Kitanoya Guu has enough customers already. Don’t bother.

My goal to evaluate whether all the hype about the Guu restaurants is justified remains unfulfilled.

A few months back, Maktaaq and I stepped into the original Guu on Thurlow for lunch, but were disappointed to find that the lunch menu is a greatly abbreviated form of their standard menu, offering primarily Japanese staple dishes such as katsu and curry and ramen, without so many izakaya specialties. The food was decent, but nothing memorable.

We had commented various times over the ensuing months that a repeat visit in the evening was in order, and this past Saturday night seemed the opportunity in question.

Based on claims that Kitanoya Guu with Otokanae in Gastown is the most interesting incarnation of the popular local chain, we made our way toward the trendy Water St location.

The entrance to the restaurant seems inviting enough. The establishment perches at the top of a staircase, in a loft-style arrangement which straddles the entryway of a nice Gastown brick-and-wooden-beams ex-warehouse building. The top of the stairs land potential diners in front of a refrigerated display case which includes examples of the day’s specials, which, on Saturday, included tako yaki octopus dumplings, a Japanese paella, and a fried dumpling dish which had sold out.

Also near the top of the stairs was a shelf containing a selection of newspapers and magazines with both English and Japanese selections, and a small podium with a sign saying “Please wait to be seated.”

Finding ourselves somewhere between not being in a tremendous hurry but still increasingly hungry, we asked one of the two couples already standing there how long the wait would be. “Around twenty minutes, I think,” came the answer. It seemed reasonable enough, and not far from the podium was an empty table presumably shortening the wait further. So we waited. so far no one had approached to take our names, but we concluded they were busy and didn’t worry about it.

After around fifteen minutes, we looked up from a break in our conversation to notice that one couple had disappeared without our notice (I’m not sure whether they were seated or if they left), and the couple with whom we had spoken had become fidgety and were wandering back and forth between the waiting area and the bar area, finally giving up and standing near the bar to order drinks. The previously empty table still remained empty. Even now, not a single restaurant staff member had so much as waved at us from the bar, let alone welcomed us to the restaurant, apologized for the wait, or given us any indication how long we would remain waiting.

Now that we stood alone at the podium, it seemed even more obvious that we would be noticed, so we held out a little longer, doing our best to make eye contact with each staff member who passed by. Still not a word from anyone.

After around five more minutes, I paused conversation to comment, saying, “I hope I don’t sound like I’m whining, but does it bother you, too, that no one has so much as talked to us since we arrived here?”

“Oh my God, you too? I’m so glad,” she said. “We must have been standing here twenty minutes already. I’m starting to get really angry.”

“Me too,” I said. “At first I thought I was just getting irritable from being hungry, but then I realized, how are we supposed to know if there’s a table available or not. The place could even be closed entirely for a private party, or reservations only tonight, and were just wasting our time, and we’d have no way of knowing.”

“I’m going to go say something to them,” she stated. She surveyed the restaurant, and about half a minute later, as one of the waitresses walked by, Maktaaq intercepted her and asked about the wait. The response, rather than being the least bit apologetic, was shocking.

“You want to eat here?” (The answer to this seemed obvious.) “Do you mind eating in the bar?”

We looked at each other. “Sure, I guess the bar is okay. Is there space in there now?”

“No, thirty minutes for the bar.”

“If it’s thirty minutes for the bar, how long for the restaurant?”

“Thirty minutes for the restaurant, too. Both sides are busy.”

We both paused for a minute contemplating how the bar question had even been relevant, but then couldn’t help but voice our frustration. “We’ve been standing here for twenty minutes already, and not a single person even came to say hello, or to let us know about the wait, or to assure us there was even going to be a table at all. When were you planning on greeting us?”

The waitress gave us a look of vacuous incomprehension. “Why would we talk to you? We have enough people eating here right now,” she said.

Since by the Guu staff’s own proclamation they had plenty of diners already, we decided to cease being a burden on them and to find another place nearby where we might be more welcome. We resumed our walk up Water St and stopped into Sitar, where we were welcomed effusively, were given our choice of tables next to the window, and enjoyed an intimate dinner of some of the best Butter Chicken and Lamb Roganjosh either of us had ever tasted. The crispy pappadams, delectable samosas, and syrupy gulab jamun for dessert also didn’t disappoint. The service was attentive and warm, the food was outstanding, and the atmosphere was pleasant and relaxing.

While dipping warm tender pieces of fresh naan bread into the remaining butter chicken sauce, she and I both agreed that it’s perplexing why someone would forego a stellar meal at a place like Sitar in order to be voluntarily abused elsewhere.

6 Comments so far

  1. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on March 27th, 2006 @ 12:57 pm

    Sure they’re crazy, but they take reservations, and they’re good.

    At Sitar, I recommend the Lamb Pasanda.

  2. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on March 27th, 2006 @ 1:01 pm

    Er, I was thinking of the Indian restaurant on Robson, near the other Guu. Oops. Try the lamb pasanda there.

    But yeah, that’s kind of insane service at Guu…

  3. Matt (unregistered) on March 27th, 2006 @ 1:59 pm

    It had occurred to me that perhaps they take reservations, but even so, they never even bothered to check whether we had one. That’s why seeing that one empty table was so infuriating — even if it were reserved for someone, they weren’t even checking to see if the reservation holders had arrived.

    At any rate, the food may or may not be really good, but I think this may be another case of the “Stephos Effect” — the bizarre tendency of Vancouver diners to wait in line for over an hour so they can eat at one specific restaurant, when there are dozens of other restaurants which are just as good and far less busy.

  4. wyn (unregistered) on March 27th, 2006 @ 1:59 pm

    I would have said something after ten minutes in an unapologetically bitchy tone because, seriously, you shouldn’t even have to wait five minutes to be *greeted*. You have such patience… or great conversation going on between you!

  5. maikopunk (unregistered) on March 27th, 2006 @ 5:56 pm

    Guu’s food is very good, authentic izikaya-style food, but the service you described (or lack thereof) is familiar-sounding.
    It’s weird they should be so hung up on reservations, since the atmosphere at izikayas ought to be casual, come-as-you-are, pubby. Sounds like girlfriend and her employers over there at KGw/O ought to head on back to Japan for an refresher on what Japanese pub food is all about.
    perhaps they’ve become too well-accustomed to Canadian docility in the face of bad service.
    Let’s start the revolution and stop patronizing establishments that are just coasting along comfortably on received wisdom about their quality. Honey’s Doughnuts, Sophie’s, Uprising Breads, I’m looking in your direction.

  6. Rachael (unregistered) on March 28th, 2006 @ 8:29 am

    I’ve never had a problem getting into the Gastown Guu, but maybe it’s just been my timing. I’ve never been there on a Saturday. They acted terribly, which is too bad because normally they’re so good.

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