Bourdain’s World-Class Wine, Food, Cheese Meets Tacky, Taco Croatian Service

Total Croatia News

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August 10, 2019 – When is a taco not a taco, and some lessons to be learned about customer service in Zagreb.  

One of the many things I get criticised for is that I never write negative things about restaurants, and the majority of my writing about gastronomy in Croatia is extremely positive. There are a few reasons for this. 

Firstly, I don’t believe in spreading negativity for the sake of negativity, and one of the reasons TripAdvisor exists is so that people can vent their dissatisfaction. Secondly, I like to celebrate Croatian gourmet excellence where I can, especially giving the little guy a little more exposure – the fabulous vegan and gluten-free menu of Lucullus in Hvar Town or the traditional yet innovative Zbondini in Velo Grablje are recent examples of this. And thirdly, as a naturalised local, I have a better grasp of where to eat and where to avoid, and so my exposure to bad food choices is a lot more limited in Croatia than it would be to the visiting tourist.

But the subject of the quality of restaurant food and of restaurant service is something I encounter on a daily basis online and in person, perhaps more so this year than previously. Higher prices, average food and disinterested waiters are things which I am encountering more and more with the many people I engage with and follow. 

All agree on the huge potential of Croatia’s goumet tourism, which was perhaps given its biggest ever endorsement by the late, great Anthony Bourdain back in 2011, when he spoke of Croatia’s ‘world-class food, world-class wine, world-class cheese.’ It was certainly a great launching pad to develop the niche of gourmet tourism, which has a much longer and higher-spending season that summer on the beach.  

And while most of us mere mortals cannot afford to eat in the places frequented by Bourdain, Croatia can develop its image as a destination with good quality food, dishes and service simply by delivering menus and restaurant experiences with those ingredients at the core, whatever the actual budget. 

Sadly this is happening less and less listening to many people I meet. And the perception is growing that although Croatia has a GREAT gourmet story, what many of its restaurants are delivering average food at a high price with poor service. 

It really shouldn’t be that way, especially in a country which lives off tourism. 

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An article on this subject has been formulating in the back of my head for quite some time, but I have never really had a focus to turn it into an article.

Until I went for lunch (or thought I went for lunch) at Submarine in Bogoviceva in central Zagreb a few days ago. Originally known as the Yellow Submarine until a British lawyer representing the interests of those Beatles chaps ensured a change of name in 2015, Submarine is a popular place with a specialty in burgers. At its entrance, it promises organic, homemade, farm to table, natural products. 

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I wasn’t in the mood for a burger, but the idea of a tuna taco sounded very appetising indeed. Tuna & Taco, Mediterranean tuna with couscous, crunchy tacos and fresh arugula, mixed with cherry tomatoes and red cabbage. It sounded great and I ordered the large Tuna & Taco along with a drink.  


What was I expecting? A tuna taco, or perhaps mini tacos – something like this, perhaps. 


Or this maybe.

And what did I get?

Once the waiter placed the dish in front of me, I stared at it for some time. What in the world was that?!?  


What looked like a can of tuna, a few sliced cherry tomatoes, some couscous and a few tortilla chips on a bed of red cabbage.  

Maybe I was missing something, but where was the taco?

Despite the fact that I write a lot about food in Croatia, I am not really a foodie, and I often rely on others to help me with the understanding of dishes and terminology. Maybe my understanding of what a taco was was incorrect. So I asked my Facebook buddies. 

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I called over the waiter to confirm that this was the Tuna & Taco, which he confirmed. When I pointed out that this was not a taco, I was told that this is what they call it and this is how they prepare it. It is not the waiter’s decision on how things are prepared or advertised, and no, there was no supervisor or management person I could speak to.

Ordinarily I might just have paid for the drink (I did not touch the meal), but that article in my head now had a focus. I decided to pursue the issue to see how customer service works in Croatia today when dealing with an unhappy customer. When I asked the waiter if he really had no number to call if the restaurant caught fire, a number of a supervisor was found and he called. After speaking to the supervisor, he repeated what he told me – that this is what they call it and that is how they make it. I would not be charged for the meal, just the drink, and so everything was fine. 

Everything was not fine, and I asked to speak to the supervisor by phone if she was not available in person. I was told that the supervisor would not speak to me, but that her shift would begin at 21:00 (it was now lunchtime). I felt sorry for the waiters, who are in the front line of customer dissatisfaction and have nobody in authority to call upon to deal with unhappy customers. The waiter agreed that this was not a taco in the classic sense, but repeated that this is how it was presented and served, not a decision he could influence. When I asked if I was really the only person who had complained at the tacolessness of the taco dish, he confirmed that I wasn’t. 

I decided to follow up in the evening by returning to Submarine after 21:00. In the meantime, I sent a message to the Submarine Bogoviceva Facebook page, as well as an SMS to the COO of Submarine, whose number I had obtained through my media contacts. The Facebook message remains unread today (more on that later), but the COO (I have decided to omit the names of the people involved) texted back with an apology and a promise to call the next day as he was on vacation. 

When I returned to Submarine about 21:50, the supervisor was not there. A phone call from the waiter confirmed she would be at 22:20, so I returned then and after 10 minutes, she arrived. I explained that I was a very unhappy customer from this morning, even more so when I was told by the waiter that she, the supervisor, refused to speak to an unhappy customer. She told me that she really didn’t have time to talk as she was in a rush, but that there had been no need to talk to me as the waiter had explained everything to me, I did not pay for the meal, and they call it Tuna & Taco and serve it that way because that is the way management wants it done. She was aware it was not a classic taco and went on to describe what a real taco is like. With great accuracy.  

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Yes, the tuna comes from a can, but it is from the Mediterranean, not the inferior quality from Vietnam. 

“Can you explain why the English menu describes the tuna as Mediterranean but the Croatian version describes it as ‘delikatesna’ – alluding to higher quality.”

“Because it is higher quality tuna.”

“From a can.”


And that, more or less, was that. She did not respond to the Facebook message because she doesn’t manage the Facebook page, but I could have emailed her (she neglected to mention how I was supposed to have obtained her email). She also said I was the first person to have complained about the tuna and taco, contrary to the waiter’s response to my question (and my anecdotal feedback since posting the dish on Facebook). As supervisor, she would be aware if there were any other instances. 

And so to bed.  

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The next morning, I received a phone call. It was not from the COO but from Submarine’s communications director, who must have got my number from the COO as nobody else asked for it. It was a polished performance, as he asked me to explain what the problem was, and he was a good listener. 

He told me that the fact that I was a journalist made no difference – they wanted to speak to all unhappy customers. Which sounded nice, apart from the fact that the only reason he was able to communicate with this dissatisfied customer was because I had sent it to the COO. Not only did the supervisor refuse to speak to me on the phone, but nobody asked for my number so that the communications director could speak to the unhappy customer. 

Like the supervisor, he assured me that I was the only person ever to complain. If someone else had complained, he would have known about it, and Submarine has very checks and balances to monitor these things.

Clearly, those checks and balances are not working. 

Would the Tuna & Taco dish stay on the menu? Yes it would, although perhaps they would look at the wording. And yes, the tuna was from a can, but it was the very best Mediterranean tuna, Ribeira from Spain (he sent me the photo above).

The communications director invited me to bring my family and friends for a complimentary meal to enjoy the Submarine experience, which was gracious but I declined.

The Facebook post remains unread, as the Bogoviceva page apparently only exists to tell people where the location is. 

Tourism is an increasingly competitive industry, and international travellers expect international standards. 

That includes providing dishes from other cuisines which look and taste like the original dishes, as international tourists would expect to find them. 

That includes have a proper complaints procedure, where someone in management is available to deal with situations, either in person or by phone. Or if they are not immediately available, that a contact number is taken so management can get back to the customer as soon as possible. To not have that in place is also very unfair on the waiters, who are generally not the best paid anyway, even without having to deal with customer complaints without backup. Submarine is certainly not the worst experience I have had in a Croatian restaurant – far from it – it just happened to be the one which focused those thoughts swirling in the back of my head all summer. Much of the above is applicable to many restaurants in the country. 

Croatia has a phenomenal gourmet story to tell, from the world-class food, wine and cheese that had Bourdain raving right down to the good, honest and delicious food served in the family konoba. Great, well-priced food, served with a smile and with an engaged management to deal with issues makes SUCH a difference to the holiday experience. 

While there are many exceptions, it is not something that Croatian tourism is strong on. 



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