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.

Comments

I try NOT focusing on negatives while we are on vacation. I figure that vacation is when a person should be the LEAST stressed out in their life. Having said that though, it has happened to us, fortunately just once, turtle-paced waiters and kitchen staff. We shrugged it off and realized that some days are going to be like that, workers being overwhelmed. We gave them another try on the next trip and found that everything was just fine. I understand that some people feel that for the price they pay at one of the Lodge's Dining Rooms they should have a 5 star experience. I also understand that we can all have an off day and that a little grace and mercy can go a long way!

Dining room at Grant Village, YNP, about 3 weeks ago. Didn't know a couple of pork chops could be so tough. Waiter never came back to check on how the meal was. But, like Connie, chalked it up to just a bad day in the kitchen, or whatever, and let it go. Paid the $50.00 bill, walked outside, and thanked the good Lord for places like Yellowstone.

Connie Hopkins -- what a GREAT reply.

As for me, my worst dining experience was when I was camping in a drenching rain and all the firewood was completely fireproof and my little butane stove refused to operate. Have you ever tried raw Spam? :))

I agree with Connie. When we travel, we try not to focus on the negative. On the other hand, when prices are high and quality of service is low, some form of public notification should be warranted.

The NPS rates the performance of their concessioners, but these ratings and the justification thereof are not made public. They should be. Publication of reviews of visitor experiences will eventually lead to a higher quality service. I'm convinced of that.

For myself, where in recent times have I had a notably substandard dining experience in a national park? That would be the Wayside coffee shop at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, which is operated by Aramark. The service during lunch was so slow that we ended up (after a wait at our table of over one half hour) leaving the dining facility and purchasing snacks for an outdoor picnic. I've noticed that similar negative reviews have been posted online, http://www.yelp.com/biz/big-meadows-wayside-luray . The consistency of such public reviews for this facility is a curiousity given the fact that quality of service of concessioner operations inside the national parks is overseen and evaluated by the NPS.

First of all, I love the comments by Connie and Jerry. We try to practice the same. I think most people's expectations are slightly lower in National Parks.
Our worst experiences have been more the inability to get a meal rather than subpar service. After a hike, we got to the lodge at Crater Lake between lunch and dinner wanting to eat and were told the dining room would not be open for another couple hours. We ended up getting candy bars and chips at the gift shop. Our memories of hiking to the top of Wizard Island are not diminished by the lack of a proper meal at the lodge.

Like everyone else vacation should be stress free but we had the worst meal I have ever had vacation or not at the Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone last month.Service was slower than slow,one entree was not what was ordered another was called prime rib but was grilled mystery meat and was overpriced.We mentioned this to several rangers and employee's of the company and they all agreed bad food dont eat there.This is in stark contrast to the meals we had at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel,service outstanding,food superb and the atmosphere sublime.

Kevin, between the hours of lunch and dinner, meals should be available at the cafeteria at Rim Village at Crater Lake, which is only a few hundred yards stroll from Crater Lake Lodge. Also, when the dinning room at Crater Lake Lodge is full, meals and starters can be served to those sitting in the Great Hall area of the Lodge.

I've told this before, but my experience was at Bryce Canyon Lodge in 2006 when it was run by Xanterra.

The food wasn't bad and I can't really complain about the prices. However - we got there at about 2 PM and there was one server and a late lunch rush with about 10-12 tables. Eventually people (not including myself) started complaining that their orders were taking forever and that water and other things weren't served to them. The server then started stamping her feet coming into and out of the kitchen and slammed a few orders on tables. Finally she went ballistic and started screaming in the kitchen that she couldn't handle it any more, and we never saw her come out. At our table we asked the busboy what the deal was, and he said that management didn't expect this late a rush. Finally the manager came out and covered for her. It was a bad experience, but I'm thinking it probably wasn't anticipated.

I've had many good experiences too. I thoroughly enjoyed the soda fountain at the Canyon section of Yellowstone. It was run by Delaware North and not Xanterra.

Over the past three years I have visited and/or dined in the grand old lodges of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon South Rim, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Bryce Canyon, (alas, no lodges), and Zion. I would not expect such landmarks which represent all that is historically romantic about the parks (and wonderfully stoked by the recent Ken Burns series), to passionately provide anything less than world-class food and service. But in some cases they are operated by ARAMark (think college cafeteria) and XTerra who are desiged to cater to the masses. But the great dining rooms of these lodges are not for the masses. They are no larger in most cases than top restaurants in renowned food cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Therefore their daily quota is not on par with the masses who indeed flow through the cafeterias, grills, and stands in the rest of the park areas. The lodge dining areas should seriously consider entering the level of pride which sets them apart and makes them an experience equal to the view out the window. (Though I must admit the Ahwahnee's current "back to nature" and blasting lawn sprinklers view is hardly mentionable.) I say raise the standard. Judging by the record crowds this year, folks are willing to pay. And this customer is willing to pay for the privelage to enjoy an ethereal atmosphere combined with excellent food and flawless service.

I hate to admit it, each time I've been to Crater Lake I have tried the new Annie Creek restaurant for their breakfast buffet (a total of about five visits). The service was minimal, but not horrible. But every single time, the food was completely tasteless and incredibly slow. Most the restaurant was in a state of waiting most of the time... waiting for food to come to the buffet. And when it arrived... I mean, how can you screw up bacon? It's friggin' bacon! And yet the bacon, sausage, french toast... all were completely bland, often overcooked and without appeal. I've tried. Honestly. But I'm not going there anymore.

I did have a great experience with their pizza in the evening, however - it was hot and delicious and generous... so...

Nelson, we had a very similar experience at Canyon Lodge in YNP in June. We were willing to go with the flow when a manager came and told us (after 40 minute of waiting for our food) that our waiter had just realized he had never entered our order into the computer. The manager then offered us an additional glass of wine, which we assumed was complementary. Our food finally arrived half an hour later (and was quite satisfactory), but the waiter never came back to check on us and did not bring the bill. We waited for another half-hour, told two busboys to ask our waiter for our check, and finally requested it from a manager. It arrived and the extra wine was not on the bill. Imagine our surprise, then, when the processed credit card receipt that was returned for our signature was $15 higher than the bill with which we had been presented! We summoned a manager, and it took three people 15 minutes to figure out what had happened. In the end, they removed the wine from the bill, but by then we had been in the dining room for nearly 3 hours.

Wait, this gets worse. We stayed in a cabin at Canyon that night, and the roof leaked, the two lamps over the beds had both shorted out, and in the morning the entire area had no hot water. We were supposed to stay in this cabin for two nights, but we checked out early at 11 when it was clear that no attempt had been made to deal with the water situation. Normally I cut the parks a lot of slack, but this was all just beyond our ability to accept. I was vociferous at the checkout, and we got our room rate refunded.

Randi, I should have had you argue for me with the front desk clerk at St. Mary Lodge...;-)

For curious Travelers, the Better Business Bureau in Montana was of no help, nor did resort officials acknowledge a certified letter I sent them. If we had a "warning list," we'd definitely list this property.

Kurt, I just read your St. Mary Lodge story. Yikes! It's interesting: We also booked late, about two weeks before our trip, because the trip itself came up fairly unexpectedly. I theorize that these organizations hold the rooms in need of repair to book last, perhaps knowing that they should not be booked at all. No one should have stayed in the room you received or in the cabin with which we found ourselves. Word to the wise: When booking late, we need to ask a lot of questions—many of which the booking agent may not be able to answer. Caveat emptor!

Pkranger,
Thanks for the info. I wish I had talked to you that day! I will try to remember it the next time we come down from Mt. Scott at the "wrong" time of day.
In any event, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we did not worry about a few bad calories after a few miles on those steep trails.

Cafeteria at Yosemite Lodge at the falls...Biscuits and gravey...had ice crystals in the middle of the biscuits, luke warm gravey, they were to busy at 7am to heat or replace. I was hungary and ate the breakfast. Two hours later I was SICK, SICK.
Spent the next two days in hotel room never venturing too far from the head. Delaware North was the concessionaire. Over four years the food and rooms get more expensive and quality goes down. I highly recommend OAKHURST, CA. for your food needs.

The worst experience was at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The menu said fresh garden peas along with my "homemade meatloaf". The peas came straight from a can. Plus the "manager" said we do not serve canned peas. I said sonny I've been eating canned peas long before you were born. He just walked away.

However the BEST food at a National Park IS at the Mesa Verde resturant. Fantastic is not good enough to describe it. Eating here got me loving the dishes so much . That was before we moved on to the North Rim and disaster.

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.

TAKE YOUR PICK! Most offerings at the South Rim Grand Canyon are swill for the masses. We dined at every venue with several at El Tovar Dining Room. All was overpriced and the quality was poor. Death Valley Inn and Ranch are well below par to the point the General Manager and I are in contact about the deplorable food and service at the Inn which he is now investigating after agreeing with our opinion. Yosemite National Park has had poor cuisine for the past 40 years I've been going there. Up and down at Ahwahnee, always poor at Curry Village, and the Mountain Room's menue hasn't changed in 40 years to the point where one notices. I've dined at all venues for decades much to my amazement the food quality remains poor. Any Park served by Delaware North, Xanterra, Forever Resorts will have substandard food.

The BEST was at Glacier Park's St Mary's Lodge, Flagg Ranch Grand Tetons, and Jackson Lake Lodge NONE of which were run by the aforementioned concessionairs.

Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton Park has the rudest waitresses I have ever experienced.