At Your Disservice

Midseason, midbeautiful weather, I am, like most Miamians, inundated with houseguests. Which means eating out in my neighborhood almost every night, not for the purposes of writing critical reviews but for pleasure, visiting restaurants I've liked in the past in the hope that my guests will find South Beach dining as enticing as I do. I'm sad to say that I'm outraged at what passes for customer relations these days.

Midseason, I'm tolerant. I expect to have trouble parking, to wait in line at valet stands and pay outrageous prices for the privilege of having my car seat adjusted to some absurd height. I expect to mill around on the sidewalk for a bit before occupying a table. I even expect slight delays in honoring reservations, lengthier pauses between courses. Harried kitchens and harassed waitstaffs. What I don't ever expect is being embarrassed in front of my guests by horribly unfriendly service, the kind of treatment tourists complain about after they leave this place, the kind of treatment that dissuades them from coming back.

Midseason, knowing full well that their restaurants will be bustling nightly, owners and managers are neglecting common courtesies. They're indifferent to their customers' satisfaction, ignoring the patron in patronage. And they're forgetting what happens here come summer, when all the locals they've offended refuse to repopulate their restaurants. It's called bankruptcy, and in some cases it will be well earned.

Midseason, it appears that restaurateurs need a refresher course.
School's in.
At Lincoln Road's Le Bistro, the trouble began with champagne. Informing us that the bottle we'd ordered wasn't in stock, our server returned not with the wine list but with an offer to bring a different brand. We readily agreed, assuming that the bottle would be priced similarly to the one we'd asked for originally. Wrong. When she returned with an obviously more expensive bottle, we grew concerned for our wallets and asked how much. Almost $50. We said no thanks. She tried to bargain with us, taking five dollars off the price. We refused again. She angrily grabbed the bottle and stalked off.

Lesson One: A restaurant is not a flea market. A customer has the right to refuse any bottle of wine -- opened or still sealed -- for any reason.

Our calamari appetizer was served before the wine debacle was finally sorted out. Before water was poured, although it had been requested from the outset. (Twice.) In her pique, the server opened the wine but didn't offer me a taste first; she merely filled all the glasses with a bare inch of liquid. Then she disappeared.

Lesson Two: In hot climates, it's often a good idea to have beverages in place before serving food. Dehydration occurs more quickly than starvation.

Starvation began to seem more likely as we waited for our main courses. After 40 minutes, our waitress reappeared and assured us that our veal in mushroom cream sauce and mahi mahi over salad would be out in another two minutes. My friends and I nodded agreeably. When that two minutes stretched to twenty with no sign of sustenance, we questioned the whereabouts of our meal. She shrugged. Dinner? Did we want dinner?

Lesson Three: Don't make false promises, then pretend to know nothing about them. That only works on Melrose Place.

We requested to see the manager. But rather than compensating us for an unreasonably long wait A after all, if we'd wanted to tap our utensils for an hour, we'd have cooked dinner ourselves A he accused us of being rude and impatient. The kitchen was obviously very busy; we'd just have to wait our turn. I pointed out the parties nearby that had consumed three courses to our one. He rolled his eyes at me. I mentioned the unoccupied tables scattered around the dining room. He threw a hand dramatically in the air, windmilling his body backward in exaggerated surprise that I would dare to argue with him. I suggested that perhaps the kitchen was understaffed and couldn't keep up with demand. He left the table in a huff, spitting furious French.

Lesson Four: A simple "I'm sorry" and a quick trip to the kitchen settles the matter. Nothing ruins the appetite more than contention.

Not surprisingly, the bill was a long time coming too. By then we didn't expect to see a gesture of goodwill on the check. We were dismayed, however, to discover that the gratuity had been written in. Dismayed not because the menu fails to warn that a fifteen-percent service charge would be included (it's there), but because the gratuity here was based not on the total price of the meal but on the total plus tax.

Lesson Five: Never tip on tax. Neither the server nor the restaurant works for that money -- it goes to the state.

We tried to explain this fine point to the manager and wound up with the owner. He didn't care. His first words to us: "What is your problem?" Nor did he care that we had repeated difficulties throughout our meal, or that his staff was disagreeable and argumentative. It was clear who had taught them how to deal with disgruntled patrons. His answer to our complaints: Don't pay the gratuity. In short, punish the server; the restaurant will still get its money.

Lesson Six: While restaurants have the legal right to add a service charge to the bill, the customer has the legal right to disregard it. No one has ever been arrested for not tipping.

The fare at Le Bistro was -- as it has been the other times I've eaten there -- fresh, reasonably priced, and delicious. Yet we still left with a bad taste in our mouths.

The subject of tipping leads me to Washington Avenue's Chrysanthemum, one of my favorite restaurants. I go there for all my special occasions -- birthdays, anniversaries, and when my folks come to town. They love it also. Or did.

While we were waiting half an hour for our reservation to be honored, we decided to have a glass of wine at the bar. My father requested that the drinks be added to the bill for our table. After a moment's hesitation, the bartender said, "Certainly. But tips are appreciated."

He needn't have worried. My parents are sophisticated, well-educated people who taught me everything I know about fine dining. But let's pretend they're not. Let's pretend they wipe their noses on their napkins and spit food when they talk. Let's say they would have stiffed the guy.

Lesson Seven: That's the chance taken by anyone who works for gratuities. I'm not unsympathetic to those who make a living in the service industry; in fact, quite the opposite. I worked for tips for eight long years and I know how hard the business is. I also know that a tip is not a given. It's earned by performing a function well and politely. It's an unasked-for reward.

My parents were so appalled by the bartender's blatant request that they complained to the owner, who immediately apologized and chastised the bartender. At the the end of the meal, we were also gratified to realize we had not been charged for the wine.

Lesson Eight: An appropriate, mollifying reaction to a complaint soothes the hungry diner. Despite the insult to my parents' integrity, we will return.

Even at Offerdahl's (soon-to-be Einstein's), a place where I've always been treated with care and respect, we got attitude with our food. At the counter, my friend ordered a bagel with honey butter. She took her meal and moved down the line to pay.

Another friend ordered a different-flavor bagel with honey butter. She took her meal and moved down the line to pay.

I also had a hankering for honey butter. But instead of a bagel, I received an exasperated and snotty "Do you all want honey butter?"

The answer happened to be no -- my husband wanted something completely different. But I was astounded by the server's bad manners. I try never to make life deliberately difficult, though I quite naturally expect requests to be filled without sass. It's not my job to make someone else's job more varied and stimulating.

Lesson Nine: Taking an order means precisely that. If 400 people in a row want honey butter, 400 people get honey butter. Do you ever hear a cafeteria worker saying to a whole line of people "Do you all want mashed potatoes with that?"

Midseason, I did have one good experience at a tourist-packed World Resources Cafe. We sat at the last available table. After a few minutes, the waiter rushed up. "I'm all alone here," he said, indicating both the indoor and outdoor portions of the restaurant. "I just wanted you to know it may take awhile tonight. But I'll do the best I can."

We appreciated his candor and decided to stay. And we were greatly impressed with the results. Despite the hassle of working on his own, filling special requests, and dealing with the kitchen running out of items and making substitutions, he served our meals promptly, smiling and gracious to the end.

Lesson Ten: Honesty at the outset prepares customers to be more patient than usual. Charm helps, too.

Restaurateurs, especially those who have received bad reviews, frequently ask me for advice about improving their eateries. Obviously that old maxim about the customer always being right is no longer in fashion. Here's one to replace it: Treat your tourists well. There's a restaurant critic in all of us.


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