"Scary Movie VIII: Bachelorette Party, Napa Valley"

March 8, 2010

Let’s face it, people come to Napa Valley to drink.  Some do it in “moderation”, trying to experience new wines and wineries, some just do it.

Working for a couple of years at Domaine Chandon’s étoile Restaurant, I’ve had more than my share of power drinkers.   Limos full of  tiara-wearing bachelorettes were a common occurance at 6:00pm on weekends all summer.  After a full day of wineries, a salad for lunch, and maybe a “what the hell” margarita, or a couple of shots in the car, they decide it might be a good idea to stop in and power down a bottle or two of Sparkling.  They get the “drunken munchies”, see the restaurant is now open, and think that eating a five-course meal loaded with foie gras and pork belly sounds like a good way to top things off.  The survivors of the group always seemed mystified as to why some of their party end up in the bathroom driving the porcelain bus.  Chandon had the distinction of being open later than many tastng rooms, so we would end up with a lot of these “end ups”.

We ended up with a similar group at La Toque on Saturday night.  A woman had called in to see if we could take a party of 10 at 8:30 that night.  I am always wary of late Saturday night reservations made at the last minute, say around 5:30pm that day, called in from a winery.  Most of the time, it goes like this:

1)  Make reservation after a full day of visiting wineries.

2) Return to hotel room to change at 6:00pm.

3) Fall asleep for three hours.

4) Wake up with the “fuck-its”, and order a cheeseburger from room service.

5) No-show, no-call at the restaurant.

Or the alteranative scenario, where they go through Steps 1 and 2, but instead of proceeding to nap at Step 3, they try to power through and just keep drinking, resulting in them being a hot mess when they show for dinner.  Even though I have always been a fan of the “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy, most first timers to Napa don’t have the stamina they think they do, and this second scenario always spells trouble.

So when I got a call for a last minute 10-top from the hotel next door at around 6:00pm I was, to say the least, skeptical they would actually make it.  But having a late 10-top is like finding 50 bucks in your jeans when you are folding the laundry.  So on the off-chance that they would show, I offered them the only option I could, which was to seat them on two separate tables of five.  “Okay, we’ll be there…”

The night is going fine, busy yet smooth; and as 8:15 rolls around I actually have two adjacent tables available, so I tell the crew to put them together and we’ll give this late party a thrill by letting them all sit together, if they show at all.   Then, as it always seems to when things are going well, that other shoe drops.

The advance guard of the 10-top has arrived and two of them can barely stand and are propping each other up; the other two are distancing themselves slightly, talking loudly on cell phones in the foyer.  I approach, ask if the rest of the group is en route and am told they are now eight.  Okay, only eight.  Thanks for calling.  Normally I would know better and not make a table adjustment until I have the entire group assembled, as drunk chicks are notoriously bad at math; but I look out the front door and see the other four ambling up the stairs, with no stragglers in tow.  They are all pretty buzzed.  So the table is adjusted and they are seated, the loud-talkers quieting down somewhat as they enter the dining room.  Safe so far.

I tell the back waiters to get some bread to the table immediately as these chicks clearly need something in their stomachs.  They get themselves situated, get the menus and start looking them over.   As I do a walk-by, I see that one of them has folded her napkin into a little square pillow so she can comfortably lay her head down on the table for a little snooze.  Another, a couple of seats over has put on her sunglasses and is trying to navigate the menu through her Chanels in our dimly lit dining room.  The girl seated next to Shades is groping over at her face, trying to grab the glasses off of her head, “Ooh, those are CUTE, let me wear them.”  One of them, who actually still has her wits about her, asks me for a Wine List.  Uh, no.  I proceed to explain we will not be serving their group any more alcohol for the obvious reasons.  A tall blonde looks up at me and whispers loudly, “I’m not THAT drunk…”  Yes, you are.

There are really only three of the eight that needed to be cut off, but in group situations you are asking for trouble if you attempt to serve only some, as those that are banned will attempt to drink covertly.  Drunks are not good at being sneaky, so you will have to cut off the others anyway.  Might as well deal with it right from the get go.

The two that were doing the three legged race trying to hold each other up earlier, offer to leave if I will agree to serve the rest.  Before I can even get the word “No” formed on my lips, they are up, pinballing back out of the restaurant and down the hall.  I follow them out to make sure the bartender at our other bar in the lobby is aware of their status.  Their situation couldn’t be more clear if it was tatooed on their foreheads (“Ooh, cool!  Lesh gedda taTOO!!”), but better safe than sorry.

So I get back to the table and the remaining six are debating whether to stay and not drink (“Where’s the fun in THAT?!”) and “threatening” to leave.  Really?  Promise?  But most of the group seems okay to me now, so I acquiesce and they decide to stay.  Four of the six order the Wine Pairings with their dinner, the other two are smart enough to stick with water, and lots of it.

This group is like one of those horror movies with the eight Summer Camp girls in cut-off jeans and bikini tops huddled together in the dark cabin, with a maniac on the loose in the woods.   Two of them have already been picked off, but now another one goes off to try to find help, or get wood for the fire, whatever; and when she doesn’t return, another says, “I wonder what’s happened to her…” and one by one off they go, until all of them are in pieces in Hefty Bags.  Halfway through her first course, one of our Survivors gets up and walks quickly out and towards the restroom.  She reappeared briefly about 15 minutes later.  She gets her check, pays quickly and leaves, obviously preferring to vomit in the privacy of her own hotel room.  And then there were five…

"Maybe we should go see if Lisa is okay..."

The rest of the evening passed without incident, and several of the girls actually thanked me for letting them stay, and for helping get rid of their drunk friends which they had apparently been trying to do unsuccessfully for most of the day.   Like a movie where the Mob Hitman has an attack of conscience but needs proof the job is done, they ended the night by having their waiter take a photo with the rest of them in “passed out” poses, with a couple of wine glasses knocked over for effect.  Good thing they got the photographic evidence as actually remembering the events could prove problematic.  We go a phone call from one of them ten minutes after they left saying she had lost a sweater.  I didn’t even bother looking as I knew she was probably wearing it.  Girls just wanna have fun…


"Can't Live With 'Em; Can't Shoot 'Em…"

March 5, 2010

To borrow a line from our friend, The Only Slightly Cranky Waitress, sometimes people don’t suck…

We had a deuce in last night, a young couple visiting from Canada, who wanted to see the kitchen, maybe talk to the guys about our Sous-Vide cooking methods on Chef’s “Truffled Soft Poached Egg with Truffled Brioche” as they are indulging in our Annual All-Black Truffle Menu.  So we walk them back there between courses, show them the rig, and they are chatting with our Sous-Chef about this and that.  It was kind of a quiet night, so I offered to move them to the Chef’s Table in the kitchen for the rest of their meal (four courses to go).

They were absolutely thrilled to be in there, had such a great time; and the woman, on her way to the loo, stopped me in the foyer and tried to relate to me just how great a time they were having with halting phrases like, “This is just so..”  and “I can’t even begin to tell you…” as her eyes were tearing up, voice cracking a bit.  I think her good time and five courses of wine pairings were starting to get to her, but it was just so damn cute.  They finished up, thanked everyone profusely, and left a nice bump for their server.  Hey, if you’re getting Cash Love from the Canadians, you must be doing something right.  It’s always gratifying to have people respond to, and appreciate, genuine hospitality; but a Franklin across the palm is nice, too.

…but then again, sometimes they do suck:

Night before last, we had an older four top in that orders pre-dinner cocktails and tells their server several times, “We’re not ready to order yet.”  Fine.  After 45 minutes of conversation and drinking on an empty stomach, they finally pick up their menus and order.  Not five minutes later I am called to their table to hear one of the women complain, through her lipstick-stained teeth, that  “We’ve been here over an hour, and we haven’t even had our first course yet!”

Where’s my gun?

"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.

"Pull This…"

January 25, 2010

Out of 32 parties seated in the restaurant last Saturday night, almost half of them brought their own wine.  While we are always happy to accommodate our guests who bring in their own wines (especially those that share things with us like a 1990 DRC!) this is getting out of hand.  And while we love it when our friends and neighbors in “the business” bring in their product, in our area you really can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone in the wine business.

Our corkage right now is $20 for a 750ml, $40 for a mag, with no limit on number of bottles;  we use Riedel Vinum Extreme, varietal-correct glassware; bottles are de-canted (where applicable);  honest, educated  suggestions are made by our Somms about which dishes/courses the guests’ wine would pair with best; and we are fairly loose with the “buy one, waive one policy.  If a party participates in our Wine Pairing for the first three courses, then wants to enjoy their own wine with the fourth, we often waive as well.

We do have a preponderance of bottles over $100 on our list, but many of them, especially older vintage Bordeaux and Burgundies, are vastly under-priced for what they are.  Our check average is around $120 per person so, to me anyway, $20 per bottle is a deal…

Is our corkage too low?  Should we limit the number of bottles that we will allow or maybe work on a sliding scale, increasing corkage fees for the 3rd, 4th, or 5th bottle (we had a party on Saturday that brought in 10, ended up opening 7!)

Is is because the wine list prices are too high?  I don’t think so, as many of the guests last Saturday were first timers, and our wine list is not published on-line, so how would they know?

Or is this just a product of things being the way they are in the world these days?

"Are They Loafers or Work Boots?"

October 16, 2009

There is a definite skill set needed to be a successful server. You need some basic eye-hand co-ordination, the ability to multi-task, and grace under pressure; you need good short-term memory, strong arches and back. The most important pieces in this puzzle, however, are a sense of humor (a sick one usually is most helpful) and a genuine spirit of hospitality.

This last is the most important. If you don’t truly enjoy taking care of your guests and helping them to feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcomed, well, you better be damn good at faking it because people can spot insincerity a mile away. A successful, professional server will have skills in the physical and psychological aspects, and they truly enjoy what they do.

There are waiters that survive for years with an inferior skill set. They muddle through, day in, day out, making the same stupid mistakes over and over and over again. They are known in our business as “Shoe Clerks” (as in, “This guy should be selling shoes”, or doing anything besides waiting tables); they are no trouble for their boss, show up each and every day on time, and are probably working the slow shifts so their deficiencies go unnoticed and they don’t get fired. An old pro I worked with years ago used to say “Good waiters work dinner, bad waiters pump gas; all the rest work lunch.” Snap-snap!

There are servers that have superior food and wine knowledge, have the necessary hospitality gene in their DNA, yet cannot multi-task their way out of a wet paper sack. They are what I refer to as One-Spooners. The One-Spooner is a waiter who serves soup to one person at a table of four. Someone at the table will ask him for another spoon, as they would maybe like to sample their friend’s soup. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what is going to happen here. Instead of anticipating that someone else at that table might want to do the same and bring THREE more spoons, One Spooner lives up to his name. He then has to go back, yet again, to the service station for more spoons when the inevitable request comes from the other two guests at that table.

There are also servers who are highly skilled, can handle a ton of people all at once, know the menu and wine list inside and out, yet have no desire or love for making their guests happy. They are more concerned with what the people at the table think of THEM than what their guests’ actual needs are. These servers are often perplexed and resentful when guests don’t fall in love with them, leave them 25%, and want to write them into their will after a two-hour meal.

Then there is the server who is knowledgeable, has the physical skills, the memory, and in all other ways is technically proficient. Yet you just don’t like them. Or they have all the personality of a bag of hair. They can make a meal about as much fun as having your teeth cleaned.

We had one of these wait on us last week when stopped in (finally) at the Oxbow Market. We were lusting after oysters, but of course the one Sunday that we finally make it in, Hog Island Oyster Bar has closed early for an “Employee Picnic”. This is all the more puzzling as it is pouring rain and 5:30pm. Cest la vie; we go across the breezeway into Oxbow Wine Merchant and deposit ourselves at one of the corners of the square bar in the middle of the room.

Our server greets us, not with “Hello, welcome, how are you?” or any other verbal greeting, but with a deadpan look and four glasses of icewater. The menus are already laid out on the bar, so no menu presentation is necessary either. We select some apps and a bottle of Ruche di Castagnolo Montferrato, a seldom seen wine (in Napa Valley, anyway) from a seldom seen DOC in Piedmont. Our girl, without a single word of comment on our choice or on anything else, puts four thimble-sized tasting glasses in front of the three of us, and dutifully fetches our bottle. She presents it to me, as I was the one who ordered it, and being unfamiliar with this particular producer, I say, “That looks like it.” To which she says, “Yes it is,” and begins to sink her corkscrew. My wife asks her for some larger glasses to accommodate the big Italian red. She lets out an exasperated sigh, stops the presentation, and walks out from behind the bar to retrieve some Bordeaux glasses from a shelf near the kitchen. There were some glasses, smaller than the Riedels that she brought back but larger than the originals, within arms length behind the bar; and when I comment that we would have been perfectly happy with those, she says “Yes, those really are the proper glasses” for this particular wine. Well why the big show about getting the ones from across the room then? And would it kill you to smile and say SOMETHING once in a while?

I can somewhat understand a server tiring of dealing with tourists who are often neophytes when it comes to ordering anything other than chardonnay and cabernet, or just about wine in general. I can also understand being in a snit because you are working on a Sunday. And if she were up to her ass in busy, I could even forgive a little attitude; but we are the only ones in the place at this point, so why is she up on a cross over our glassware request?

Anyway, the wine was great, the items on the Charcuterie and cheese board we ordered were excellent, all very well thought out, and went well with the wine. I also enjoyed a cup of a luxurious potato soup with tons of cream and butter (we did, however, have to ask for extra spoons!), and we all lusted after our friend’s five-year-old daughter’s Grilled Cheese from the Panini press. Great food and wine, but with “service” that added nothing to our experience.

And do you have the Cap-Toe Oxfords in black?

A True Blast from The Past

October 12, 2009

In my career I have been lucky enough to work at some fabulous places with some lengthy verticals on their wine lists. Because I am a Napa Valley native, most of my first-hand experience with older vintages has been with bottles from California. I have enough years “in the cellar” myself to have drunk quite a few of them before they became “older.” Although many California wines can age well and will often show surprising longevity when you least expect it (we tried a 1976 Burgess Zinfandel at work one night that still had quite a bit of spring in its step), old wine in the New World usually means 20 to 30 years. Just as with our appreciation of antique furniture, art, or architecture, the concept of what constitutes “old wine” here in America would only qualify as adolescent in Europe. We simply haven’t been around and doing it as long as they have.

As a consequence, most people who drink older vintage California wines do so as a curiosity, or because they just want to show off. They often lack the experience to really appreciate the nuances of a well-cellared, older vintage. As wine drinkers, our palates have been conditioned by consuming so many big, slutty, overoaked, too-young Cabs and Merlots that anything older than five or ten years tastes ‘gone” to us. We are what my friend Mike Featherston used to call “baby killers.” I once had a guy order a lovely older vintage Ridge Monte Bello (a 1985, and this was back in 2005) just to impress his busty Rent-a-Date dinner companion. As I was de-canting it over a candle, the woman asks me “Why do you use a candle underneath it?” And before I can get Word One out of my mouth to explain, this Cork Dork starts in with “Well, the heat from the candle changes the molecular complexity of the wine, blah-blah-blah.” I mentally roll my eyes, and tell her, “Yes, plus the light helps me see all the little bits before they can go into the decanter.” I could tell he hated it, but he drank it anyway so as not to be shamed in front of me or the bimbo. A beautiful bottle of wine, and it was so completely and utterly wasted on these two.

I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try some older vintage wines last Friday at our restaurant. A party of 8 collectors had set up a special menu, deigned by Chef and our Sommelier, Yoon Ha, to compliment the nuances of these older vintages. And we are talking truly older vintages here: 1959 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne, 1952 Krug, 1998 & 1928 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1929 Margaux, 1947 La Mission Haut-Brion, 1945 Latour, 1945 Latour a Pomerol, 1926 Cheval Blanc, 1926 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1955 La Romanee, 1962 La Romanee, 1898 La Tour Blanche, 1921 Suduiraut and a 1912 Tokaji Eszencia. Not your garden variety Cork Dorks, these guys not only had the experience and expertise to enjoy and appreciate these very old bottles, but also the time and money to source them, cellar them properly and transport to a place like ours where they can be drunk while enjoying a fine meal with people of a like mind. Among this particular group was Francois Auduze, one of the world’s authorities on older vintage wines. He has a collection to boggle the mind. The seven gentlemen joining him all paid big, big bucks to be at the table that night. That, on top of the cost of the wines themselves, which came from their personal cellars; then there was airfare, limos, hotels, and the cost of the dinner itself; all just to be there, eat nine courses, and be told of their history while they drank some amazing wines.

The bottles were all in great condition, but the corks required no small amount of skill and dexterity to negotiate. Our Somm is one of the most professional and knowledgeable I have ever seen or worked with; always grace under pressure. That night was the first time I had seen him worked into a near froth. Not only did he have 100-year-old corks to deal with, but also he had to de-cant and serve these museum pieces to people who actually know what they are, know their history, and what to expect from them in their glass and on their palate.

As is the case with very old wines, some were fantastic, others disappointing. Not because of improper storage but just because they were years past their prime. It was fascinating to experience the nuances of champagne from the year after I was born; and the 1898 La Tour Blanche had morphed into a silky, earthy little bomb of nuts, honey, and apricots. My favorite of the bunch was the 1929 Margaux. Still vibrant and colorful, even though it was made the year my father turned 10 and the Great Depression was just beginning. None of us got to taste much more than a sip, mind you. These guys treasured what they were served so much that one point in the dinner I tried to clear what I assumed was an empty glass, nothing but a few bubbles in the bottom and was admonished by the French host, “Eh, I sink you have tekken my glass, no?”

Dinner went on until 1:00am, when heads started bobbing and their speech was just slightly slurred. Limos pulled up to transport them all back to SF, where they were apparently doing much the same thing the next night. Must be nice…

"They Were The Best of Guests, They Were The Worst of Guests…"

September 18, 2009

Had to re-publish this older post due to “Internal Server Error”.  If you’ve already read it, sorry; if not, thanks for reading…

(Originally published 06/24/2009, but still just as relevant today…)

A Tale of Two Tables:

Despite our best efforts and our deeply entrenched sense of hospitality, occasional guest dissatisfaction is a fact of life in our business. Sometimes it’s food over or under cooked; or the accidental beverage spill on a cashmere sweater; long waits for courses or maybe some other half imagined, half true issue. Whatever the case, the staff’s reaction and handling of complaints should be as professional and accommodating as possible. Sometimes, however, they don’t make it easy, these people.

Last Saturday night we had two tables that complained, Table 71 and Table 48.

Table 71 was a party of six that arrived early, around 6:15pm. My manager’s “Spider Sense” was tingling as they sat. I anticipated problems. They looked grumpy, didn’t say much on the way to the table, and they were all apparently related: to me it looked like Mom, Dad, and maybe three of their adult kids and someone’s spouse. Family dynamics at the dinner table are always dicey. Family dynamics while traveling and vacationing are most always a recipe for trouble. A two hour layover at George H. Bush in Houston with your brother in law, listening to him go on and on about playing “World of War Craft” on-line, can be enough to make anyone want to open an artery. This group sat, were given menus and one of the kids started right in complaining about the price of the wine pairing for the four-course menu. (“Four glasses of wine for $62? I don’t think so…” ) Uh-oh, here we go.

I know our menu prices are on the expensive side, but even just slightly wine-savvy guests realize our pairings are a very good value, as we pour very expensive wines: Napa Valley Cabs and Syrahs, great Pinots, Premier and Grand Cru Burgundies, Gruners and the like. The wines are expertly paired with the dishes, and we will always happily pour a little more for people if they finish the wine before they finish the food; no problemo. Add to that the interaction with the Sommelier, who pours and explains the wines and why they were chosen for each and every course, the high quality stemware we use, and just the general surroundings, and you really get your money’s worth. I always urge our guests to have the wine pairings not because I want to bilk them out of $62, but because it is a big, big part of what makes dining with us unique. But there will always be people who just don’t get it; and there were six of them sitting at this particular table.

This group was clearly out of their element in regards to wine and food knowledge as well as basic fine dining experience. There was the jet-lag issue, and some, who had ordered only two courses when the rest did four, didn’t understand why they didn’t have any food in front of them while the rest were eating. “Our food is taking a really long time…” At this point I stepped in, apologized, and pre-fired seven desserts for this party of six and had them on the table within seconds after the last person had finished eating their main course. Desserts are all on me, so sorry for the “delay”.

So, these people just didn’t get it. But that’s cool; in a hotel setting like ours we get these types all the time (“Do I get soup or salad with the Salmon?”). My staff has become quite skilled at meeting these guests at their level. They do the best they can to make them comfortable and hopefully not feel too out of place even if they are. They know not to recommend the foie gras with mango to the steak and potato crowd. Sometimes we get guests that sit, look at the menu and either go into sticker-shock at the prices or, like that dorky sixth grader on the first day of Junior High, look around and start to get that “Whoa!!, Wrong room!” expression. At this point, some will give in to the latter portion of their “fight or flight” instinct and suddenly disappear like a trap door opened under them. Some try to tough it out and act “as if”. They say the strong give up and move on while the weak give up and stay. Enter table 48.

The couple I seated on Table 48 was in their mid-twenties and came in about an hour after Family Feud on 71. The man (I will eschew the term “gentleman” here as he later clearly demonstrated he wasn’t) was already lit, talking loudly and being just a little too friendly with me on the way to the table. They sat, ordered martinis, four courses with wine pairings, and seemed like they were going to be OK. I told their waiter to “keep an eye” on the man as he was 1 ½ sheets out of three to the wind already. Getting some food into people at this point in the inebriation process can go a long way toward settling them down, so I was okay with them ordering the wine pairings. Bad move on my part.

After their second course had been cleared and they were “marked” with the silverware and glassware for the third, the man left the table to smoke. I was walking through the patio, checking on guests and stopped to re-fold the man’s napkin. His girlfriend asked me if I was a “manager-type person”. Why, yes, I am. “Well”, she starts off, “I wouldn’t normally say anything but because I’ve worked in Food Service”… Oh God, here it comes: some people think that working a summer at Chili’s or scooping Mac and Cheese on the cafeteria line in prison qualifies them to tell me what’s wrong with my restaurant. I can spot “industry people” in a hot second, those that have in the past, or currently work in places on a par with ours, and this broad was clearly neither.

“What seems to be the problem here?”, I am wondering to myself at this point, as she starts in: “It hasn’t been good so far”. Okay, pretty vague. “The first wine pairing with the foie gras was not good (yes, the Sauternes with the foie gras was an ill conceived match, so we had brought her a Chardonnay, ick!). “I don’t have my wine yet for this course (and you don’t have the food either), “this course is taking a long time” (the boyfriend is away from the table, outside sucking down American Spirit Menthols so we haven’t fired this course yet), and”, as she puts her hand on the “Show Plate” in front of her, “my dinner plate is COLD!” Okay, is that really the best you can come up with? I explained that the plate on the table was a “charger” and that we were not going to actually serve any food directly on it; and that if she wanted her third course on the table to get cold while her boyfriend smoked, I would be happy to bring it right away. Anything else?

Listening sympathetically, caring genuinely, and acting graciously to solve problems are the first steps in turning people from raving mad to Raving Fans. Then we proceed to exceed their expectations. “Dinner is on me tonight” or “I’ve taken care of all your wine” are powerful tools that take the power to be pissed away from the guest; but it was all a total waste on Table 48, and that’s frustrating to say the least.

Now, I don’t mind complaints. I really don’t. Dealing with them is part of my job. But they really do need to be valid. I don’t mind going overboard and comping someone’s dinner if their lamb had to go back to be re-cooked while their tablemate eats alone. That’s our fault. But bitching just to bitch, or to see how big a hoop you can make me jump through is not okay. This woman hadn’t a leg to stand on, but was still going on about what, in her mind, was now the worst meal of her life. And now Smoky had returned too, and wanted to slur his two cents worth. I apologized, hurried their next two courses along (they sent back both meat courses as unacceptable), let them order dessert (hated that too) and comped their entire dinner. They grumbled and left. It really kills me to comp someone like this who had no real problems other than they just didn’t get what we are about; and they were going to go home and bitch about how bad it was to anyone who would listen from that day forward.

So, here are your results, America:

Table 71 thanked me for taking such good care of them and proceeded to give us a five-star review on their Open Table Diner Feedback e-mail form a couple of days later. They mentioned the gracious way the manager handled the situation, the free desserts and raved over the food quality. They said they would definitely be back and would recommend us to all their friends.

Table 48 went upstairs to their room and proceeded to call downstairs and leave a drunken complaint message on the concierge line, then called the front desk to complain about how bad their free meal was to any live person they could find. Apparently the complaining technique had worked so well on the restaurant, let’s see if we can get a free room too.

One class act and one with no class.

In the Major Leagues, going one for two might get you a headline in the next day’s papers, but in my job it is just an average