(Sorry, this is long.)
I've been sitting on this for a while, not quite sure how to write about it without sounding one part dickish, one part whiny, and one part wrong. But the SF Chronicle's Michael Bauer blogs about it today, so now I feel socially sanctioned.
I read Eric Ripert's cookbook/restaurant-day-in-the-life On the Line a few months ago, and it completely blew my mind. I was obsessed with this book. It's engaging, it's interesting, it's educational, it's joyful — the recipes are beautiful, the photography is beautiful, it paints this very honest picture of real people working at a restaurant. It might be one of my favorite food books of all time, and considering my fleeting attention span, my hyperjudgmental attitude, and my massive collection of culinary literaria, that's definitely saying something. I did not shut up about this book for, like, many weeks, so for Valentine's Day, the inimitable Mr. B decided to take me to Ripert's restaurant, Le Bernardin, for dinner.
It wasn't, of course, actual Valentine's Day. It was the Friday after, safe from the horrible V-Day crowds. I raced home after work and changed from my usual cubicle attire of jeans and ratty t-shirt into a total slickness cocktail dress, high heels, teeny tiny clutch purse. Fancy, dig? So I walk in, Mr. B's not there yet, and present myself to the Maitre d'. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." He looks me up and down, sneers, dismisses. "Yes. Well. You may check your coat." A flick of the hand in the general direction of the coat check and he turns back to his reservation book.
On my coat-checkward pivot, an older gentleman comes in, and presents an identical introduction. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." It's like a parallel universe: "Of course, sir. May I take your coat? Please make yourself comfortable in the lounge. May I have the bartender make you a drink?
(It was at this point in the night-of telling of the story that my roommate interjected "Seriously? At that point I would have just walked out.")
It didn't get better. When Mr. B arrived, we were led to a crappy table next to the kitchen door. Okay, overlookable, all restaurants have crappy tables and someone needs to sit in them. But then the captain comes over and hands us our menus, opened to the dinner menu, which he explains. Then he walks away.
So we call after him — actually, we explain, we were planning on ordering the tasting menu. Is that available? So yes, actually, it turns out it is, and he flips the page and shows it to us. "The tasting menus are $135 and $185 dollars," he takes care to note. Thanks, dude, the price is printed on the page. He starts to walk away again. One more call after his turned back — the sommelier? Could you send him over?
The sommelier, who turns out to be a her, is the only bright spot in our meal. She's delightful, friendly, solicitous, and leads us to two brilliant half-bottles that go perfectly with our eight courses apiece. Each time she returns to check up on us she's smiling, asks us if we're enjoying how the pairings meld with the tuna & foie gras, or the lobster and salsify.
In contrast, upon each return to our table to present a new course, the captain gives a cursory explanation of each dish (one time he actually forgot to tell me what I was about to eat, until I stopped him from walking away [strike three!] and asked for a refresher course on the sauce accompanying the escolar). At no point did he ask how we had enjoyed a previous course, whether everything was to our liking, or — as we rose to go, having been presented with the (ridiculously pricey) check and attended to on that matter by a busboy — thanked us for coming.
I have enough multi-course tasting menus at enough super-fancy restaurants (I know, pity me) to know that sometimes even the best service has an off-day, and I'm forgiving of it. But just as the maitre d' was welcoming and warm to the middle-aged man who walked in thirty seconds after I did, the service captain's back was always being hastily turned to us so that he could attend, friendly and with notable graciousness, to the table to our left. And in front of us. And diagonally to the right. It wasn't an off-day. We were, apparently, off-customers.
Don't get me wrong, the food was good. I'm glad I ate it, though it didn't blow my mind. But it's been a few weeks since this dinner and I'm still finding myself fill up with indignance about the astonishingly dismissive service. To put it in crass terms, we walked in with the intention of spending lots of money — I ordered a $38 drink while waiting for Mr. B, for chrissakes — and tipping like kings. We did, of course (the sommelier and the busboy deserved it, if the maitre d' and captin eminently did not), but in exchange for our patronage and intended largesse we got rewarded with some plates of fish and the sucker treatment.
Look, I don't want to say that it was because we're young that we got such bad service, but oh my god, it was totally because we are young. I'm not really the type to march into a restaurant and declare "Hello, I am a former cookbook editor* who is now a food blogger, i.e. I know my shit, and my dining companion works in finance, i.e. we are not going to cheap out on you. Treat us accordingly." If I did that, I would be an asshole. Because there shouldn't be any "accordingly" treatment for a food pro and a rich dude.
At a restaurant of the caliber and reputation of Le Bernardin there is one of two scenarios for a table: One, they're the kind of person for whom this isn't a break-the-bank experience. They're the "you know, I've really been craving that mackerel at Le B, let's go next week" table. They should get excellent service, because they're the backbone of the restuarant's business.
Two, they're not that type. They're tourists splurging on a special dinner. They're a young couple who've saved up for a couple months to spare no expense on a birthday celebration. Heck, they're a young couple who haven't saved up for a couple months, and will frugally and perhaps embarrassedly order the precisely cheapest things on the menu, because it is a special occasion and they have decided that, credit card debt be damned, they would like to spend that occassion at Le Bernardin. They should get excellent service, because they fucking deserve it.
On the Line deals primarily with back-of-house matters; as its title implies, it doesn't really stray much from the kitchen. And it's entirely possible that the kitchen is the magical (rigorous, regimented, terrifying) place it's painted as in the volume. But the front of house disappointed me so deeply, so emotionally, that I don't ever want to go back. I don't want to recommend it to a friend. I don't even want to open the book again.
*Who worked for the company that publishes Eric Ripert's cookbooks, no less!
(Sorry, this is long.)