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Review Fri Aug 31 2007
Julius Meinl has been one of my favorite bakery/coffee shop in Chicago. Their European-style cakes are always fantastic (excellent on the palate, beautiful on the eyes), and the airy interior always makes me feel as if I were on a trip in Europe. Only nice bike ride away in Lakeview, but everything about the coffee shop puts me in the splendor of faraway continent. Furthermore, Meinl is a special place for me--it was where I met my partner for the first time.
So it pains me to say that I've been a little worried about the operation there. It's not the food quality that I'm concerned about; it's the service that seems to get especially iffy at weekend peek hours.
The first sign was an iced coffee that showed up a good fifteen minutes after ordering on a Saturday afternoon. I had to look at our waitress in disbelief when she placed the tray on our table, for my iced coffee looked like someone already sipped from it. More than half of the whipped cream on the top had melted into the coffee, leaving an unappetizing heap of disintegrating, browning mass clinging to the ice cubes. The condensation on the glass had dripped and completely soaked the paper coaster underneath. It must have been sitting on the counter for quite a while.
"Is this...?" I started to mumble, hoping that she might realize what I was going to say, but she assured me that it sure was the iced coffee I ordered. Did she really not see how sub par the iced coffee was? Or was she too busy to acknowledge that? Not very fond of confrontation, I accepted it. This was in early July.
A few weeks later, we went back for a Saturday breakfast at around 10. Meinl was absolutely slammed with customers and apparently not enough staff to handle the rush. It took them close to an hour to get our food out, and our coffee was long gone when it finally came. We felt sorry for the waitress--whose lack of attention we were initially grumpy about--because she was waiting a large number of tables both inside and outside. Slow service seemed to be the norm: everybody around us were waiting for their food for a long time, while quite a few customers waited to be seated when there were plenty of open tables around. It was when what seemed to be an emergency staff meeting took place in the doorway to the kitchen, right when the customers waited unattended, that I suspected that they might be having some sort of management problem.
My worry mounted as I heard similar stories of long wait and inattentive services. Given the fabulous cakes that's a rarity in Chicago and the good coffee, I didn't want them to suffer. Since Drivethru is (hopefully) somewhat influential in Chicago's dining scene, I hesitated a while to write a negative review of the Meinl. But the fact seemed to remain that they need to get their act together--soon--or they'd lose their fan base.
Before writing this article, I decided to go back there just one more time--this time on a weekday. My hope was that I'd get decent service this time so that I'd be able to conclude the article in a positive note. And I did. The waitress was friendly, my iced coffee arrived in a few minutes in an impeccable state, and the topfenstrudel (flaky pastry filled with sweet cheese cream and raisins) was as fantastic as ever. I enjoyed a quiet hour or so reading my book. Everybody seemed happy around me. There was none of the weekend madness. While Meinl does need to improve their weekend rush hour performance (more staff would help, it seems), my last visit assured me that there still is hope. Meanwhile, I'd recommend avoiding weekends until they figure out how to handle the large crowd. After all, poor service ruins even the best of the cakes and coffees.