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Reader Participation Day: Where Was Your Worst Dining Experience in the National Parks?


So many superlatives swirl around the national parks that at times we forget that things aren't always so rosy. So, tell us where you encountered your worst dining experience in the parks this year.

And tell us why. Was the food cold? Tasteless? Over- or under-cooked? Was service atrocious? Wine glasses or silverware dirty? Menus unimaginative or unhealthy?

If you ate several times at the same dining room, or in a series of dining rooms operated by the same concessionaire, was there consistency in your experience? If so, where? If not, where?

For sure, it can't be easy to cater to thousands of diners a day, a number you can easily multiply by three. And everyone has an off day. But a little constructive criticism can go a long way, especially with the off-season approaching and managers looking back over the summer season business to see where they might improve things.


Vegasjerry, have to agree with you about the Meta Room in Mesa Verde:


Thought I'd add another to the plus column. My son and I ate at El Tovar on the South Rim at the Grand Canyon this July. The lodge's dining room is a lovely space, of course. But also worth noting is the food: generous, tasty portions, well-prepared, and not overly priced. Kudos too, to our waitstaff, who were prompt and courteous. Our delicious lunch made the return hike all the more enjoyable.

The Crystal Lake Coffee Shop at Mammoth Cave was our worst in park dining. The only word to describe them is SLOW. We waited (next in line) to be seated for over 35 minutes. There were plenty of open tables yet none of them clean. The wait staff didn't seem to know how to take orders and clean up in between time. Let's just say multitasking was not part of their vocabulary. I don't know what the food is like because after waiting 35 minutes to be seated and in that time watching another family order and never receive their food in that time made us realize our cave tour was more important than lunch. We left and ate outside of the park later that day.

I've found that if you know a little Russian or another eastern European language, the service improves dramatically! ;-)

I've worked in a number of parks, and have been to more lodge restaurants, but the Ahwahnee in Yosemite was most disappointing. I've eaten there about a dozen times, including for Bracebridge, and have never felt that the food and service lived up to their setting or reputation. Two experiences were especially memorable.

My now husband and I splurged on a dinner there early in our relationship. This was a big extravagance on GS-5 salaries and our hopes were high. The waiter was good and the food passable, if overpriced, but the busser was bizarre. He was attentive and came by the table frequently but each time he had strange invasive questions . Once he asked if we were brother and sister while we were holding hands across the table. Later he asked if I was too old for my 18 month younger boyfriend. During dessert he figured out I was a ranger and told the other bussers. We were then treated to a litany of stories about speeding tickets and other ranger encounters. At least they were nice enough to assure me that "lady rangers" aren't as bad as the other kind.

We survived that dinner and were married in the park three years later. On our wedding day we took our parents to lunch at the Ahwahnee. The waiter set the tone by walking up and asking "what'da ya want?" He then proceeded to disappear for most of the meal. When our food arrived it was oversalted and tasted prepackaged and reheated. My father-in-law is a hard-working farmer who doesn't eat out much. He was really underwhelmed and said that "he'd heard this place was supposed to be good, but they lied."

After that we started taking our dinner business to the Yosemite Lodge dining room. The food was better and more affordable, with better service and beautiful views of Yosemite Falls.

This year we moved to Mesa Verde and agree with previous posters that the Metate Room is a great National Park restaurant. Their waitstaff is friendly and the food is delicious with creative regional touches. If you go be sure to leave room for dessert.

Since I live and work in the parks, I've had quite a few experiences with the resturaunts, since that's really the only place I have to eat out. I have to say that the worst was with Xanterra in Death Valley. I went out to a faily expensive dinner at their steakhouse and, while the food was excellent, had a terrible server. She never returned to fill our drinks and all of us were sitting there thirsty. I finalyl got sick of waiting and got up to get the pitcher myself and poured everyone their drinks. Another time I was in the cafe for a quick bite to eat and the server came up, grabbed my plate of jalapeno poppers without asking if I was done, and threw them away! Luckily once I complained I didn't have to pay for them. I do have to say that once I started dating the lead bartender there, the service got much better!

With 30 + years of experience eating in the parks, in general my expectations are pretty low when I dine inside the parks. My most troubling experience was 3 years ago in yellowstone where the manager continuously berated his staff in front of guests. The wait & kitchen staff (all of whom appeard quite young and from other contires) looked scared to death and miserable. It was the most uncomfortable dining experience I have ever had. I never thought much about it before but there is no reason the parks can't up there game a little given most are now contracted to outside companies. I have on occasion been pleasantly surprised so they are not all bad but if we really want a good meal we tend to avoid park dining.

I  worked at Grand Canyon for years and am absolutely appalled at the lack of pride taken in food quality by Xanterra.  The company should never be in the concessions business at all. Practically everything served in all the restaurants is pre packaged Sysco garbage- whether it be cafeteria or fine dining. Kitchens are not maintained to a decent standard- inspections are never surprise- the restaurants have several days notice to prepare to prepare for them, giving the image that they are actually kept clean.  On slow days, kitchen staff could be utilized to do much needed cleaning work, but keeping under ridiculous low staffing budgets is the highest priority, and far too many are sent home.

I have been in many restaurants outside the National Park System that deal with rushes throughout the day the likes of which these restaurants have not seen nor could survive.  Many put out for the most part amazing quality food.  I do not buy the line that because a restaurant is busy at times, it must be substandard.

The practice of taking customers for granted needs to be stopped immediately in our National Parks. Fred Harvey started his business because he was dissatisified with how the
trains were handling food service. Now known as Xanterra, the same company Fred Harvey took so much pride in provides some of the most inedible food out there.

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