As I sat at the bar, looking around, commiserating with other customers who were feeling just as neglected and baffled as I was, I tweeted:
The Counter Burger in Clifton is a shit show of epic proportions. Be afraid. Very afraid.— tommy:eats (@tommyeats) March 20, 2014
I was debating whether or not to post about this place. The experience was horrible. The burger, conversely, was quite decent. But now that I see that The Counter extended special invites to local bloggers (and possibly Yelpers), from which positive "reviews" will very likely come (that's the dance, folks--positive press, bought and paid for), I figured it would be a good idea to temper the water with the experience of a paying customer. You know, someone like you. Someone who didn't have special treatment, special access, or free food.
Back to that experience.
I sat at the bar for 5 minutes (I timed it, because I could immediately sense things weren't going to go well), completely ignored by the bartender, who was of course standing only 3 feet away, before I got up to ask the people at the hostess stand if I was supposed to take one of those paper menus that they have there. I wasn't. They gave me a regular menu and I sat back down at the bar. Another 5 minutes went by before I was acknowledged.
"Five minutes, well huh that's not a lot of time, Mr. Important-pants" you say. Any business owner, or business-minded individual, will tell you that 5 minutes (well, 10 minutes in this case, technically), is quite a long time to not acknowledge a customer. At a bar, especially.
A cocktail list exists, which I suppose is a positive, and that was as good a place to start as any to. Yowza. It's populated with concoctions that would be best consumed by 22 year olds. Sweet, horrible-sounding drinks they seemed. The Counter is certainly not trying to appeal to people who are even vaguely interested in cocktails. With the exception, perhaps, of the "Margarita Fresca" (Sauza Hornitos, agave, lime juice, per the menu). Aside from not containing triple sec, and therefore not actually being a Margarita, in the "Fresca" style or otherwise, it was certainly the obvious choice for me, and the best-sounding on the list. I also figured I should watch it being made, just in case things went south. They did.
The tequila was Sauza Hornitos reposado. Which is fine, but you'd think the menu would state that a reposado--a more expensive and more complex tequila--was being used. Unless it was just a mistake. Either way, a perfectly acceptable tequila. I also spied what appeared to be fresh lime juice and agave go in.
Then, out of nowhere (well, the rail, actually), came a bottle of Rose's "lime juice." Glug, glug, glug, into the glass. I stuttered out a half-assed "excuse me!" hoping to cut the carnage off mid-glug, but I wasn't loud or quick enough. The woman sitting next to me, who looked as though she was struggling with her own set of first-world challenges, gave me a sympathetic "too late." I said "yeah, I think it's 'too late' for a lot of things here." She smiled and nodded, knowingly.
I am, you'll note, quite the charmer.
I did send it back, although it was my fault for not asking if the ingredients would include items that weren't listed on the cocktail list. Of all people I should have known to ask. The replacement, sans Rose's, was actually quite fine. The large, pithy piece of orange masquerading as a twist was a bit amateurish, although typical.
That nice woman next to me asked the bartender for salad dressing, since her salad was delivered without any. She asked twice. She also stopped a waitress and asked her, getting a bubbly and all-too-prevalent perfunctory "no problem!" Needless to say she left without ever getting the salad dressing.
She seemed to struggle with this for a moment, but while paying the bill proclaimed "I don't want to pay for the salad. I didn't eat it." "Good for you" I told her. "Right!?? It's 3 dollars!" she responded. Of course they had to find a manager to take it off the bill, which you just know was going to be a while. She pulled back her credit card and threw down enough money to cover her burger and a tip, I assume, basically told them to figure it out, and ran out. Flying past me on the way to freedom she sighed "ugh, the never-ending lunch."
Bags of to-go orders were coming out of the kitchen and being placed on the bar. Every time, they were ignored. Customers waiting at the bar for their to-go orders would have to ask the bartender, and now a manager of some sort, who finally made his way out to the floor, to check to see "is that mine?!?!" Everyone was trading glances, like "what the hell is going on at this place?"
The fellas next to me had been waiting some time for their food. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Kitchens get in the weeds. It's expected. The bartender told them that theirs would be ready soon, that they were making mine first, and then they'd make theirs: they were going in order, we were advised.
The guys looked at me with disbelief and astonishment in their eyes. I said "they make one burger at a time here, I guess." Head shaking all around.
Pretty much all of the above falls squarely on the shoulders of management. There is obviously a lack of oversight and training at this place. I expect that more from mom-and-pop places, not corporately operated chains. Chains, for all of their food flaws, are process-oriented and have the resources for training. Usually. [Update: The Counter may be a franchise so this location could very well be independently operated.]
The place has been open for a week, and if I'm running a business, a manager is all over every inch of it, making sure shit ain't going sideways. Any manager should have seen the bartender was in way over her head. Any manager should have known that the kitchen was in the weeds and addressed concerns of waiting customers. Any manager should have realised that to-go orders were piling up, and customers who ordered to-go orders were standing around wondering if those bags contained their dying lunches. Customers took to standing to try to get their check, since a finished plate and lingering wasn't indication enough. There wasn't a single person around me who wasn't having some sort of issue, and even without being told about it, this was evident from the looks on their faces.
Mismanagement and a lack of management doesn't bode well for any business, and I'd say especially a restaurant/bar business. From what I saw, they have a lot of work to do.
Back to that burger.
I quite liked the burger.
You "build your burger" here, by checking off what you want on a piece of paper. "Building your own burger." Sounds fancy. They used to call it "ordering a burger" in the old days.
There's nowhere to check off temperature preference, and I figured there was no point in getting involved in that level of specificity here, given what I had been observing. But the bartender at the last minute asked how I wanted it cooked. "Medium rare." I said. "Pink throughout?" she asked. "If that's what they call 'medium rare' here, then by all means" I responded. I really don't have to learn a new parlance to order a fucking hamburger, do I?
The burger came out, m/r, topped with the stuff I had checked off, and it was quite good. The brioche bun, which appeared to be buttered and griddled, was of an appropriate size for the 1/3 lb burger (they also offer 1/2 and 1 lb burgers).
The cheese was melted. The burger was juicy. It had a pleasant, somewhat course texture. It was grilled, I believe. Or was that another burger I had somewhere else? I forget. It did have a nice char on it, but could have used salt.
The fries were of the McDonald's variety. Nicely salted, but largely unexceptional.
I've gone on long enough, but I'd like to share some bullet points from my notes. Some are good, some not so good.
- The bar has plenty of legroom, and a foot rail. Good.
- The bar stools are oddly low, making you feel like a child. Bad.
- Parking is a nightmare. Holy cow. I can't imagine dealing with that parking to shop or eat anywhere, much less at a shitty strip mall.
- Music was on the sound system. Ranging from classic rock to alterna-rock.
- It's a bright, modern place. Very family friendly, it seemed.
- The list of wines by the glass is short and it's obvious to me that someone put at least some thought into it. Not loaded with oaky new world Chardonnays or big CA cabs. I was quite impressed, if only because it wasn't cookie-cutter.
- Some interesting bottled and tap beers as well. Not your typical frat party selection.
- The "red relish" is their "special sauce," and it's ketchup and sweet relish. I think history has shown that if you add mayo to that, you have a proper "special sauce."
For the 2 people who gotten this far, apologies for the long narrative. I could have summed it up with: "Decent and perhaps quite good burger. My initial tweet could have been a bit hyperbolic, but until they sort out their operation, I won't be back. Also the parking sucks."
The Counter : 374 Route 3 West : Clifton, NJ : 973.594.8700