Bad food but Big Tip

Vacationer Rita had enjoyed a pleasant meal at News Cafe. The tropical crowd and tropical sky had competed with each other for her attention, enhancing the sometimes dreary business of eating alone. She signaled to the waiter for her bill. He scribbled the total and tossed it on the table, apparently too busy to prepare an itemized check. Rita thought the amount high for a sandwich and a glass or two of wine, but she was a tourist and didn't want to draw attention to herself. Besides, she couldn't seem to locate her waiter again. She left enough money on the table for the bill and an average tip, and joined the sidewalk parade. (Without the visual reminder of the actual check, she had forgotten that a fifteen-percent gratuity would be included.)

Hollywood resident Daniel, his wife, and another couple chose Mario's on South Beach for their Friday night meal. As expected the restaurant was busy. At the end of their angel hair and Chianti dinner, rather than endure the long wait for the bill, Daniel handed his credit card to his server, who returned with the credit card slip. The space for a tip was blank. Like Rita, Daniel was surprised by the cost of the meal. But he wasn't intimidated by either the presumed sophistication of the restaurant or his waiter's fussy face. He asked for and received an itemized accounting of the meal. A fifteen-percent tip had already been added to the total.

Any Florida restaurant is within its rights to automatically add a service charge to its checks. State law requires only that restaurants print the mandatory gratuity on the front of the check. However, out of courtesy to their customers, more gracious establishments inform diners of the charge with an all-encompassing addendum to the menu, as is the case with News Cafe (but not Mario's). Other restaurants reserve the added tip for parties of six or more.

Ethics requires a bit more in terms of disclosure. A diner should never be presented with a credit card slip or complete check on which the tip has been penciled in behind the scenes. An itemized bill should always be available. A verbal reminder of the restaurant's policy isn't a bad idea, either. Manipulation of this is called tip inflation.

It's safe to assume that restaurant owners do not endorse tip inflation or instruct their staffs in ways to accomplish it. And generally I believe the inclusion of mandatory gratuities is a sound practice for international South Beach. Foreign visitors, unfamiliar with American tipping customs, often assume a gratuity is included, and leave nothing extra. Waiting tables is difficult enough without the additional burden of being stiffed.

But this is still America, and Americans on the whole do not assume gratuity is included. When a server deliberately disguises this information in hopes of doubling his or her money, it's more than tip inflation. It's theft. And I, for one, resent it.

Recently I suffered such an experience, and discovered the truth only after demanding an explanation. The restaurant was Rustic Anna, a recently opened seafood restaurant and crabhouse on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. After handing over our plastic, we received a bill for our meal that was more than we had expected. Nowhere on the menu was there mention of a gratuity being added. Nor did the check itself indicate the addition of a tip. When I confronted our waiter, he admitted that the bill included gratuity. When asked why we had not been informed, he answered that unless we tipped him additionally, he would not receive his money for a month.

This was a blatant attempt at deception; Rustic Anna's policy, it turns out, is to reimburse staff on credit-card tips the same night as the transaction. When a waiter cashes in at the end of a night, any tips applied on credit cards are subtracted from his total sales, enabling him to walk home with that money. It's the restaurant that awaits reimbursement from the credit card companies, not the staff. Which, although it's not the law, is the way it should be.

Unfortunately, this ethically dubious incident was only one among several deficiencies we found at Rustic Anna. For starters, the restaurant's name resembles too closely that of the crabhouse chain in Fort Lauderdale: Rustic Inn. The crab logo and lettering style are also cheap copies, almost certainly designed to entice the Inn crowd with promises of a real beach treat. But the logo is where the favorable comparisons end.

Like the Rustic Inn, Rustic Anna's advertised specialty is garlic crabs. This famous preparation, not original with either restaurant, features blue crab A the most abundant and popular crab on the East Coast A steamed in garlic, butter, and herbs. (The soft-shell crab, growing in popularity of late, is a blue crab captured between the shedding of its shell and growing a new one, a process that occurs dozens of times in its life.) Blue crabs average about one-half pound each, though for this recipe, they tend to be smaller. Garlic crabs are frequently served in a bucket large enough to satisfy the most diligent crab-picker, but the real charm lies in how they're consumed. Tabletops are covered with newspaper and mallets are provided. Forget those stress-management courses A what you really need is to take a whack at some crabs. At Rustic Anna, however, you may find that the servings themselves lead to stress.

The crabs here were so small they resembled spiders, insulting as well as unappetizing. Served soaking in an oily, garlicky brine, their freshness was also in doubt. The flesh (what there was of it) was a rainy-day gray, hardly the glistening white it should have been. And there was no taste relief in sight: no side dishes and no salad, though the menu stated it should have been included. The choices seemed to be: do not eat the crabs and remain hungry, or eat the crabs and still be hungry.

I moved on to the grouper "from the char grill." An apt description. This fish was so dry I was tempted to chisel my initials into it. Two starches accompanied my grouper ruination, an unappealing pilaf-style rice and parsley-buttered potatoes. A companion felt similarly about the oven-roasted salmon with balsamic vinegar, honey, and grain-mustard glaze A a barely discernible coating on a toasted plank of fish. Coconut cream rice was a turbid oasis on the vista of this Sahara.

The conch fritters, shaped like commercial mozzarella sticks and despite claims of freshness tasting similarly flash-frozen, were equally disappointing. But not as bad as steamed littleneck clam appetizer. These tiny specimens appeared more like Manila clams, the miniature Pacific coast clams frequently shucked for chowder. Though "littleneck" refers to the Long Island bay from which they were harvested, at Rustic Anna it more appropriately describes their physical dimensions. Six were served to our table at a cost of $7.95, which comes to more than $1.25 for each tooth-size pearl. If only they were that precious. Rather than the advertised garlic, white wine, tomato, and cilantro potion, they were prepared with a largely flavorless, butter-soaked broth. We also identified a chunk of ground beef A for what reason we do not know A in the clam recipe.

Located next to the popular Zio Luigi's, Rustic Anna is currently draining the customer overflow to their advantage. But the looks of longing cast toward Luigi's tables were innumerable. A storm warning for Anna's owners. If their apparent carelessness is any indication, they are not likely to take heed.


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