Dinner at Le Bernardin: In Which I am Discriminated Against

(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!


Jess said...

This happened to Torsten and me as well. We went to Equinox, supposedly one of DC's finest restaurants and one of the first places that Obama chose to dine once he arrived in town. We had a special occasion although I can no longer remember what it was--maybe our anniversary. We had a reservation. We were well-dressed. We were polite and friendly. And the maitre d' sneered at us, and our waiter ignored us, the service took forever, and we had to beg for water refills, while all around us servers were bending over backward to cater to the older people dining at nearby tables. Some of them were even wearing jeans and sneakers, and were still being treated obsequiously.

(Plus, the food was way too salty. But that was not the fault of the service.)

We left in total disbelief. The only explanation we could come up with was that we were the youngest people there by a good 20 years. We will not go back (nor would we even if we still lived in DC).

But at least we didn't have the kind of emotional connection to that restaurant that you did to Le Bernadin. What a shame.

And of course, this situation begs the question, how do you tip? Because if you tip according to the quality of the service (poorly), you are only reinforcing their prejudices against you. It makes you want to throw money at them just to show them that they were wrong. But then you're acting like they were right by tipping well.

Marcin said...

With reference to Jess' excellent point: just leave a note saying "fuck you, asshole."

This kind of chimes with my experience of the first time I went to Ripert's DC place (although not Kit's first time). We definitely got better service on subsequent visits.

Of course, that's more of a bistro, so far less high-falutin'. I always went in jeans.

Nichols-Belo said...

I am sad for you, because I have been fantasizing about going to Le Bernadin since that Top Chef episode. And even though I live in southern climes, I have looked at le website du Bernadin multiple times as though I could just pop over for dinner. Also while you are on the youngish side, Mr. B is technically a grown-up.

helen said...

@Jess, my thought has always been to tip well regardless of service level, and then to speak to a manager directly with my complaint.

This is for two reasons. One, esp. at places like Le B., the tip is redistributed among many people -- the helpful busboys, the sommelier, etc -- and it's unfair to shaft them. Two, leaving a low tip might be perceived as simply stingy tipping, not as a punitive financial measure.

Yes, talking to a manager takes time and requires sticking around in a restaurant where you had an unpleasant experience. It also involves dealing with someone face-to-face, and possibly having your complaint poorly received. This is why I rarely do this second step, and instead write about it on the internet. :)

Though Marcin's note-leaving suggestion does suffice, if you want to leave a lower tip.

@Nichols-Belo, yeah, he's An Old, but he looks young. Sometimes he gets carded and I don't. Sigh.

Manne said...

I agree with Helen above, you should have asked to talk to management right there and then. Absolutely appalling example of unnecessary snottiness.

Or, maybe more satisfying, leave a BIG tip and upon leaving loudly declare to the friendly members of staff to "make sure the grumpy man at front, treating us as low lifes and ruining what you guys otherwise would have made a great experience, doesn't get a dime of it!"

befalas said...

Give 'em hell, Helen! Stephen Dubner at Freakonomics Blog had a similar situation (at a different restaurant) in '05 and exposed 'em in the NYT:


"Sunlight is the best disinfectant; electric light the best policeman."

Louisa said...

Helen - I do hope you contact Le Bernardin directly. You could always still, uh, email them. No need for a face-to-face, mana-a-mano throwdown. While I actually enjoy that kind of confrontation, I understand not everyone does. ;) And I know you know that a restaurant is so much more than its chef. It would be a shame if this experience ruined Eric and his work for you. Especially because he is really and truly a good guy.

helen said...

@Louisa part of my disappointment is that I know Eric is a great guy. I've interacted with him a few times and he's been nothing but awesome and gracious and funny and kind. He and his work are certainly not ruined (I'll continue to love A Return to Cooking until the day I die, and will eventually be able to reopen On the Line, I'm sure), and it's my understanding that his world is BOH, while Maguy LeCoze's demimonde is the FOH. Much of my ire, right now, is directed at her and her staff.

Anonymous said...

That is a real shame.

Something similar happend to me and my Uncle at the Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern, located in the old restored "Dodd-Hinsdale House" in downtown Raleigh. Yeah, it's a lovely atmosphere and the menu, at least, thinks a whole lot of itself... And at the time, Raleigh needed some nicer dining options, so we went many times when it first opened, spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Then, we showed up on a whim after a wedding, dressed well and behaving properly. It was early evening and the place was deserted. Nonetheless, we were turned away because we had no reservation. We couldn't even convince them to give us a spot at the COMPLETELY EMPTY bar for a quick, early dinner.

And we never, ever went back. Customer service is important.

Frankie said...

I am so tempted to email this post's link to dine@le_bernadin.com. But I will resist. Because that is what a YOUNG person would do.

Anonymous said...

Helen, darling,

When I tip badly for service, I write in a frowny face on the bill, on extreme occasions embellished with comments like "poor service" or "rude". I sympathize with not wanting to inflict collateral financial damage to the busboys etc, but sometimes you have to break a few eggs.



nadarine said...

I am disappointed and pissed off on your behalf. LeB can't count on coasting on the food's reputation alone, and ignoring The Youngs pretty much ensures that in twenty years, those kids will never spend their fancy budgets on eating at LeB due to the way they were treated when they were young. It's short-sighted and condescending to assume that the restaurant neither wants nor needs your patronage.

giulia said...

That is fucking ridiculous. It used to happen to me and my ex all the time, until I encouraged him to start flirting with the maitre d's ...

jll11 said...

My husband and I have had this happen a few times, and each time it just leaves me feeling so icky. I definitely think it has something to do with age, though it's probably not all age. I remember once when my then-boyfriend and I waited at the front of a well-respected Chicago restaurant for 60 minutes when *we had reservations* while walk-ins were seated. It was our first big splurge dinner ever and we obviously looked young (but well dressed). We definitely were prepared to order lavishly. I remember we felt so ashamed and embarrassed by the time we sat down that we ordered two entrees and nothing else. Now my reaction tends more towards anger than shame. I would hate to think of another young couple getting treated like that!

Jacqueline Church said...

My husband and I were kept waiting nearly 40 minutes past our reservation time. Sitting in the uncomfortable lounge unable to get a drink while the blue hair regular next to me jammed her fingers into her olives to remove her pimentos and left a pile of crap on the table. She was fawned over. And seated rather promptly.

We were seconds from saying fuck it and leaving, when our table finally was ready. Seated pretty near the hall to the restroom and appallingly late, my husband decided we would make everyone stay with us as long as possible. Payback's a bitch. So we enjoyed a very leisurely tasting menu with a very leisurely wine pairing.

As with your experience, the sommelier was the one bright spot in the evening. The food was wonderful too, but the experience was horrendous. Why would I ever give a penny to a restaurant that clearly cared so little for our business again? The answer is I won't.

Cheers to you!
Jacqueline Church
The Leather District Gourmet

Anonymous said...

As you were experiencing this poor service, did you mention it to anyone? You should ave. Or at the very least you should have found the manager and told him about it. THat is horrendous and should not be excused. I know that Le Bernadin trains the staff in a meticulous manner and management would WANT to be informed of that type of service. Did you catch the name of the host or your captain?

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