Dining alone but not by choice

| Monday, Dec. 8, 2003

Lunchtime along McKnight Road: The lot ringing Wendy's is packed. Cars are clustered all around Applebee's. Parking is at a premium at Chili's.

I swing into a space directly in front of Chi-Chi's.

Trepidation over dining at any location of the once-popular Mexican restaurant chain has not diminished. This is understandable. Three people died after eating at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's in late September and October. They were among 635 who fell ill with hepatitis A.

Contaminated green onions from Mexico are the outbreak's suspected culprit.

No one got sick by patronizing the Chi-Chi's in Ross, but the outbreak's effect on business has been devastating nonetheless. As I enter, I see only one diner amid the dozens of empty booths and tables.

The all-day half-off special on margaritas isn't proving much of a drawing card.

With no hostess or bartender on duty, I wait patiently until the lone waiter working emerges from the back. He seems surprised and grateful to see me standing there.

"Good afternoon sir," he says, then asks as though it matters: "Smoking or nonsmoking?"

The waiter, Jimmy Rhodes, 20, of Mt. Washington, disappears after taking my order. I am left to listen to Christmas music that would have been subtle background music had there been a crowd. Instead, it blares loudly through the nearly empty restaurant.

I approach the only other customer, a 40-something man as burly and bearded as he is approachable. Finishing his taco salad, Carl Gross of Butler doesn't mind a brief dining disruption to answer a few questions.

"Concerned about eating here• No, I was concerned that maybe the place wasn't open," he said. "The parking lot was empty."

"I know," I say. "I got a space right by the front door."

Gross says it's a shame his favorite Mexican eatery is suffering because of the outbreak. "This is a good place to eat. Hopefully, their problems are all fixed now, and people will start coming back."

Rhodes arrives with my shredded beef burrito. The service here is excellent.

Halfway through my meal, Gross departs. As the only one now eating in the restaurant, I can't help but think that only a Tibetan monk would enjoy modestly priced Mexican in such seclusion.

When Rhodes brings my check, I ask, "Does it seem as strange in here to you as it does to me?"

Not anymore, Rhodes says. He is now accustomed to it. But Rhodes says the pre- and post-outbreak atmosphere at the restaurant couldn't be any more different.

"Between noon and 1:30, we'd be filled to capacity pretty much every day," he says wistfully. "Now it's like -- this."

Rhodes hopes business picks up soon.

"It's kind of boring here right now," he says. "And I'm not making a lot in tips."

I take the hint and tip well. I figure it could be a while until the poor guy gets his next one.

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