| My 'Bete Rouge': Red Wine. Photo by bhollar/Flickr |
Our neighborhood in the Bronx is not blessed with an overabundance of great restaurants, so we have learned to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of our local dives. For example, one of our favorite places has outstanding food and is beautifully decorated, but also has incredibly aggressive waiters who endlessly try to upsell us. Still, in the grand scheme of things, we've decided that pushy waiters are the kind of thing that we can overlook, particularly when the restaurant makes the kind of adoration-worthy pizzas that are its stock-in-trade.
Last weekend, a few old college friends were in town for a visit, so we took them there. After we ordered a couple of appetizers and three of the restaurant's distinctive gourmet pizzas, my wife picked a reasonably priced Italian red that seemed like a good bet to accompany our meal. A few minutes later, the waiter returned to double check on our order. My wife, who was dealing with our daughter at the time, glanced at the wine he pointed to, noted the name, and replied that, yes, it was the one we wanted.
As always, the meal was outstanding; in fact, the only down spot was the wine. Somewhat watery and dull, it completely disappeared under the flavor of the spicy pizzas. Still, with great food, wonderful company, and a relaxed afternoon, it was very easy to overlook a slightly lame bottle of red wine.
When the bill came, I had to reread it a few times before it struck me that it did, indeed, say $407. My first thought was that the waiter had made a mistake, so I called him over while I laughingly asked my wife if she had ordered a $315 bottle of wine. She responded that, no, her choice had been $36. The waiter, however, disagreed, and reminded her that he had double checked to ensure that she was serious about her choice. The manager, who magically appeared at our table, backed up this story.
When I asked for a copy of the wine menu, the waiter pointed out the wine in question: a Bruno Giacosa Falletto Barolo 2001, priced at $315. Scanning the page, I noticed that, about two inches below the wine we inadvertently ordered, there was a Bruno Giacosa Barbera d'Alba 2003, priced at $36. Hoping that, perhaps, there might be some confusion, I double checked the bottle: It was the pricey one.
Pointing at the menu, I drew the manager's attention to the extreme similarity between the wines and noted that the waiter could have been a lot more straightforward about the wine question. It was obvious to all parties that this had been a sincere error, so I asked the manager if we could work out a compromise. I offered to buy a replacement bottle of the Barolo at one of the wine stores in the neighborhood; alternately, I told him that I would be happy to pay the retail price of the wine.
The manager responded that, if I wished, I was welcome to withhold a tip from my waiter, but that I needed to cover the entire cost of the wine. When I pressured him further, he agreed to call the restaurant's owner; after a moment, he returned to the table, claiming that he could not get the boss on the line. After even more back-and-forth, I pointed out that my wife and I were regulars at the restaurant; the manager agreed, noting that he remembered us from prior visits. I told him that I loved the place, but if he refused to help us, we would not return. In response, he repeated that we could forego a tip if we wished.
Luckily, our friends were all very understanding. Everyone took up a collection for the wine and, although we ended up paying twice what we had budgeted for the meal, my wife and I will still be able to buy food for the rest of the month. My sister, who is a particularly forgiving soul, even tipped the waiter.
After this event, I contacted a few of Slashfood's dining experts to get their feedback on what we should have done.
Hanna Raskin, our resident service expert, pointed out that these sorts of problems would be far rarer if all diners were given wine menus, and noted that our server was probably caught between his role of serving us and his responsibility to push whichever food or drink the restaurant needed to sell.
Meanwhile, Gretchen Roberts, Slashfood's wine maven, pointed out that many diners would have been intimidated by the entire experience, and might not have even questioned the more expensive wine. Given the way that the episode played out, I think that she was probably right.
In the end, I am still very suspicious about the whole situation: I am struck by the waiter's confusion over our wine order, his failure to point out the two wines in question, the manager's speed in appearing at the table, and the restaurant's overall refusal to compromise.
Even so, my wife and I certainly share responsibility for this mistake -- in the future, we will be a lot more careful about our wine choices; unfortunately, we will not be making them at this restaurant.
In the meantime, it's worth asking: What would you do?