Attentive service. Romantic candlelight. Scallops and foie and a glass of delicious wine. It's the perfect dining experience, the one that every restaurateur wants to create for his or her clientele.
And then a cockroach creeps across your table with the insouciance of a Billyburg hipster. It's enough to turn any diner's stomach. And in this age of instantaneous Yelp reviews and vociferous food bloggers, lapses in cleanliness, service or food quality can quickly sicken a restaurant owner as well.
So how to remedy an unappetizing situation? When a bug was recently discovered on a table at the Michelin-starred Jean Georges in New York City, management promptly moved the affected customers to another table and comped them drinks, dessert, and an additional course. The pastry chef at Gordon Ramsey at The London in New York City responds to mishaps by sending the kitchen's signature salted caramel truffles to disgruntled guests at the adjoining hotel. And pretty much any restaurant worth its Maldon salt figures in the cost of saying "I'm sorry" in its operating budget.
"Comps are built in to our QSA [Quality Service Assurance] budget," says Rajat Parr, wine director at Michael Mina in San Francisco, and author of the just-out Secrets of the Sommeliers. "It makes up about one percent of the budget." And what does that entail? "It depends on how serious the mistake is," he says, recalling a time years ago—at a non-Mina establishment, he stresses—when a server mistakenly poured a $5,000 bottle of wine that a customer brought in for another table. (The restaurant managed to track down another bottle.) "You replace the dish, give them a gift certificate for another dinner, some dessert," Parr says. "The policy is to make sure the guest is happy."
"It's the cost of doing business," adds Michael Madrigale, the head sommelier at Bar Boulud in New York City, who says mistakes are usually tempered with a free glass of wine or dessert. "You need to show the customer that you acknowledge the problem and are doing something about it immediately."
But the mea culpas only go so far. "If a guest doesn't like a $2,000 bottle of wine, we take it back no questions asked," says Parr. "But if someone sits and drinks the whole bottle and at the last sip says 'I don't like it,' that's a different issue."
What's the worst flub you've seen at a restaurant? And how did the management say "I'm sorry," if at all?