank among the top spots to visit in Czechia, it is located just 20min by car from Ostrava and there is also a direct train connection from Stodolní Street to the Havířov main train station, which will leave you around a 15 min walk up Dlouhá Třida to get to this quaint spot. I work nearby on Fridays and it is, by far, my best lunch of the week. By the way, for those of you who, like me, need more time to get used to eating your biggest meal of the day for lunch – not dinner – Barbara’s kitchen is open until 9 pm during the week and 10 pm on weekends and serves an excellent dinner. The menu itself is creative and they even offer several vegetarian alternatives, not just the fried cheese still offered as the sole choice in most other places. My choice of the month, however, did not earn its favour based on its excellent food or late dinner options, alone.
I recently ate there on a busy Friday afternoon and I must admit that despite being crowded, the overwhelmed waitstaff took time to rectify their mistakes and managed to shock me 20 years after my first meal in this country. I’ve learned (adapted) to not complain much, no matter what, for fear of your food being spit in (at least that’s what the locals told me when I used to complain), so I seriously considered saying nothing when my meal came without the broccoli that I had ordered. Finally, I decided to just “inform” the waitress of the misshap in hoping the next customer might not miss their broccoli, too. I expected zero compensation, as is the custom here, and just wanted to let the waitress know that I knew I was supposed to have broccoli and it was missing. The waitress apologized with a smile and that was it. Status quo, right? Wrong. You can imagine my level of shock when I went to pay for my lunch and was charged just 26 Czech crowns. “There must be some mistake,” I insisted to the waitress, fearing she would have to pay the balance from her pocket. “I had lunch and a beer,” I repeated in my still accent-laden Czech. “Yes, I know. But you didn’t get your broccoli,” she explained, matter-of-factly, as she returned my change, thoroughly enjoying the astonished look on the face of a foreigner who had never been reimbursed for a botched lunch (and believe me there have been plenty over the years). Needless to say, I was rendered speechless. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I never have a problem expressing myself, nor do I lack for words in most situations. But I just stood there, frozen, as she handed me my change and buzzed away to the next table. Leaving Barbara that day, I was sure this was a story I had to share and one that few would believe. Trust me, it happened.
And I’m so glad things are changing for the better here, even if at a snail’s pace. For someone coming from New York to Ostrava, especially for one who has been experiencing angry frowns and “not my problem” for almost 20 years, it’s one of the changes that I appreciate most. If you’re an expat living in Ostrava, I definitely recommend a trip to Barbara in Havířov. Good food, great service! Future blogs will continue to inform on where to get great meals (and great service) in and around Ostrava. So stay tuned…