When The Chameleon opened its doors on June 29th at the infamous 166 Shrewsbury Street incubator, the structure was already tainted with scandal. Walking in with fresh eyes was the only way to see The Chameleon as a unique newcomer to Restaurant Row but with the interior giving off the same feel as its previous resident, it was hard to do so. With the tables and booths, arranged in the same order and not far from the décor of The Usual, it was difficult to shake off the feeling of Déjà vu.
The bar, per most restaurants, was the highlight of the space but for odd reasons. While most restaurant bars are lined with patrons ordering their favorite cocktails, this bar was lined with staff members and a few non-eating visitors. With so many available dining tables during the evening visit, one must wonder what was behind the infatuation with sitting at the bar despite the bar not serving alcohol on opening night.
From its name to its menu displays, The Chameleon looks to change the way people dine on Restaurant Row. With tablets for menus, foodies can intertwine their affection for food and technology through a visual display of food options. But when you have a visual display of expectations, it’s important to live up to that photo and in this case, they did not. The visual impact of food is crucial. It sets the tone of expectations and leaves customers salivating until the dish’s arrival but when the photo does not reflect the dish, it leaves an empty feeling of confusion and mistrust.
From the neatly prepared Pineapple Meatballs, Smoked Shrimp Cocktail, and Korean Pork Fat to the Mama’s Crispy Bowl, the visual photos, beautifully portrayed on the tablet menu – in High-Definition, of course – did not meet the actual presentation of the dishes. The Pineapple Meatballs, shown as bite-sized meatball served with a toothpick for easy eating – was served in an iron-cast skillet with only four meatballs in a not-so-small portion. The Korean Pork Fat – displayed on the tablet as small chucks of well-rubbed pork fat – arrived as three bacon-like cut pieces with marinated veggies and pineapple (the pineapple was infused in most dishes). While the savior was the dessert – a simple Cocoa Krispies bowl topped with vanilla ice cream, fudge, whipped cream and an inevitable cherry – it was another dish that did not reflect the stock photo on the menu.
While some disappointment laid in between the slides of the tablet menu, the biggest disappointment was the treatment of customers. When arriving, customers were simply told to “sit anywhere” and considering the place was empty at 8:59 pm – it did not seem like a terrible gesture. But as the bar became a popular seating area for staffers and non-eating customers, actual paying customers were not greeted at the door and instead received the yelling phrase of “sit anywhere” from the bartender – who was preoccupied talking to non-eating visitors at the bar.
Attention to customers is the epicenter of success in a restaurant business. It helps form the menu inspiration, the atmosphere and the epic word of mouth phenomenon that can boost the levels of success in a restaurant hub and when restaurant owners lose sight of that, they lose sight of what’s important. The Chameleon may be emphasizing the phrase, a photo is worth a thousand words, but the only two words we could think of are: do over.