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Bad Behavior

March 30, 2015
Celia Sin-Tien Cheng

I dine out extensively around the world and find that the best experiences are always at restaurants that pay equal attention to service and food. At smaller restaurants, whether a tiny bistro in Paris or a soba joint in Tokyo, it’s the homestyle cooking in conjunction with the proprietor/chef who personally checks in on guests that makes for a heartwarming meal. At critically acclaimed white-tablecloth establishments, the precision of each dish, along with professional service, brings a different form of satisfaction. In both fine dining and casual dining, food is only one part of the equation. Service is of equal importance, and in New York it is a huge variable. In recent months, I have experienced some of the best…and some of the worst.

Known for its A-list clientele, the Polo Bar is not an easy reservation to get. However, we had a lovely experience at prime time on a recent Friday night. I admit I was apprehensive about the scene and potential snobby attitudes of the staff, but the service was excellent — attentive but unobtrusive. Guests around us ranged from a famous director to a top fashion editor, and the waiters treated us with equal grace. This positive experience was a distinct contrast to my lunch at another hot new destination one day earlier.

The day before my dinner at the Polo Bar, I was at Santina for lunch for the second week in a row. As the waiter explained the specials, I took out my iPhone to record his description of the fish sandwich, as I often record audio instead of writing notes these days. A minute later, the general manager came over and asked if he could have a word with me. He asked if I had recorded the waiter, and I said yes, as I was interested in the fish sandwich and recorded him explaining it. He looked disconcerted and said that that was not acceptable, as Eater recently posted recordings from the restaurant that led to negative publicity, and they have no idea what I plan to use the recording for. I apologized, took out my phone, and deleted the recording in front of him. Instead of thanking me, he repeated that it was not O.K. In retrospect, he was probably on edge because he had got in trouble for the bad publicity on Eater. But he spoke to me like he was reprimanding his staff, not speaking to a customer. On the way out, I told the manager that he was extremely rude to me and that it had ruined my lunch. He was indignant and asked if I could see it from his point of view. At that point, no, I couldn’t see it from his point of view, as he was arguing with me in front of all his customers. That is not how a manager in a hospitality group should behave.

Carbone, like Santina, is part of the Major Food Group, and I had an experience there in January that was so unpleasant it made me question why an establishment with major service issues is still packed night after night. Restaurants like these thrive on their exclusivity, making them even more popular, with more customers wanting to get in. But the Polo Bar is a good example of how exclusivity and good service can coexist. On the night in question at Carbone we were celebrating my husband’s birthday. Our waiter oversaw about six tables, but he made an ostentatious show of only wanting to serve regulars. He checked in on other tables, but repeatedly ignored ours. At one point a chipped plate was placed in front of me, so I asked the server to replace it. He looked at me with impatience. “They’re all like that,” he snapped. Furthermore, upon both making and confirming the reservation, I asked them to ensure a candle would be placed on my husband’s dessert. The couple next to us, also celebrating a birthday, got their dessert with a candle, but we did not. The table of regulars on the other side of us clearly consisted of high rollers, and the contrast in service and attitude they received from the waiter was night and day. I agree regulars should receive some special attention, as they sustain and support the business. However, the level of disparity I experienced was downright unprofessional.

Good service at any level is to show consistency and respect. Carbone, like the Polo Club, is a hard reservation to get, and while the food at Carbone is the more outstanding of the two, the service and atmosphere at the Polo Club make it a clear winner. At the end of the day, it depends on what you value. For me, as much of a food lover as I am, even the best pasta and steak in town could not lure me back to Carbone.