"New Rules…"

April 23, 2010

After last night at the restaurant, with a dining room full of very drunk, very loud, very obnoxious people, I am here to channel Bill Maher with,

New Rules

New Rule:  If you insist on going “off the reservation”, that is, changing and mutating dishes on our menu by adding or subtracting ingredients, interchanging the accompaniments, sauces, garnishes, or cooking method, you void the warranty.  You cannot tell us “I’ll have the Dover Sole, but with no butter, no sauce, no salt, and could I have it poached?”, then send it back because it has no flavor.

New Rule:  If you don’t like what you have ordered and, looking at the plate of the person next to you say “Just bring me what he’s having” without bothering to inquire what it actually is, you can’t send it back and refuse to pay for it because you didn’t like it.

New Rule:  You cannot use strange, arcane culinary terms that no one has ever heard before, or that you just made up in your own besotted brain, and then get mad because we didn’t prepare it right or know what the hell you were talking about. If you order a “naked steak” and refuse to tell us what that means, and just continue to blather about a “naked steak, just the steak on the plate, nothing else,” you can’t get mad and send it back because we put salt and pepper on it.  In over 30 years in kitchens and dining rooms I have never once in my life heard of a “naked steak”; so don’t you dare give me that look of “Everyone knows what a naked steak means, so why don’t you?”

New Rule:  If you aren’t the one paying, you don’t get to bitch about the check. This should be obvious to those of us in polite society; but the people in our dining room last night apparently came from a world where the sky is a different color.

The one and only sane, halfway sober person in this large group had made payment arrangements before they first sat, and Thank God for this not-so-small favor.  Drunken, Naked Steak guy from the previous rule, has grabbed the check from Mr. Nice and Polite, and is trying to do Drunk Math and failing. Which brings us to the next…

New Rule:  If you’re going to try to be a Big Shot and pay for dinner, get your fucking credit card out and pass it to your waiter or the Maître D’ on the way into the table. And don’t get all Fake Huffy and blame us if your half-assed attempt at grabbing the check at the end of the meal is a fail.  You weren’t going to pay anyway, so sit your drunk ass down.

The corollary to this rule is:  the most demanding, arrogant, and rude guy in the group has “Tyrannosaurus Arms” (if you need a visual, bring your elbows into your sides, with your hands drawn into your chest; then wiggle your fingers trying to reach for the wallet in your hip pocket), or does a Claude Rains and disappears when it’s check time. He arrives back at the table from his conveniently timed trip to the Men’s Room after the check has been settled; he gets all Huh-Rumph, and attempts to throw out his Monkey Wards card with the $250 credit limit, saying something like “Oh, no.  No you don’t!  Nope, I insist, I got this… “  Which morphs into a phony-humble surrender with “Um, well, okay, I guess… thanks Bill, you didn’t have to do that….”  Followed by the inevitable, “But let me get the tip…” Oh no, please Bill.  Don’t.

New Rule:  If you can’t even remember what you ordered, you don’t get to point at your neighbor’s plate and say “He didn’t order that…” Yes, he did. Sit your drunk-ass down and eat.

New Rule:  If you are gone from the table for 20 minutes to smoke, shoot heroin, whatever, you can’t come back and immediately complain that your food is “taking a long time.” It may be a News Flash, but most restaurants think it’s a proper service standard to serve the entire table at once; so if you are away from the table, we hold that course until you come back.  Most civilized people won’t start eating when one guest is away anyway, so rather than risk having to take back five out of six plates because they sat on the table getting cold while you suck down your Kools, we don’t plate it until you get back.  So sit your drunk ass down and eat.

New Rule:  If you go to a restaurant that specializes in a particular style of cuisine and order something completely incongruous with what they normally make, you can’t bitch that it’s not as good as you think it should be. Don’t get pissed when the Vegetarian Plate at the Steak House isn’t all that, and don’t get mad when the Sushi Bar overcooks the salmon, because that’s not what they do.  Just because a Mexican restaurant has ground beef doesn’t mean you can order a hamburger.  It’s like going to a Rodeo and complaining that they don’t have Pony Rides.

New Rule:  If you order coffee, you can’t complain that it’s “too hot”. Yes, this actually happened last night.

And the final New Rule for this particular Rant Session:  If you are going to try to be a Big Shot and tip the Maître D’ because you know your buddies are going to be “difficult”, do it on the way out; and make sure it’s an amount commensurate with the challenges met. Slipping an Al Hamilton into my palm on the way in does not give you license to violate all the rules stated above.  Add four more to that stack and maybe we can talk…


Getting Gassed at The Mus-(re)-tard Festival

March 15, 2010

This past weekend saw Downtown Napa hosting one of the main events of the two-month long “Mustard Festival” which has firmly established itself as one of those good ideas gone bad. The Mustard Festival was started in the early 90’s as a way to generate some business in the “slow season” here in Napa Valley.  Mustard flowers, originally planted as a cover crop to hold topsoil in place during winter rains, come into bloom as soon as we get a few sunny days and turn the still dormant acres of grapevines into seas of golden blossoms.  So someone decided that maybe more tourists would come to see them if there was a party involved, and the Mustard Festival was born.  Originally held on a single weekend at the end of February, it has now turned into two months of events like marathons, photo contests, winery-hosted parties and other marketing ploys that start after President’s Day weekend and continue well into March.

The festival, especially the “Marketplace” weekend, has morphed into a drunkfest, filling hotels and eateries with crowds of people who feel that coming to Napa is a license to drink like a fish and act like morons (or more of a moron, as drunken idiots are usually idiots to start with).  They act as if  “what happens in Napa, stays in Napa” which is, for the most part, true.  But we who live and work here, and have had the unpleasant task of cleaning up your vomit the last time you visited, also “stay in Napa”.  So “what happens in Napa” will be waiting for you when you return; and we will most certainly remember you even if you don’t remember what you did.

This unfortunate transformation has posed a real dilemma for restaurants in the area over the past few years.  Do we take part in the event, show up and dole out tastes of our food and wine to the throngs of people hoping they will pick up a menu or business card and maybe visit the restaurant for a full meal later?  And will the wineries pass on what would appear at first glance to be a golden “marketing opportunity”?  Many of us have learned there is too little of a return for manning a table and giving away thousands of dollars worth of free food and/or wine.   After a couple of years of the drunken masses sticking a glass in our faces and demanding “Red!” or “Chard!” without so much as making eye contact or really giving a rat’s ass what they are eating or drinking, we have taken a pass on participation in the “Marketplace”.  We have learned that the vast majority of attendees are not interested in any details about our food, or in joining a wine club.  Their primary, driving motivation every year is eating and drinking as much as they possibly can to get their $40 worth, and then bitching wildly about it when they feel they haven’t.

Even those of us who don’t participate have to deal with the run-off crowds of drunks at 5:30 when the Marketplace ends, and this year was no exception.  We were fully booked on Saturday, with almost 90 reservations.  Saturday nights have more ups and downs than Chrysler stock, with people canceling and booking at the last minute.  I usually overbook by a table or two because of the strong possibility of 9:00 no-shows, and I am always ready to sell the menu to people who pop their heads in the door at opening.  Getting a table, any table, in at 5:30 is like finding money.  I have, however, learned a valuable lesson about drunk diners and having to go through the uncomfortable song and dance of cutting people off:  if you don’t let them in, you don’t have to worry about cutting them off later.

Two guys have walked in just as we are opening the doors, and they are hammered.  They are either the the drunkest of the group, and as such, were easily convinced (or volunteered) to find some place for the rest to eat. Or, equally frightening, they are the most sober of their group and were chosen as the envoys because the rest are unable to speak coherently.  Either way, all I can see is a Lose-Lose by letting these two and the rest of their merry band in the door.

“Can I help you gents?”

“Could we speak to the Manager?” My hostess had already told them we are booked, but they felt going up the ladder would help their case.

“That would be me…”

“So, you’re the Manager?”  Slurred speech, elevated voices, questionable equilibrium.  Oh, boy.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“We had a reservation for 7.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“Shevven pee pull…”

This is when I love having the awesome power of the Open Table database at my fingertips.  “What’s the name on the reservation?” I ask, knowing full well this is all bullshit and I have no seven tops on the book.  He gives me a name, I type it in the search box, letter for letter.  Not in the system.  LLPOF, you drunk mo-fo.

“Sorry gents, there’s nothing under that name and I am completely booked tonight.”

“Well, we’re from El Dorado County, and we came on down for the Mustard Festival this weekend…” he continues, unabashed.

His wingman on this mission has decided he needs to take the wheel here, and he chimes in with, “Listen, I own a Chevy dealership in Auburn and I need a party of seven tonight.  Can you do anything for me?”  Oh my!  A Chevy dealership!  Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?  That’s an El Camino of a different color altogether…

“Sorry guys, but I’m full.”  And now you can leave, as my early reservations are beginning to arrive.

“So you’ve got 15 tables and they’re all booked?”

“No, I have 23 tables and they’re all booked.  Sorry…”

“Would this make a difference?” Wingman asks, literally waving a Franklin under my nose, as if it was coated with magic smelling salts that would make me snap to and do whatever he wanted.   While I have no moral problem with taking a discreetly palmed C-note from a guest as a thank you for special considerations, I have no patience with people who think I will dance to whatever drunken tune they are calling just because there’s money involved.   I might be cheap, but I’m not easy, and this guy is a douche besides.  I resist the very strong urge to unload on this dolt by telling him what function that hundo might serve the next time I need to use the Men’s Room.  Instead I just give him my best Maitre’ D stink-eye, shake my head,  and say quietly, “No it wouldn’t (you retard).”

So these two, suitably rebuffed, finally give up and stagger off.  Next!

A woman who was in with a party of six the night before has returned with her boyfriend.  She left her camera in the Ladies’ Room and has been in twice already, bugging the hotel desk to check Lost and Found.  They obliged both times and found nothing.   Now she wants me to stop what I’m doing, go to Housekeeping and check for a third time, like I have some magic ability to make her camera reappear.   Instead, I take down her name and phone number and promise to look later (I won’t).  I tell her I’ll call her either way.  I’ll wait a few hours and then call and tell her I couldn’t find it; and that I’m really sorry she was so stupid, and got so drunk she couldn’t keep her shit together.  She gives me an exasperated “thank you” and they leave.  Next!

The boyfriend comes back a couple of minutes later with that sheepish look of embarrassment by association, hands me a twenty and thanks me for putting up with her.  No problem dude;  I only had to deal with her  for a few hours.  You get her 24/7, and good luck with that.

And that’s the real lesson here:  there is really not enough money in the world to make dealing with drunken assholes a profitable enterprise for me or the business.  The real rub is that I probably could have squeezed the party of seven in, but they would no doubt prove themselves to be as obnoxious as I already suspected they were, disrupt the entire dining room and piss off the majority of my other tables for the better part of three hours; and, in the end, it would just not be worth it.

Maybe I need to find a different line of work; or maybe just a different place to do it.  Somewhere that has some other reason for people to visit besides getting hammered. Whichever the case, I am finding myself increasingly impatient when it comes to dealing with people who don’t know when it’s time to say when and go to bed.  And I have really come to enjoy the power of being able to turn off the taps on them.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Tonight's Main Event…"

February 14, 2010

So we have survived Round 2 of our three-round Valentine’s Weekend bout.  I channeled Michael Buffer on Friday night, trying to inspire the crew with a little “Let’s get ready to RUMMMMMMMMM-BULLLLLLLLL!”  to get them in the proper mood for the next three nights.  Pretty appropriate then, that when I got home last night at 1am, HBO was showing “Ali” with Will Smith.

The crew must have been pretty whupped after last night’s service, as the late night Facebook postings were at a minimum.  Round One on Friday night was like buttah, and I was fully expecting the Other Shoe to drop, hard, last night; but it didn’t.  I look forward to tonight with anticipation and just a little dread…

(Interesting little follow-up to the Atlanta Reservation Scalper storyline:  I had a second cancellation Voice Mail for one of our phony resos, from a different caller than the previous one.  Were these guys selling the same reservations twice?)

We had two “surprise” four tops that added to the fun last night.  One was a group of four guys, who told me the concierge at the hotel had booked them lots of activities for their “Guys Weekend,” one of which was supposed to be dinner with us.  And what better weekend for a testosterone charged adventure than Valentine’s Day in the Napa Valley?  Have you heard of a little place called Las Vegas, boys?  Or maybe Scottsdale, Arizona?  They have a little thing going on down there called Spring Training?

Anyway, she had, for some inexplicable reason, called me two days ago and canceled their reservation.  She had told everyone except them.  Since I work with so many people who are so good at creating them for me,  I had planned ahead for such contingencies by holding a couple of open spots on the reservation book.  I had no trouble finding them a table.  They ate, had a great time, and thanked me over and over for accommodating them.

The other “surprise” table was a little more irritating and problematic.  They were a four top who had no-showed on Friday night.  Now this woman is standing in front of me, lying to my face, that her reservation was for Saturday, not Friday; and that someone (me) had called and “left her a message at work” to confirm for Saturday.

She is either stupid, or a liar, or both, as she made the reservation herself, on Open Table.  Don’t people know that when they make a reso on OT, I have a “Change Log” on my end that shows me, in glorious 3-color graphics, all the steps and alterations to said reservation?  Her table was reserved, by her, on Open Table, on January 11th (nice job, with the planning ahead); a message was left, by me from my office computer, on Thursday, February 11th, with a request to please call to confirm said reservation (not so nice a job with ignoring the call back); and the party was marked as a no-show at 8:50 (pretty long Grace Period for a 7pm reservation) on Friday night.  This woman had received two e-mail confirmations from OT, one the day she made the reservation, and one 24-hours before the reservation to remind her; plus the Voice Mail from me asking for a confirmation call, yet here she was, trying to tell me I was wrong and had screwed it up.  I always try to subtly let people know that I am on to their game in these situations, but this broad is doing a pretty good Stone-Faced-Bitch to reinforce her position.  Had she just responded with the courtesy of confirming her reservation as I had requested, we wouldn’t all be in this mess right now.

Being the gracious host, I apologized for the “confusion,” found them a table in about 10 minutes, and it was all good.  It put us a little bit behind in seating a couple of late parties; but people can be a little more understanding when they see a place is packed, as they think it must be THE Hot Spot.  They don’t mind waiting a bit,  and while they wait they can congratulate themselves on the good choice they have made in picking such a popular place.  But, it’s a sickening feeling to walk through the dining room, looking for tables that are close to being finished so you can seat somebody soon that has been patiently waiting, and finding that the only table that is even remotely close to being done has just been “marked” for their Cheese course…

A personal note to my own Valentine:  Fifteen years (almost) you have been my better half, my Sous-Chef, my greatest strength and support, my biggest fan.  You are an inspiration to me every day, constantly challenging me to be better.  When we first met, I discovered your eye for detail on the even the tiniest of things, (like the way you wanted the Mortadella folded for your Hero; and I thought “How the hell could that make a difference?”)   We have always had our “Vidal Sassoon” pact:  “If you don’t look good, I don’t look good…”  And Baby, you always make me look good.  Happy Valentine’s Day.  I love you.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…"

February 13, 2010

I almost got (another) 15 minutes of fame last night.  KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, called to talk to me about my role in helping take down the website that was scalping Valentine’s Day reservations.  I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with an editor, telling him what, when, where, why, etc.  But I guess the rain, traffic and other stories took precedence, as no Satellite Up-Link Truck showed, no Klieg lights were lit to put the spotlight on this story for the public-at-large.

This is pretty disappointing to me, not just because I didn’t get my ugly mug and some footage of our restaurant on the Toob, but also because no “non-internet” based news agency in The Bay Area has mentioned squat about a story that is troubling on so many levels.

The last year has just plain sucked the weenie for restaurants across the country.  Places here and in SF were folding like lawn chairs; but, recently we have seen a definite up-tick in business, both in cover counts and check average.  So people are starting to return and they are spending money again (although corkage incidents are still out of control, but all in good time my pretty, all in good time…).   Many places, who have been hanging by a thread for the last 18 months or so, since Bernie Madoff, AIG and all the rest floated their big turds in the economy’s punchbowl, are now faced with the prospect of empty tables on the one and only really busy weekend in the Winter slow season.   Many local restaurants are depending on Valentine’s/President’s Weekend to pay their February bills.  And now they may be faced not only with empty tables when these fake reservations no-show, but also they have probably turned down a dozen legitimate parties for each of these slots by now.

So it is disappointing that no one with any reach in the “Mainstream Media” is concerned enough with this story to air it, or even publish it on their websites.

So, in addition to KPIX no-showing last night (the CBS affiliate in Atlanta did a piece on the scam on Thursday night’s news), e-mails sent, by me, to Michael Bauer and Grace Ann Walden at the SF Chronicle’s Food section have gone unanswered, unpublished and apparently unnoticed; and I have to think I am not the only one who sent one.  So, two local writers who make their living on the backs of the Bay Area’s restaurant community, did not see fit to use their reach and influence to help get the word out.  And it’s not just the owners of the restaurants that lose out on a scam like 911Reservations.com was trying to pull, it’s the servers, hosts and bartenders who will have empty stools and tables, and all the would-be patrons who can’t get in because these bogus reservations have clogged up the pipeline.   I had a sheepish Voice Mail message at the restaurant yesterday from someone calling to cancel a reservation they had obviously “purchased” from 911Reservations.com before their site went down.  They probably saw the internet buzz generated by the story and correctly figured we would, how should I put this, cut their balls off? if they showed their faces and claimed to be “Bruce Banner, party of 2, 6:30…”

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association boasts over 1000 members, yet has not mentioned Word One about this story.  Multiply that by just two fake reservations for each restaurant (many had more), and multiply that by even a modest $25 check average per guest (many are much, much higher), and you have a substantial bag of cash that was lost.  By contrast, the Georgia Restaurant Association had the story on their homepage on Thursday night, and it was picked up by UPI, Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc.  Granted the scam originated there, and was much more widespread in the ATL, so it was a much hotter topic for them.  But still, a pretty weak showing by a local trade group who is supposed to have our best interests at heart.

I am, however, very pleased with the spirit of cooperation shown by our local restaurant community in helping sound the alarm, and alerting everyone they could by phone, emails, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs.  The pyramid of contacts started by just a few of us here and in Atlanta, took these A-Holes down in a matter of hours.

This has always been the case, especially here in our incestuous little gang in Napa Valley.  If one of us needs linen, coffee, or printer paper for our POS systems on a busy weekend, all we need do is call our neighbors; and if they have supplies enough to help us out, they always will.  If we have a catering gig and need servers or cooks, we call around and see who has staff that need or want some extra hours.  Plus, there is about 2 1/2 degrees of separation in our business, so we all know/have worked for/party/sleep with each other.  We may all be in competition for the diner’s dollars, but we really know how to circle the wagons when someone fucks with us.

So, props to Elizabeth at Auberge, Tony at Bouchon, and to John and Rob at Martini House for their assistance; to my old boss Kevin Brown at Chops/Lobster Bar in Buckhead, who was truly the first to sound the alarm there; to Don Hart, former Napkin and server with me at Piatti and the old California Cafe in Yountville, who is now Director of Operations at JCT Kitchen in Atlanta’s Westside, for getting the word out via Facebook.  Thanks to foodiebuddha.com and Eater SF for posting, and continuing to update, the lists of fake names and phone numbers used.

Nice to know somebody is listening.

"Egregious Offenses"

February 11, 2010

The pre-Valentine’s Day doldrums have hit hard this week.  Reservations for the weeknights are down a bit, and that’s being kind.  Last night we did one deuce, a lovely British couple who really beat the crush we have coming this weekend with the dreaded Valentine’s Day/President’s Day harmonic convergence.  They were very nice, ordered well, loved everything; but I couldn’t help thinking that all that was missing was Bill Murray coming out and saying, “And now my daughter, Elena, will play for you, the recorder…”

Valentine’s Day, of course, is one of The Big Three days of the year for the Amateur Diners to come out (Mother’s Day brunch and New Year’s Eve, being the other two), but the business it brings, with a full house three nights straight, is certainly welcome.  In our area there are many smaller places that depend on the business this particular weekend will generate to pay the bills for most of January and February, and get them over the hump of the Winter slow season.

So it is particularly upsetting when I hear about stuff like these douchebags that are booking reservations here, in SF, Atlanta, NY, and Miami via phone and Open Table, then putting up a website and ads on Craig’s List, and selling the reservations to all the losers who waited too long to make their plans.  We had two of these “scalper” reservations, as did many other local restaurants, all made with the same few phone numbers from Atlanta.  Some of the reservations had been made as far back as mid-December.  These guys were taking money via Pay-Pal from people and charging as much as $100 for their “service”.  Being a former resident of Atlanta, I saw the proliferation of Atlanta restaurants on their website (which is down now) and started looking for the 770’s, 678’s, and 404’s in the phone numbers on my reservation pages.  Busted!  Well, the word is out now, and I just hope that there weren’t too many gullibles that actually sent these dickheads any money, as their reservations are now being cancelled en masse as more and more restaurants get the word.  In the words of Jack Nicholson, “You fucked with wrong Marine!”

I’m not sure if I’m mad about this because they had balls huge enough to try to pull it off, or because I didn’t think of it first.  Probably the former, because even though I believe in our capitalist system that lets clever and entrepreneurial types get ahead when they have a great idea about how to make some dough, this is taking advantage.  This is along the lines of slum lords renting substandard housing to the needy, or the hardware stores charging $100 for a sheet of plywood when a Cat 5 hurricane is a day away.  The restaurant equivalent of clubbing baby seals.

It’s hard enough dealing with Valentine’s Day for many reasons: the amateur diners mentioned above; it’s a “Noah’s Ark” night where the people come in two-by-two, so dining rooms have to be rearranged to accommodate all the small parties; in our area, we are in the midst of the slow season and many places are running on a shoestring staff, so to have a full house for three nights straight is a strain.  And finally, in hetero couples anyway, it’s always the guy that is in charge of making their reservation at “The Perfect Place,” and men are notorious for screwing up anything remotely connected with logistics.

I really shouldn’t bitch about it though, because in our business if you’re not working on Valentine’s Day you are either unemployed or unemployable, or both.  It’s like a band that doesn’t have a gig on New Year’s Eve.

It’s too late to save anyone now, so here are some survival tips for next year:

  1. Plan ahead:  with all the Blackberries and Smart Phones out there these days, and apps like I-Cal, Outlook, and Google, if this day “snuck up you” you’re an idiot.
  2. Don’t try to scam your way in:  I covered this topic in a previous post, but suffice it to say that there are no new scams to help crow-bar your way into a reservation at the last minute.  Busting the guys from Atlanta who tried the “Scalper Scam” is proof enough of that.  We are all on Open Table, so if you’re not in, you’re not getting in.
  3. Be nice:  if you are calling a restaurant where you are a regular, or you’re a local, chances are we will work to fit you in if you are not some demanding, giant asshole.  Maitre D’s and hosts get a little power-drunk when we are completely booked, and we take great delight in knocking you off you pedestal because, just this once, we can.
  4. Don’t make multiple reservations:  this is a Cardinal Sin to us restaurant folk.  Making several reservations at different places on the same night, then deciding who you will honor with your presence, is not cool no matter what day of the year it is.  We will find out, and we will hunt you down like the dog you are.
  5. Don’t get mad when we call you to confirm:  See Number 3.
  6. Show up on time:  You are not really inconveniencing us.  We get late parties all the time.  By showing up half an hour late or lingering well past paying your bill, you are saying you don’t give a shit about all the other people who do show on time, or are now waiting for you to vacate your table as you sip your ninth cup of coffee.
  7. And for God’s sake, learn how to do the math and tip like you’ve been out to dinner before.

So, this one goes out to all you lovers.  And I will never forgive Hallmark and the chocolate manufacturers for coming up with this manufactured “reason for romance.”

"You Snooze, You Lose…"

February 7, 2010

Sometimes answering the phone at work is its own reward.  I told y’all about Mike from Reno the other night.  As irksome and ill timed as his calls were, at least he didn’t try to weasel a Valentine’s Day Reservation out of me.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick.”

Mouth-breather on the other end: “Uh, can I make a reservation or somethin’?”

“Certainly, sir, what’s the date of the reservation?”

“Uh, February 14th…”

A little mental snicker from me as today is Feb. 6th, and I’ve been booked for the Valentine’s Day weekend for about two weeks now, with a Wait List that’s growing daily.  It’s hilarious to me that people think they’re being so clever by not mentioning the holiday’s name. “Honey, do you mind if I go out with the Boys one night next month?”  “No babe, what’s the date?”  “It’s March the 17th? We’re just goin’ out for a beer or two…”  Or the people that ask for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day off, by date, in a note.  I always tell staff that want Holidays off to write their name, and the date they want off on a $50 bill and turn it in to me…

So, I like to play along for a bit…

“Okay, February 14th.  That’s a Sunday, correct?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“What time would you like to dine?”

“Um, seven thirty, I guess…”

(There is an audible brightening of his tone, as he is surely beginning to think, “It’s working! It’s working!  I swear to God, I’m putting her birthday and Valentine’s Day in my Blackberry so this doesn’t happen again next year…”)

“Oh, so sorry, we’re completely booked for VALENTINE’S DAY!!”

“Uh, you are?”  Hopes dashed, his chances of the Valentine’s Day blowjob fading like War Admiral in the stretch, he’s reeling like he’s been punched hard in the stomach.  And you gotta love the reply, even though it’s somewhat expected:

“You got anything earlier?”


Or, the “I’ll Beat-Them-At-Their-Own-Game Guy”:

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick.”

“I’d like to confirm a reservation…”  They always try to sound confident here, as they know a slight wavering in the voice, or showing any fear or hesitation would be like turning their back on a Junk Yard Dog, or a bull that’s ready to charge.

“Sure.  What’s the date of the reservation?”

“February 14th..”

“Okay.  And the name on the reservation?”

“It’s Real Loser, party of two, 7pm.”

“Yes, sir.  Checking…I don’t seem to have a reservation under that name.”  I can’t resist twisting the knife a little:  “Could it be under a different name?”

“Um, uh, yeah, that’s it… can you look under Total Loser…”

In the Olden Days, before Open Table and other database reservation systems, this scam could actually work if you got a vapid hostess type that probably fucked up people’s reservations on a regular basis by not writing things down.  With hand written reservation sheets they could easily be bullied into crow-barring you in, if sufficiently brow-beaten.

Once I had a guy try to pull the Calling to Confirm Scam, who as much admitted that he didn’t have a reservation and apologized in advance:

“I’d like to confirm a reservation for Valentine’s Day…” and we go through the preliminaries, like the scenario above.  I of course cannot find his reso.   So he says to me quietly, as his S.O. is obviously standing there, arms crossed, tapping her toe, that look of “Well, Asshole?” fixed on her face.


I can hear him now, his hand covering the phone, “Baby, I’m so sorry.  Baby, wait, it’s not my fault…”  Click.

Give him points for being creative; but in the end he’ll be right there with me, wandering aimlessly in the Greeting Card aisle at Safeway, picking through the carcasses of the mangled cards and dead flowers, trying to salvage what’s left for us, at midnight on February 13th.  We have a regular group that gets together two nights a year.  Our next meeting will be the night before Mother’s Day.

"Mike From Reno"

February 4, 2010

We were busy at work last night.  Not so many reservations, but one of those “all at once” nights where the several parties we did have were all scheduled within a half an hour of each other.

I had checked with the Front Desk of the hotel and found out we had only a dozen or so check-ins that night, so I didn’t think the Walk-In factor would be in play.  I decided to go with a lean crew to give us all a chance to make some dough on what looked to be a fairly quiet February weeknight.

Our Wine Director was off, out sick actually; and our other Somm was getting ready for his Master Sommelier’s Exam coming up later in the month, so I had let him have the night off to study.  So, it was just me, again, wearing the many hats of Manager, Host, Bartender, Sommelier, Expediter, Food Runner and Whatever The Hell Else Needed To Be Done Guy.  I would be walking the tightrope again; in a situation that is manageable, but can easily go all to hell if I get a stupid phone call, or get Tractor Beamed in by a table.

We had four parties all arriving at 6:00pm: three deuces and a 7 top.  Two of the deuces we knew (one an employee comp, the other a local vintner’s daughter) so I didn’t think it would be an issue getting them going. Usually, though, someone is late, someone is early; so it all tends to work out.  And whadaya know, that’s exactly how it happened.

We got them all seated, orders taken, and I had poured and explained the first course wines to the one table of the three that had opted for the Wine Pairing.  The other two ordered bottles off the list, so we were on cruise control.  I had even managed to take care of a local who had walked in to buy a Gift Certificate, which requires me to run back to the Chef’s Office and get on the computer, type it up and print.  Back to the POS to run the credit card, get them to sign and here you go, thank you very much.

The 7-top, which was due to arrive any minute, was a group from some of our “sister” hotels, although “Rich Uncle” would be a more accurate metaphor.  They were a bunch of GM’s from hotels in ‘The Luxury Collection,” a much higher priced group of properties under the Starwood umbrella.  They had proven themselves to be fairly demanding in their dealings with our Private Dining Department during their meetings earlier in the week, and with the crew at the other, more casual restaurant on the property, during breakfast.  But we deal with demanding all the damn time, so I wasn’t worried.  One of the seven was the GM from the 100-plus year-old Palace Hotel in San Francisco and was also the President of the San Francisco Hotel Council, a fairly high-powered trade group, and I wanted to show him some mighty Napa Valley Kung Fu. I could hear the sound of their voices from down the hall as they approached, but we were all set for them.  So it was all good, so far.  Just as the first of the group came into view, the phone rang.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick…”

Really drunk sounding guy on the other end:  “Who?!?  Is this La Toque?!?”

“Yes this is La Toque Restaurant, can I help you?”

“Didn’t you guys used to be somewhere up in North Napa?”

“Yes, sir we were in Rutherford for 10 years.”




“Yes sir, Rutherford.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“About a half an hour north of here.”


“Yes, Rutherford.”

“Rutherford.  Hey, that’s where you guys used to be, isn’t it?”

By this time my 7-top of Hoi Polloi Hoteliers had fully formed at the podium but were still occupied with their own conversations, and no one had really approached me to check in.  Etiquette in this situation demands putting the caller on hold, and dealing with the live bodies in front of you; and I could feel the quicksand of the drunk guy on the phone starting to pull me down.  I figured I had 30 seconds or so to see what he wanted or get rid of him before I had to deal with the GMs.

“How can I help you sir?”

“Your name is Patrick?”

“Yes sir.  How can I help you?”

“Patrick, this Mike from Reno.  Howya doin’?”

“Very well, sir.”

“Well, Patrick, The Wife and I,  we’re gonna be comin’ down from Reno next month and we thought we might stop in and see ya, ya know, have a little dinner, have some wine, visit some wineries…”

“Yes sir?”

“You know, Patrick, we were gonna drive on over from Susanville down across to Fortuna and then on down your way, so I figure what the hell, let’s go all the way down and have some dinner…”


“So lemme ask ya Patrick…didn’t you guys use to be up North somewhere?”

Oh shit.  Circular conversation.

“Hey Mike?  Can I put you on hold for just a second?”

“So Patrick, you got some pretty good food there?”

I realized Mike from Reno wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  And much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t just blow him off, as the designated envoy from the 7-top of Hoteliers was now standing in front of me, ready to be acknowledged, and he was listening to my end of the conversation.

“So, Mike, did you want to make a reservation?”

“Well, ya know, I gotta talk to The Wife, figure out the days and alla that, so I’ll do that and give ya a call…you got a website or sumpin’?”

“Yes, sir, it’s La Toque dot com.  There’s menus, pictures of the restaurant (as I was certain reading was beyond Mike’s capability at this point) and links to maps and directions.”

“Oh, well, that’s great. I’ll take a look at that and I’ll talk to The Wife and I’ll give ya a call back…”

“Fantastic, Mike.  Thanks for calling.”


“Good evening, are the seven of you ready for dinner?”

So the 7-top was seated, ordered some wine and displayed a real knack for the annoying tendency to all ask for stuff at the same time.  But being a pretty good multi-tasker/prioritizer, I listened to everyone at once then decided who got what first according to my own personal hierarchy of the table.  White wine?  Yessir, the Gruner would be excellent.  Red wine?  Sure, medium bodied Cab Franc.  Copy of the wine list?  Can I see the menu again?  Some lime for the water?  And a Campari and Soda, a Hendricks and Tonic, and ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.

I got the white opened and poured, made cocktails, served them, got the back waiters on the water and lime. I brought the menu and wine list as requested, and had retrieved the Cab Franc from the wine room, marked them with the proper glasses, and was on my way back to the table to present and open it.

Then it’s the phone again.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick.”

“HEY PATRICK!!”   Mike from Reno was back.

“So I’m lookin’ at this website of yours and it says ‘Three courses plus dessert, $78.’  What’s that mean?  How do I do that?”

Our menu is divided into three sections, first courses, middle courses, and main courses.  Desserts are listed on the last page.

“I mean, how do I pick stuff.  Do I just pick three things?”

“Well, Mike, do you see where it says ‘First Courses?”


“And, do you see where it says ‘Middle Courses’?”  Really wanting to get mad now, but keeping it together, barely.


“Well, you pick one from each of those, then a Main Course and a Dessert.”

“Oh, so that’s how ya do it…”

“Yes, that’s how you do it.”

“Well, that explains that.  Listen, Patrick, I’m gonna talk to The Wife…”

I got myself disengaged from Mike again, got the wine to the table, and the first two courses were served to my VIPs.

We are all at the table, clearing the second course plates, and as I am walking back toward the scullery with an armload, I hear the phone.  I dropped my load at the Dish Pit and hustled back to the podium to get the call before it went to Voice Mail.  My bad.  I looked down at the Caller ID window.

You got it:  Mike from Reno.

But me and Old Mike,  we’re way past the formalities of any kind of phone etiquette by now.  I pick up the receiver.

“Hey Mike!”

He doesn’t miss a beat.

“So Patrick, I talked to The Wife and it looks like we’re not gonna get by to see ya this trip, but we’ll be down real soon, okay?”

“Sorry to hear that Mike.  But give my best to The Wife and we’ll see you sometime real soon.”

“Okay, Patrick…”   Mike From Reno, ladies and gentlemen.  Let’s give him a big hand…

Good news and bad news, as I was now pretty certain that would be Mike’s last phone incursion for the evening; but had I been able to get a reservation out of him that night, I wouldn’t have to live with the Mike From Reno Sword of Damocles that will be hanging over my head until that happy day arrives when he and The Wife pack up the Pace Arrow and hit the road.

Oh God.  He’ll actually be driving.