Chicago hospitality: outstanding to ugly sides

Use Google when in search of the “lost art of customer service,” and 10,000 references pop up within two seconds. Balance this against economic predictions that excellent customer assistance will make a big-time comeback this year.

Customer service – be it mindful or mindless – has the power to enhance, rescue or destroy a getaway. I was reminded of this during a quick trip to Chicago recently, when two incidents influenced my frame of mind in extremely different ways.

I’m a fan of mass transit and have never driven in downtown Chicago. Riding on a clean bus (www.coachusa.com) from Madison or inexpensive train (www.metrarail.com) from Kenosha or Harvard, Ill., delivers me near the Loop without hassle every time.

Then I walk or rely on city buses, elevated trains or cabs to traverse the metro area. No big deal, until this month. An hour after arriving, I lost the only credit card that made the trip with me.

“Do you know where it is?” the card issuer asked.

“It’s right in front of me, but I can’t get my hands on it.”

I was staring at the Chicago Transit Authority ticket machine that was holding my Visa hostage. It didn’t matter which button I pushed, or how many times I re-read the instructions at machine No. 11041. The card wasn’t coming back.

“That’s never happened before,” insisted Nancy, the lone CTA employee working at this Adams and Wabash rail entry point. Two roaming CTA workers, whose keys could open some ticket machines – but not this one, agreed.

This was no comfort.

Nancy called an equipment service number and couldn’t connect with a human. I called CTA’s customer service line and was told to cancel the card.

Couldn’t I wait for a technician to open the machine? It would likely happen within 24 hours, but supervisor Cynthia could predict when.

What would happen when the jammed machine was opened? The technician would destroy the card.

Could someone call when the tech was en route? No. Could someone deliver the card to my hotel, on the same block as the jammed machine? No. Could I retrieve the card from CTA at any point or place? No.

It didn’t matter that I live out of town and didn’t bring another credit card. It didn’t matter that the cause of my problem was faulty CTA equipment.

I realize that employees are likely worn down by the layoffs, salary freezes and consequences of service cuts that began in February to save CTA about $95 million. Callous customer service, though, does nothing to build compassion for these workers or their predicament.

No one bothered to put an “out of order” sign on No. 11041. Next time, I’ll order a daylong transit pass ($5.75) ahead of time at http://bit.ly/vuaC9 (part of www.transitchicago.com), or not use CTA transport at all.

This episode had me steamin’ for quite a while, and I couldn’t tell enough people about it. I posted a lippy note on Facebook, fit it into casual conversation with strangers and made a mental note to tell all of you.

So did I leave Chicago bitter? Quite the contrary. That’s thanks to another set of stressful circumstances that was all my own doing.

Business brought me to the Windy City, but I routinely seek ways to mix work with pleasure. So I bought tickets to “Billy Elliot” – the new-to-Chicago and Tony award-winning show with music by Elton John – and filled other free time with a scoot through the Art Institute of Chicago (admission is free from 5-8 p.m. on Thursdays).

Overbooking is my specialty, which My Guy will be the first to acknowledge. Associates set up a 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation for us at the Custom House Tavern, where a petite menu is big on innovative treatment of regional ingredients. Executive chef Aaron Deal in 2009 was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award (“rising star chef” category).

I was geared to graze through a salad of “young lettuces,” a bisque of she-crab, then fork-tender pork cheeks with ramps and black trumpet mushrooms, mixed with fresh pappardelle pasta.

Our server, Clare, gently guided us from cocktails (made with small-batch spirits) to cuisine. She knew we had to a show to make and asked about the curtain time when seating us. I was sure it was 8 p.m. and only glanced at the tickets as an afterthought, shortly after we ordered.

So it was 6:50 when we realized the musical started a half-hour earlier than expected, eight blocks away.

I would not have blamed Clare for simply shrugging her shoulders in pity or admonishing us. When she simply responded that this would be no problem and glided toward the kitchen, I was amazed. The restaurant was not crowded, but neither were we the only diners.

All courses appeared within 10 minutes. Never have I tried to wolf down such a classy meal in such a short amount of time. We were out the door by 7:20 and into a cab, waiting for us because hostess Gema had hailed it.

We were in our theater seats with a couple of minutes to spare, and “Billy Elliot” was remarkable because of the choreography – especially the harsh and passionate routine that ended the first act.

“Because we’re not a corporate-owned restaurant, we are not locked into a box about how we operate and could get you what you needed,” says Clayton Falwell, manager of the Custom House Tavern.

It is the same with the menu, which is based upon the ever-changing bounty of small farms that chef Aaron scopes out. “The culture of farming in our region makes it viable for our chef to do as he wants and embrace the products at local markets,” Clayton says.

For more about the Custom House Tavern, 500 S. Dearborn St., Chicago: 312-523-0200 and www.customhouse.cc. You’ll also find the restaurant on Facebook (www.facebook.com/CustomHouseChicago).

An aside: I wasn’t panicky after losing a credit card because I traveled with a cash card (www.cumoney.com) that works like a credit/debit card. I treat this stash like emergency money but also know that $2 is deducted per transaction.