Power, Privilege & Inertia in the Restaurant Business: A Case Study at Jake's "Famous" Crawfish

This was a date. It was a combination Valentine's Day and 3rd anniversary dinner. The #1 you-have-to-try-this-restaurant in Portland seemed like a natural choice. After a glance at the 4-star rating on Yelp, I believed the hype, and I reserved a table, making note of our special occasions. We looked forward to the meal all week. Everything started off fine. The maître'd mentioned our special occasions, as did the hostess, and the print-out menus said "HAPPY VALENTINES DAY/3RD ANNIVERSARY" at the top. Our names weren't there. I hope they didn't print these for everybody.

Things turned weird when our server came. Tina and I immediately recognized the side effects of medicinal herb inhalation: fumbled greetings, persistent amusement, inexplicable hand gestures, and hungry eyes. We expected this to be a good sign; it would behoove a waiter at a good restaurant to be hungry all the time. As we would learn, perhaps there are other reasons for a waiter to self-medicate.

Fatefully, I ordered the "famous" dungeness crab and bay shrimp cakes, and Tina ordered the "Northwest salmon sauté." I considered the pecan crusted catfish, but I decided to go with a Jake's staple. "It's less risky," I said. That may have been the best call of the evening.

The crabcakes were fine. The menu described them as "fried golden brown, served with jalapeño ginger aioli." It didn't mention the under-boiled pile of string beans and shaved carrots or decent mashed potatoes, but those were acceptable. Whatever Fred Meyer bottle the sauce came in may have been labeled "jalapeño ginger aioli," but I couldn't really taste anything. Tina thought she sensed ginger. This dish cost $25.65 for three palatable crab cakes.

The "Northwest salmon sauté" was an atrocity. The menu prepared Tina for this:

Northwest Salmon Sauté Shiitake & Oyster Mushrooms, Sherry, Hazelnuts and Cream ..... 21.80

What she got was this:


It was a slop of variously-sized chunks of salmon so overcooked that one could not determine its quality, stuck in a muddy, caloric puddle of cream, out of which protruded irregular shards of mushroom, surrounding an unexpected mound of unseasoned white rice and garnished, inexplicably, with several raspberries.

What if she'd been allergic to raspberries?

Tina's dish was absolutely disgusting. She makes these adorably childlike facial expressions of her reactions when she eats. When something doesn't taste good, you half expect her to just spit it back out. The second I saw that face, I flew into a rage. I love her faces, and I love taking her out to dinner to watch her delight in an excellent meal. In that one flash across her face, Jake's "Famous" Crawfish had ruined our Valentine's Day and our third anniversary simultaneously.

I chose Jake's "Famous" Crawfish because I am a Southern boy, and Tina has never had crawfish before. There were no crawfish on the menu.

"It's like wedding food," Tina said, dropping her fork next to the "Northwest salmon sauté" for the last time.

She politely but honestly sent back her food, agreeing to an appetizer-sized plate of the crabcakes. She managed one, but she was too full of unnecessarily heavy Jake's fare to finish her second.

"You really don't want another bite?", she asked.

"No. I had three of them," I replied, my voice muffled by cream sauce.

"I feel bad for you," she muttered, frowning.

Our waiter was awkward before, but after he found out we hated dinner, it became a thousand times more uncomfortable. He offered us some complimentary cheesecake. "I hope that's good, at least," I said. Tina replied, "I don't care anymore. I'm just trying to steal their resources."

The cheesecake was good. After loading up on that (one slice was enough), we lolled about in a cream-induced torpor, criticizing the art on the walls until the check came.

This is the taste of a 20th century restaurant in decline. Food has no excuse to be this slimy, bland, and expensive. Jake's "Famous" Seafood, once independent, now owned by schlock-food chain McCormick & Schmick's, must survive entirely on tourism, hype, and price-gouging. It's time for this restaurant to move out of the way. At least now, when we find ourselves in conversations about Portland and are inevitably asked, "Oooh, have you been to Jake's 'Famous' Crawfish?", we will be able to say "Yes. It was awful."

As in other reviews, the silver lining was our goofily-smiling waiter, who seemed to have girded his mindset against this sort of thing. He struck the offending meal from the bill, and brought a second plate of crab cakes for free, with a slice of cheesecake. He was rewarded handsomely.

That morning, Tina made dill-seasoned scrambled eggs with cheddar and salami, baked beans, and toast. It was the best meal of the day by a wide margin, and the ingredients cost less than a glass of wine at dinner. I love her so much.

view the original 1-star review on Yelp.