Last year, Alan Richman penned a barn-burner review of M. Wells in GQ Magazine entitled “Dinner for Schmucks.” More than a critique, that article operated as a commentary on the seemingly deteriorating state of restaurant service at large, and, more importantly, offered a mindful acknowledgement of the influence that food writers, like him, have over restaurant service. Of it, he says,
“I will tell you what else is extraordinarily self-defeating: We empower popular restaurants, and M. Wells is very much one of them. All we care about is accessibility, getting through the door. Such restaurants are rarely held accountable, no matter how uncaring they might be. I doubt that the people who operate these sought-after spots ask themselves if they are treating their customers properly. They are not obliged to do so.”
A couple of days ago, I tweeted “Perhaps it’s the Midwest boy in me, but Southern hospitality makes some of the service I received in New York last week seem barbaric.” Quite a few people have asked me to talk about the experiences to which I refer. In the interest of using what little influence I have to keep restaurants accountable for their actions, I share the following.
But, before I do, I want to make one thing clear: this post is not intended as a vengeful poke. So I will not name either of the restaurants I’ll describe below, although I suspect that those who are familiar with New York’s restaurant scene will be able figure out their identity easily. And, if so, then recognition by reputation here will be damning enough. At the very least, if the two restaurants become aware of this post, then its purpose will be served.
Finishing dinner around 10:30 one night, my friends and I decided to have desserts elsewhere. One of my friends was a pastry chef from another city, and another was celebrating her birthday, so we drew up short list of restaurants that we thought would offer a particularly strong fare.
We headed to TriBeCa.
I had been to this popular restaurant (which offers an à la carte menu) twice before, and both times, I was greeted by hostesses who needed serious attitude adjustments. This time was different. Despite being quite busy, even at that late hour, the hostess cheerfully offered to seat the four of us immediately.
However, when she discovered that we only wanted to order desserts, the offer was withdrawn. They were only seating diners for full meal service. Apparently, this place of public accommodation was so busy that they have the luxury of choosing their clients. So, we left, and headed instead to Gramercy Tavern, where we four happily waited a half-hour for a table in the Tavern Room. Joined by a fifth person, we ordered a bottle of Champagne and nearly every dessert on the menu. Service was great, we had a ball.
A few nights later, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, my friend and I hoped to saddle up to the bar at a restaurant whose well-known chef recently revised his menu. I had eaten at this restaurant a few times before and have enjoyed the food, though I can’t say the service was ever great. We both had heard good things about the new menu, and, particularly, the desserts, so we decided to have a nosh before joining our friends for a late-night dinner elsewhere.
The bar was full. So were the attendant tables. The hostess offered to take our name and phone number. She would call us as soon as two seats opened; she guestimated forty-five minutes. In the meantime, we were free to grab a drink in the area. We had time. So we did.
We returned a half-hour later to find a new couple sitting at the communal four-top in the window, with two empty seats beside them. The hostess seemed indifferent to our return, and unconcerned that it was plainly obvious that she had failed to call us.* She casually offered us one of the other tables in the bar area, where diners were ready to settle their bill. I did not ask her why she didn’t call me for the seats in the window, but I did ask her why we had to wait for a table when there were two empty seats next to the couple in the window. She said that, normally, she would be happy to seat us there. But, because of a rain storm the day before, a leak had soaked the upholstered bench on the window side of the table. She reassured me that there would be a table opening up for us shortly.
Since there was a woman sitting on the allegedly wet bench (her date was facing her), I ran my hand down the other end of the bench. It was completely dry. Puzzled, I told the hostess that the bench was dry, and, since my friend and I were in a hurry, we would take the two empty seats at the window table. She thanked me for being “proactive” about my dinner and said that I was free to sit down.
Service didn’t improve after we sat. The maitre d’, who took our order (after sitting dry for 10 minutes), knew we were in a hurry. We told him. And we told all of the other servers who came to our table too. Yet, we had to ask for the bill thrice, the last time from the maitre d’, who seemed more concerned with looking out the window for cabs. Despite being seated nearly an hour before our dinner meeting with friends, four plates – two courses – at this restaurant’s bar took well over an hour. We were 30 minutes late to dinner.
[Edited to add: I’ve experienced far worse service than the two situations I described above. But I mention them as examples of how diners seem to have to work for their food and fight for their own tables these days. Dining out shouldn’t be this hard.]
Are New York restaurants so hot that they can afford to opt out of the hospitality industry? Are we paying for food and service, or abuse? Hospitality is an art, and chefs aren’t the only rock stars in restaurants.
* Normally, at this point, I would have left the restaurant. But, since my friend, who was a pastry chef from another city, really wanted to try the desserts here, I happily waded through the abuse with him.