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Service in NYC Restaurants


weinoo
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What has happened to the haughty old school model of service in New York's fine dining establishments?  Are there no restaurants left who leave you feeling guilty about your total lack of sophistication?

I would say, that the best service should make you feel sophisticated even if you are not. They may be going into the kitchen and saying "Sacre bleu, he wants his steak well done with catsup on the side!" but they should never make you feel uncomfortable about it.

On the other hand, asking for a Latour sprizter, well *some* things are beyond the pale! :wink:

purplechick

"No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by

water drinkers." --Cratinus, 5th Century BCE, Athens

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I had two interesting experiences last week. One at DB Bistro and another at Megu (Tribeca)

First DB...food was good, nothing too spectacular. Though as per the service, what really put a lasting memory in me was the ending part of the meal. As my friend and I concluded our meal we proceeded to exit the restaurant. Granted it is a small restaurant and somewhat cramped, there were at least 3 servers/workers just lounging about near the exit; with 1 actually leaning against a wall/podium (don't remember exactly which). As I excused myself to get through, no apology was given, just a glare. Then as I passed the other two, no gesture of goodbye was given or even to open the door. Perhaps I may be over thinking this slight detail, but remains the last impression of this restaurant.

Megu, on the other hand was quite different. Service overall was quite prestigious. As I arrived a little late, the hostesses showed me to the lounge where my friends were having a drink. Then after we were done brought us downstairs to the main dining room. Though there was a feeling that this generosity of their service was a bit rehearsed; it provided a warm feeling that the staff actually cared about the guests. (First time there, and place was top notch)

I suppose it's the little things that count, for me at least.

Jim

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We’ve been talking a lot about the formal/informal distinction here, but I also think that it’s worth acknowledging in this discussion that the relationship between food and the type of service you receive has been fundamentally changed in recent years. Ko is the most obvious example of this. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it deconstructs the fine dining experience by stripping away all the unnecessary routine and ritual. I’d imagine that the idea that you don’t need fancy service, silver wear, or a tie to enjoy great food is a pretty new one. It makes those routines, when they don’t actively make the dining experience better, seem a little ridiculous. Consequently, I am far less willing to put up with staid ritual and routine when it does nothing to further my enjoyment of the food that I’m eating.

When I go to an old guard French restaurant, I find that often the dining experience has become a slave to formalism; the purpose of the conventions should be to create an ideal environment to enjoy the food being served, not esoteric ritual for esoteric ritual’s sake. Some restaurants don’t seem to abide by this logic. Pre-reno Bouley had a dining room that was a caricature of luxury and service that seemed more interested in the routine than what they were serving. It created a very stiff, uncomfortable environment. Citronelle in DC had a paranoid style of service where I felt as though I was being watched by a team of hungry vultures, ready to swoop in to keep the meal’s clockwork timing. It’s a stuffy and inelegant caricature of properly executed formal, French service.

The shame in this is that the formal French model is still, in my mind, the best for creating an environment in which to experience world class cooking. I was lucky enough to experience Taillevent when Jean-Claude Vrinat was alive. Hardly could I imagine a more formal place and hardly have I ever felt as relaxed in a restaurant. The sommelier and head waiter were interested in conversation with patrons, courses were perfectly timed, my water glass was never less than half full, M. Vrinat shook everyone’s hand on the way out; I left feeling like the king of Spain. I’m sure that the king of Spain left feeling like the king of England. For such a formal place there was a manifest lack of snootiness and pretension. Instead, the service was designed to give the best possible experience to each diner while at the same time maintaining an air of luxury. What M. Vrinat understood is that stodginess and stiffness are not required for elegant service, they’re antithetical to it. He also understood that great restaurants should make people feel good and the making your best customers feel good does not mean making your least important customers feel like second class citizens.

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The shame in this is that the formal French model is still, in my mind, the best for creating an environment in which to experience world class cooking. I was lucky enough to experience Taillevent when Jean-Claude Vrinat was alive. Hardly could I imagine a more formal place and hardly have I ever felt as relaxed in a restaurant. The sommelier and head waiter were interested in conversation with patrons, courses were perfectly timed, my water glass was never less than half full, M. Vrinat shook everyone’s hand on the way out; I left feeling like the king of Spain. I’m sure that the king of Spain left feeling like the king of England. For such a formal place there was a manifest lack of snootiness and pretension. Instead, the service was designed to give the best possible experience to each diner while at the same time maintaining an air of luxury. What M. Vrinat understood is that stodginess and stiffness are not required for elegant service, they’re antithetical to it. He also understood that great restaurants should make people feel good and the making your best customers feel good does not mean making your least important customers feel like second class citizens.

Gustibus non disputandum est. My meal at Taillevent in June 2006 was my least memorable of my 60 meals in Paris and Monaco in the last 3 years. The service was too formal and somber: i thought I was eating at a funeral home with the casket in the middle of the dining room. M. Vrinat, though, was a consummate professional and I enjoyed my interaction with him. Not so much the rest of the staff.

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I've had mixed experiences at Le Bernardin, where the service tends to be very professional but perhaps not necessarily all that warm. In addition, a while back my mother-in-law wrote a letter of complaint after a mediocre lunch and got such a condescending letter back from Eric Ripert that I was tempted to publish it. This leads me to think that at the top levels there are some miscues being delivered to the service culture at Le Bernardin.

In any event, I think if you pick any highly regarded restaurant you will find at least some accounts of great service and some accounts of awful service. A restaurant is a complex machine and, for whatever reason, it can grind to a halt on any given night. I have had disappointing service experiences at Taillevent, and at Gramercy Tavern. It happens. And it's unfortunate, because if I'd had my bad service experience at Gramercy Tavern on my first visit I'd be irreparably convinced that the service there is weak. However, with the perspective of dozens of great meals over a period of many years, I was able to say, oh well, they had a bad night, life goes on. In addition, even at restaurants where the service is overall weak, a great server -- or a great server-customer rapport -- can generate a positive service experience even in the midst of mediocrity.

Given that service is such a complex, organic creature, it all comes down to the system that's in place. You can't guarantee perfection every time. What you can do is put in place a system that produces as much perfection as possible as often as possible. That's where I think Danny Meyer is so brilliant as a restaurateur: he attacks the service issue on all fronts by hiring the best people at every level, insisting on the most rigorous training programs and generally fostering an ethos of enlightened, hospitable customer service. The system he has in place at all the restaurants he oversees is one that is highly adaptable. Even when there's a breakdown, there are multiple layers of redundancy in place and the team is always poised to "write a great last chapter." (I think I'm still getting emails about my one mediocre service experience at Gramercy a hundred years ago.)

Contrast that with an operation like the Bastianich/Batali group of restaurants. On a good day, you can have a great service experience at Babbo. Indeed, when Babbo first opened it poached several of Gramercy Tavern's best servers including the late, great James Danos. And on a good day, if you dined at Babbo and you had Simone and James working your table, and they were in a good mood, you could have an exceptional time. But Babbo, unlike Gramercy Tavern, does not have a strong system in place. So as a percentage, you will hear about many, many more negative service experiences at Babbo than at Gramercy Tavern. And the recovery from those incidents will be inferior. I mean, if you have a service problem at a Bastianich/Batali restaurant, and you try to address it with a manager, it's like trying to penetrate some Kafkaesque bureaucracy where the first instinct is to close ranks not fix problems. It just doesn't feel like anybody at the top is transmitting the "customer is king" mantra down the chain of command.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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We’ve been talking a lot about the formal/informal distinction here, but I also think that it’s worth acknowledging in this discussion that the relationship between food and the type of service you receive has been fundamentally changed in recent years. Ko is the most obvious example of this. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it deconstructs the fine dining experience by stripping away all the unnecessary routine and ritual. I’d imagine that the idea that you don’t need fancy service, silver wear, or a tie to enjoy great food is a pretty new one. It makes those routines, when they don’t actively make the dining experience better, seem a little ridiculous. Consequently, I am far less willing to put up with staid ritual and routine when it does nothing to further my enjoyment of the food that I’m eating.
Formality in dining has been slowly ebbing away for about four or five decades. It isn't as recent as you think. But of course, it has tracked society in general. Do you remember when most people wore a jacket and tie to get on an airplane?

I think you're too quick to describe high-end service as "unnecessary." When you dine at Momofuku Ko, you're giving something up that is very real and important. You may decide, as I and many others did, that Ko is still worthwhile. But it is not as if Chang showed the world how a restaurant should be run. Most restaurants in Ko's price range still practice those "rituals" and show no sign of abandoning them. It's because people like it that way—service actually does make a meaningful contribution to the dining experience.

It is also worth noting that Chang's restaurants have been gradually adding many of the amenities they originally lacked. Ko will never resemble Daniel, but Chang is learning that many of the old conventions aren't so bad after all. The idea that Chang deconstructed (some say shattered) the conventions of fine dining has been greatly overstated.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I've had mixed experiences at Le Bernardin, where the service tends to be very professional but perhaps not necessarily all that warm. In addition, a while back my mother-in-law wrote a letter of complaint after a mediocre lunch and got such a condescending letter back from Eric Ripert that I was tempted to publish it. This leads me to think that at the top levels there are some miscues being delivered to the service culture at Le Bernardin.

I'm sorry to hear about your mother-in-law's experience. The dinner I wrote about above was about 4-5 years ago. Since then I've been back to Le Bernardin and had okay service experiences; none have been out and out *bad* but at least one was decidedly mediocre and none have lived up to that stellar anniversary dinner.

Given that service is such a complex, organic creature, it all comes down to the system that's in place. You can't guarantee perfection every time. What you can do is put in place a system that produces as much perfection as possible as often as possible. That's where I think Danny Meyer is so brilliant as a restaurateur: he attacks the service issue on all fronts by hiring the best people at every level, insisting on the most rigorous training programs and generally fostering an ethos of enlightened, hospitable customer service. The system he has in place at all the restaurants he oversees is one that is highly adaptable. Even when there's a breakdown, there are multiple layers of redundancy in place and the team is always poised to "write a great last chapter." (I think I'm still getting emails about my one mediocre service experience at Gramercy a hundred years ago.)

Yes, striving for consistency is the most important goal and also being willing to correct things if they go wrong. I love your phrase, "write a great last chapter," that sums it up very well. However, even if a Danny Meyer restaurant hits all the right notes and you have the perfect evening, you won't necessarily leave feeling "like the King of Spain" as one poster put it above, because that is not their goal. As you mentioned in another post, it is a more casual level of American service.

An interesting combination would be a Danny Meyer-like system in a restaurant that aspires to old-school French service like Le Bernardin. Can these two ideas be combined? I think Per Se is close, but still seems a little American, and I don't mean that as a bad thing, I think the service there is lovely and they are meeting their goals.

purplechick

"No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by

water drinkers." --Cratinus, 5th Century BCE, Athens

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The shame in this is that the formal French model is still, in my mind, the best for creating an environment in which to experience world class cooking. I was lucky enough to experience Taillevent when Jean-Claude Vrinat was alive. Hardly could I imagine a more formal place and hardly have I ever felt as relaxed in a restaurant. The sommelier and head waiter were interested in conversation with patrons, courses were perfectly timed, my water glass was never less than half full, M. Vrinat shook everyone’s hand on the way out; I left feeling like the king of Spain. I’m sure that the king of Spain left feeling like the king of England. For such a formal place there was a manifest lack of snootiness and pretension. Instead, the service was designed to give the best possible experience to each diner while at the same time maintaining an air of luxury. What M. Vrinat understood is that stodginess and stiffness are not required for elegant service, they’re antithetical to it. He also understood that great restaurants should make people feel good and the making your best customers feel good does not mean making your least important customers feel like second class citizens.

This is exactly what every restaurant should strive for no matter what type of service they aspire to. A person who has never been to a restaurant in their lives should feel as comfortable as a Foreign Minister who dines out most evenings and knows all the rituals. It is also the most difficult thing to pull off. I'm not a restaurant professional but I would imagine training staff to be truly observant and quick on their feet so as to be able to handle any situation is a real challenge.

This whole discussion reminds me what Miss Manners (Judith Martin) says about etiquette. I'm paraphrasing but basically the idea is that manners exist in order to make everyone feel more comfortable. In particular, when you are the host (which in this case is the part played by the restaurant) it is your job to make your guests as comfortable as possible. That means that if a guest doesn't know the customs you do your best to help them along without drawing attention to them.

purplechick

"No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by

water drinkers." --Cratinus, 5th Century BCE, Athens

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I love the service at all Danny Meyer restaurants as well as PS and Daniel. Service at J-G has been good but not outstanding for me. Haven't been to Le Bernardin in a few years so not sure but last time I was there, it was excellent.

Bastianich places, to me, have the worst service and 'attitude' of the most popular NYC restaurants....this is a consistent observation I've had.

Edited by DutchMuse (log)
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Formality in dining has been slowly ebbing away for about four or five decades. It isn't as recent as you think. But of course, it has tracked society in general. Do you remember when most people wore a jacket and tie to get on an airplane?

I think you're too quick to describe high-end service as "unnecessary." When you dine at Momofuku Ko, you're giving something up that is very real and important. You may decide, as I and many others did, that Ko is still worthwhile. But it is not as if Chang showed the world how a restaurant should be run. Most restaurants in Ko's price range still practice those "rituals" and show no sign of abandoning them. It's because people like it that way—service actually does make a meaningful contribution to the dining experience.

It is also worth noting that Chang's restaurants have been gradually adding many of the amenities they originally lacked. Ko will never resemble Daniel, but Chang is learning that many of the old conventions aren't so bad after all. The idea that Chang deconstructed (some say shattered) the conventions of fine dining has been greatly overstated.

I'm too young to remember flying in a jacket and tie, although given what I've seen at airports recently, it may not be a bad idea.

And I generally agree with what you've said. I could critique the Ko model as well, but, for illustrative purposes, it brings up an important point; the food and the environment are separate entities. And once we accept that, we’ve got to ask what the purpose of formal routine is. What I'm objecting to is routine for routine’s sake. I would like to believe that every detail of formal service is purposive. I have little tolerance for parts of the routine that are not there to help me enjoy my food. I brought up Taillevent for this purpose (I suppose I should have used an NYC example, Jean Georges maybe?), to show that I’m not against the formal model, I just feel that sometimes it’s used for exclusionary reasons and not to make a more comfortable, relaxed, and enjoyable environment. Sometimes the rules are useful in creating a great eating environment (white table clothes, replaced napkins, jacket and tie even). Sometimes they just make the diner uncomfortable (30 different pens to sign the check, impersonal interactions from all but the most senior members of the service team).

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What I'm objecting to is routine for routine’s sake. I would like to believe that every detail of formal service is purposive. I have little tolerance for parts of the routine that are not there to help me enjoy my food. I brought up Taillevent for this purpose (I suppose I should have used an NYC example, Jean Georges maybe?), to show that I’m not against the formal model, I just feel that sometimes it’s used for exclusionary reasons and not to make a more comfortable, relaxed, and enjoyable environment. Sometimes the rules are useful in creating a great eating environment (white table clothes, replaced napkins, jacket and tie even). Sometimes they just make the diner uncomfortable (30 different pens to sign the check, impersonal interactions from all but the most senior members of the service team).

Some of your points are contradictory. For instance, replaced napkins have nothing to do with "enjoy[ing] the food," but apparently you find that ritual acceptable. I can't think of any "ritual" that does not have some purpose in enhancing the dining experience. (The multiple pens gimmick is not employed in any current NYC restaurant that I know of.)

Gruff service really has nothing to do with formality. There are many accounts of unfriendly service at places like Peter Luger and Katz's Deli, and no one would call them formal restaurants.

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Part of the issue at Ko is obviously the unfamiliarity of the chefs to being up front like that. When we went for dinner right after they opened, it could not have been stiffer or more awkward. When we went back for lunch, and they had been open a while, and we asked some questions, the staff seemed to ease up and we had a great time, although not one I would call out for best service ever, or anything like that.

We've always like the Momo service model - very casual, obviously, but also very well-informed and genuinely interested in the food - really, it's as conversational and engaging as you want it to be. We've found this to be true at milk bar as well.

Best service experience would have to be Per Se, hands down. But at that level, you (mostly) expect that. The fact that they can manage to nevertheless exceed expectations says a lot about how seriously they take it.

One group of restaurants that no one has mentioned, but that we've felt have quite warm and excellent service are the Arpaia/Psilakis joints.

I want pancakes! God, do you people understand every language except English? Yo quiero pancakes! Donnez moi pancakes! Click click bloody click pancakes!

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Overheard last night at the bar at dell' Anima:

Customer: "I'd like to settle my tab."

Bartender: "That's okay, I'll just transfer it to your table."

Customer: "Actually, I'd rather settle it here."

That's exactly the opposite of what normally happens at this type of place. Good for them!

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I am very passionate about service in fine dining, obviously, and I've waited a while to respond to this thread. I have a few thoughts:

1. The most important part of service for me in any restaurant is that the service staff is speaking to me in their normal, honest, genuine real true voice. Not some other faux-professional high pitched attempt at what a fine-dining waiter should say. Honestly, at a Danny Meyer restaurant, one waiter actually said out loud to my table, "this is a little treasure from chef to begin your journey." I swear to God. He was introducing the amuse bouche. WHO SPEAKS LIKE THAT? Nobody. It was just obnoxious. I've heard "I'd love to pour you ice water unless you would prefer bottled." Really? You'd love to pour me ice water? That's on the list of things you love?

These may sound like little things but honestly.... in this town, its almost impossible to find someone in a good restaurant who will speak to you honestly, with their normal voice, using normal words. Waiters are always trying to sound fancy, or they think they need to be formal about something when they can actually just use their normal voice.

I think the best speech is slightly snarky, witty, thoughtful, cheeky. And normal pitched. Only pros speak this way - its very rare.

Also, in the words of Danny Meyer, "a genuine "you're welcome" is much preferable to a soulless "my pleasure." " He talks about how Ritz Carlton hotels give service, but he is about hospitality. Service, in fine dining, is getting the right food at the right time at the right temperature. Hospitality is about warmth and doing whatever you need to do to make that dining experience so unbelievably great to get guests to return again and again. I think Danny Meyer's book is brilliant and I couldn't agree with what he says more, but some waiters in some of his restaurants, unfortunately, seem to be reading from a script.

2. I would prefer a waiter who actually seems to care, who has great personality and attitude (but may not know every wine by the glass or every spice in a sauce)...to a waiter who doesn't seem to give a shit about you or his job. You should be able to read "I love my job" on the face of every great waiter (whether its true or not, honestly.)

3. Water service - please offer tap water first in your normal voice with normal speech before bottled water.

4. Food knowledge and wine knowledge is important, but a genuineness and a great personality goes much further for me.

5. Great service should always accomidate, the answer should always be "yes"... but at the same time, it is a restaurant's duty to educate. Doing this with finesse and elegance is rare. For example, if someone asks for the black bass with the sauce from the artic char, with a side of asparagus - a great restaurant should go to whole foods and pick up some asparagus...but the guest should nicely be told that asparagus is not in season and the chef designed the flavors on the black bass dish on purpose. To take it further - the fact that this guest really likes a side of asparagus should go on his opentable guest notes so the next time he returns, the restaurant can have asparagus ready for him. There is the story of the Union Square Cafe regular who comes in and always orders a ham and cheese omlette for lunch - which is obviously not on the menu. They gladly do it.

6. Technical skills are nice - please don't put your elbow in my face when you clear or pour wine, etc. It takes a few years of practice to move about a table with finesse.

7. Finally, don't mess up the order.

All this being said, the best service I've ever received on 3 separate occasions was at Per Se. Per Se would be followed by Jean Georges, although some of those girls can be a little snooty until you win them over, but they are still miles ahead of the rest of this town.

Daniel was flawless when they knew who I was, but when they had no idea the service was kind of off.

Le Bernardin is souless and disappointing and they make mistakes, often, on the 4-5 times I've been there.

Eleven Madison park is fabulous but a little stiff, Gramercy Tavern is very very good.

Lupa for me is always fantastic, fun, genuine, awesome.

Gordon Ramsay was flat out horrible all 3 times I tried it.

I also find Yasuda to be totally arrogant while Soto and 15 East (Masato) are way more relaxing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.

Edited by chefboy24 (log)
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ah, napkins. picholine and per se are the only restaurants i know of that give you a new napkin every time you get up - but does this make a great service experience? not really. do i even really care if i'm at lupa and i go to the bathroom and my napkin is not folded into a perfect triangle by the time i'm back? i don't really care, but lupa's service is more warm and genuine and more fun than 99.9% of the restaurants in town - which is why i keep going back.

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also - on the topic of seating incomplete parties.

It really depends where you are. Actually I think it depends on the cost of the restaurant. If I'm going somewhere like Gilt or Adour or Cru...and the Maitre D / hostess told me that I couldn't be seated until my party was complete... I think I would turn around and walk out that door.

The only acceptable things that should be said are "Hello. You are the first to arrive. Would you like to wait at the bar or be taken to your table?"

I think its shitty that Babbo and Nobu won't seat an incomplete party, considering the cost of the meal.....the only reason they can get away with it is because they're so insanely popular to due B&T crowds, but really, its a horrible practice.

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Ok, now that the eye has stopped twitching, and by way of continuing the discourse, I would say you come across to me (IMHO as they say) as an exceptionally (repeat) picky diner, to the point of wondering how you could ever possibly enjoy any meal served anywhere?

I mean, a restaurant is meant to have someone run out to the supermarket to pick you up an out of season vegetable to add to a dish cause you don't like it the way it is? And to fail this is a test of good service? Good god man! I can barely even touch on the alternating current of expressing a like for "genuine" personality, while hating on anything revealing it outside of a narrow muted behavioral window, then docking service for being too scripted, while providing at least three scripts for what words should or should not be spoken at each instance (or else!) in the span of about 5 paragraphs on service.

Clearly you have a passion for the subject, but that passion seems to have led you down an incredibly intolerant and ultimately damaging (to the enjoyment of the meal) path from where I sit (save at Per Se and Lupa).

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i guess you got the wrong impression. i love eating out in new york. but i've trained a lot of people. what it boils down to is the soul of a service staff...do they care? if yes.... then i'm at a restaurant where management hired staff who have that spark, that soul, that passion...it shines through in service and i am happy. and i am lucky to live in new york.

also - i don't believe in scripts. but please don't try to sell me bottled water like a used car salesman. and please offer me my table if my party hasn't arrived yet (if i'm in a fancy place).

while i would never request asparagus in january...somebody might, and a great restaurant would get it for them. but lupa wouldn't. and i still love lupa, know what i'm saying?

Edited by chefboy24 (log)
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while i would never request asparagus in january...somebody might, and a great restaurant would get it for them.  but lupa wouldn't.  and i still love lupa, know what i'm saying?

I just think this is a crock of shit...if you're in Per Se, and you decide to order asparagus that's not on the menu and not in the house, you're not getting any friggin' asparagus...and then they'll say sorry sir or madam.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Clearly your father provided an admirable level of service. Given the engagement situation looming and being so special, I think it shows a lot that your dad went to that level of effort for the gentleman. I think for something like that though, more than just a handful of restaurants in the city would try to do the same, or at least I think there are a number of GM's who would think to do something similarly accomodating. With that important a life event, I think the bar is raised a bit in terms of accommodation.

Now to continue to have that crappy bottle years later, that's off the charts!

Edited by sickchangeup (log)
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while i would never request asparagus in january...somebody might, and a great restaurant would get it for them.  but lupa wouldn't.  and i still love lupa, know what i'm saying?

I just think this is a crock of shit...if you're in Per Se, and you decide to order asparagus that's not on the menu and not in the house, you're not getting any friggin' asparagus...and then they'll say sorry sir or madam.

i know for a fact this is wrong. they run down to whole foods time warner all the time to pick up stuff for guests..... usually for whimsy (for example, like a hot dogs), but definitely also for requests.

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