Check, Please!

3 Mar

A lovely evening turns nightmarish: in Palo Alto, CA, two couples enjoyed a quiet dinner with a nice $52 wine, or so they thought. Upon receipt of the bill, they noticed a slight discrepancy, finding a $400 wine on the bill, and not the $52 bottle they requested. Click here for the the whole story, then come back for the postmortem!

So- now that you know the story, let’s talk about it. I really feel for these couples, and the restaurant as well! Both of them lost out, and both of them made a mistake. The guests did the right thing in paying the bill; while the restaurant made a smart and correct choice in the end, while accepting the brunt of the loss by refunding $250 off the wine so the customers paid $150 for the bottle, the restaurant’s cost.  But the restaurant also stood to lose far more in bad PR than the $250 in wine profit that they lost in the venture.


Had I been one of the couples, so engaged in conversation that I didn’t pay attention, or couldn’t see the wine label in low light, I’d have been even more upset. If you plan to spend a lot on a bottle, so be it. But if you plan to be frugal (and they were, ordering a single bottle for four, which equated to one glass per person at $13/glass) and then see  a bill with EIGHT TIMES what you expected to spend on alcohol? Yeah…very upset.

So yes, the waitstaff who took the order and served the wine made an error, but so did the customer! By pointing at the line on a menu, not asking the waiter to reconfirm the wine, not checking that the name or vintage were remotely close- the customer seriously erred as well. ‘Not speaking Italian’ is no excuse, when “2009 Barbera D’Alba” is nowhere near “1996 Masella Merlot”, the shorthand versions of the wine names. Moreover, unless you are very familiar with the restaurant and the wine list, I find it just as important to discuss the wine and how it will pair with the selected food. This discussion about the wine and how it will pair with the selected dishes, is an important part of my interaction with the server.

Taking a moment here, WHY do people order wine before they order their meal? This is a major irritation of mine- just like servers who offer a special that’s off the menu without mentioning to the cost. Perhaps we should suggest a light aperitif, a white wine by the glass, or a first bottle of wine with your appetizer, and later determine a wine to pair with your main course once the entire table has decided on their orders, to make sure those who drink wine will be able to enjoy a proper pairing. Maybe you feel the same way? Is the suggestion too excessive?

Getting back to the point, I’m happy with the ending of this story. The diners were refunded a large portion of the charge, the restaurant adapted a new wine policy and ultimately broke even on that bottle at their cost- a small loss against the good public relations they received once the story broke. They are likely to find new customers coming in to try BOTH those wines, instead of staying away. Here’s to both of the involved parties moving forward, having learned valuable lessons- before the check is called for.

Finally, let us hope that we all (customers, servers, and owners) can learn from their mistake.

à votre santé!


4 Responses to “Check, Please!”

  1. Julie Vroon March 5, 2013 at 10:31 am #


    I wholeheartedly agree with your pet peeves listed above (waiters not communicating the price of specials and when to order the wine). Having to guide the server through the meal diminishes the experience.

    On the positive side, I had a wonderful experience a few months ago when a waiter offered me a ‘taste’ of a wine that I was thinking about ordering. Turns out, it wasn’t what I was looking for, and I moved on to my second choice whose characteristics better fit my desires. This interaction confirmed to me that the restaurant was truly interested in my dining experience.



    • jimvanbergen March 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Hey Julie, thanks for your response! I LOVE when a somm or bartender offers me a taste of a new wine. It also provides a level of trust and encourages me to go back AND to tip well, so I think this approach is smart for both parties!


  2. jimvanbergen March 4, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    I hear you loud & clear, and agree completely on the service, and I’m sure they did not tip.


  3. the drunken cyclist March 3, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    I don’t know. I think the restaurant got off easy. Sure she presented the bottle and they accepted it, but they were trusting the waiter. They were expecting “good” service. They did not get it.


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