Two women were seen at La Paloma last Saturday night. Both were so drunk they couldn't utter a coherent sentence. Both clearly were in no condition to get behind a wheel, and both were headed for a doozy of a hangover the next morning.
These two women, however, weren't companions. They hadn't arrived together. In fact one was wearing a cocktail dress and was awaiting her reservation inside the 23-year-old landmark after pulling up in a limo with friends. The other was outfitted in dirty jeans and a T-shirt, looked like she'd been drinking her dinners for the past 30 years, and was propositioning La Paloma's valets while repeatedly begging them to call a cab for her.
As the owner of La Paloma, Maria Staub felt responsible for both of them. Staub could have been held legally responsible if Party Dress banged her forehead praying to the porcelain goddess, say, or slipped and fell down the staircase. And let's face it, Ultra-Happy Hooker loitering in front of the restaurant in no way could reflect La Paloma's image as a luxe venue for conservative decadents to suck down dry martinis and Dover sole.
Turns out the first woman was supposed to be attending a long-planned birthday party but had enjoyed tequila in the limo on the way to the restaurant. “Her husband told me she wasn't used to it. He was so embarrassed. He wound up taking her home to sleep for an hour; then they came back and had dinner,” Staub says. “I felt so bad for her. She was really sick.” As for the second woman, Staub had actually given her a meal. She does this occasionally. “I like to help people out when I can,” she says simply. But on this occasion the woman was so obviously drunk that Staub suggested she go home. “I told her, “I don't think you feel good.'” Staub says the two incidents are unusual for her restaurant, which has an upscale reputation and is frequently a setting for bar mitzvahs and other large-scale celebrations. But when something like this does arise, as it inevitably does in any restaurant regardless of stature, it has to be handled. Staub's way: calm, cool, and collected. “I watch the situation for a few minutes, then I step in,” she says.
How the management and staff respond to an intoxicated diner usually is determined by whether said client causes a scene that will disturb others, or so it says in On the Rail, an online magazine for restaurateurs and restaurant employees. The journal publishes guidelines for dealing with customers who've had too much to drink, advising that “drunks smell fear,” and that the best way to handle an alcohol-sodden customer is to befriend him or her. “A low-key and caring approach is most effective,” On the Rail recommends.
Steve Haas, general manager of Tuscan Steak and Red Square, agrees. When a party becomes too loud and happy, he'll go over to the table and chat with them for a few moments all friendlylike and then remind them that while he'd like them to have a good time, they are not the only customers in the house. More than that, he prefers to take alcohol-inspired situations in stride and defuse them with a sense of humor. “When someone is totally drunk, [he] can't comprehend anything. So I'll go over and change the subject or joke it off.” He chuckles as he relates the tale of an inebriated conventioneer who, dining with five other companions at Red Square, couldn't remember who they were when he returned from the restroom. “I had to walk him around the dining room until we found a party that looked like it was missing a member. I asked them: 'Does this guy belong to you?' and they were like, 'Of course.'”
Not all incidents where alcohol is a factor end so amicably. Haas recalls a scenario involving a recently divorced [from each other] man and woman, sitting in adjacent booths at Red Square while they were on dates with other people. “They got seriously drunk and wound up leaving their dates to go fight outside,” he says. With some damage control, however -- like cutting off the ex-husband and ex-wife -- the evening ended without the pair coming to blows.
In fact physical violence, though more and more common in bars and clubs these days, is not a problem for most restaurateurs. Nor are complaints from other patrons. “We're on South Beach,” Haas notes. “People want to see things get rowdy.” He says he will compensate a group with desserts or drinks, though, if they've been disturbed by a drunken party.
In New York at Babbo, Melissa Klurman, editor of Fodor's Miami book, was actually surprised when a waitress poured her table a round of drinks. A woman at the table behind Klurman's party had gotten so drunk “she whacked her head on the wall. There was this giant crashing noise. But to tell the truth, New York is loud and it wasn't bothering us that much.” Still the server insisted that “this isn't the kind of experience we want you to have here.” So she opted to make that experience a little better and as a result, Klurman admits, “It made me want to go back, even if you do have to make a reservation a month in advance.”
Some customers are a little more piqued at the soused. Someone who did not want to be named in this article recently dined at Astor Place. She said the food was wonderful, but a large wedding party had been seated near them and the champagne toasts were apparently getting out of control (not, for the record, unheard-of in the Astor, where alcohol consumption is considered a spectator sport). The waitstaff kept apologizing, but the evening was tainted nonetheless.
Jennifer Rubell, proprietor of Atlantic in Bal Harbour Beach House, believes “the restaurant sets the tone and people fit into that tone.” In other words a loud, party-oriented restaurant is bound to attract loud partiers. So sober restaurant-goers beware. “I can't imagine having to deal with [intoxicated customers] here,” Rubell says about her sedate eatery. But she's been on the flip side. Recently at Nick and Tony's in tony East Hampton, New York, she watched a pair of bombed businessmen throw sugar cubes at several attractive women in the room. Sexual harassment by way of sweets, anyone?
Sexual harassment from plastered patrons is a job risk that waitstaff have to tolerate more than workers in other occupations. For the most part, though, the waitstaff in South Beach restaurants, which seem to attract the most tipsy crowds, have the ultimate insult to fear: someone throwing up on their tables, the way the chef from Aureole did at Red Square in Las Vegas. “He came in already drunk,” claims Haas. “Here it's the tourists who seem to get sick. They drink after sitting in the sun all day, and it's like their bodies just can't take anymore.”
The quick fix? In reality restaurants can't do much by way of prevention. Intoxicated customers will happen, especially if they drink before getting to the restaurant, the way the Aureole chef and the woman at La Paloma did. As for cutting people off? It does happen but it's a tricky thing to do. Steve Haas says he'll do it when he has to, no matter who the customer is (even a celebrity). The advice most servers follow is that if you have to cut someone off, have the manager tell them. Or at least alert the manager about what you're doing, just in case the customer becomes belligerent. That way the server has a support system. Most servers hate to do it, because it puts their tip in jeopardy. But when the customer's obnoxious already, it gets easier and easier....
In the end all you can do, Haas muses, is be a responsible vendor. “I totally support my waitstaff and bartenders,” he says. “When they cut people off, I will not do anything to override it, no matter who [the clients] are.” But I'd lay money that he keeps a stack of fresh tablecloths handy.
Send your tasty tidbits to Jen Karetnick at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami FL 33137. Or e-mail Kavetchnik@aol.com
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