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Sep 11, 2003 08:52 AM

Cafe Boulud -- Service Compromised

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Over the course of more than one visit to Cafe Boulud, I have noticed less than acceptable service for a restaurant of its nature. Here are some examples:

-- One time I visited around 8 pm on a Sunday night, the restaurant had literally no sommelier on duty. I asked the maitre d' (or similar level position) whether there was no sommelier even if I waited, and he said there was NO sommelier that night. The gentleman offered to help me, but, frankly, my own assessments with respect to wine exceeded his in quality.

-- On the same occasion, I found the service inattentive, and the wait for the receipt of menus too lengthy.

-- Also, I noticed that there were no dish descriptions when items were brought to the table. The dishes were just plomped down. The only exception were the amuses, served on a spoon as usual of course.

-- Recently, I revisited. The menus again took a long time to arrive, and the service was again inattentive. Many of the people who brought the dishes to our table were literally buspeople, instead of chef de rang or other dining room team members. While that is not unusual in NY, there was no attempt to even describe the dishes again.

-- There did not appear to be particular attention paid to not overcharging clients. I bought a $8.50 full bottle of Pellegrino at the bar, after the bar person assured me the bottle would be transferred to my table. First, when I got to my table, I noticed that the dining room team member had not transferred it and in fact was attempting to pitch me a new bottle. I had to alert her to the situation, suggesting lack of coordination between the bar and the room. Second, at the end of the meal I noticed that the Pellegrino had been charged to me a second time. I had to bring that to the attention of the dining room team.

-- Finally, I did not appreciate the continual waits I have to endure even after I arrive at the time of my reservation. Cafe Boulud and Babbo are particularly poor in this respect. :)

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  1. Wow Cabrales! Cafe Boulud sounds like it's tanking. I know you have such very high dining standards and are not a casual 'special occasion' diner so a report of slipshod service from you is an eye opener to me. Thanks for the details. Have you sent a copy of your notes to the management at Cafe Boulud?

    19 Replies
    1. re: Flynn

      I dined last night with Cabrales. Service was indeed surprisingly inattentive and haphazard. Cafe Boulud, while not as upscale as Daniel, is an expensive, fine restaurant. I thought the food was quite good. But the service lagged far behind. We waited quite a while for our table, they charged us twice for the same bottle of water, we had to ask to receive menus, had to ask for more bread and butter (which took forever to come in the first place), and I was handed my menu in a very abrupt manner, with no explanations or interest in my potential questions. Also, my glasses of wine were filled immediately, with no pause for me to smell or sip before the full pour.

      I had greater expectations for service at this restaurant.

      1. re: Nina W.

        The answer could be as simple as they were down one or two people in the dining room which made their service ragged and rushed, or more complicated - for example, they may have decided to reduce the level of service to a more casual "american" standard, since that seems to pass with most of their patrons. I cant say as I remember ever having the names of my dishes announced in a Danny Meyer restaurant for example. Now that the question has been raised, maybe we will get some more feedback to see if there is a pattern, or if the lapses were just an unusual occurrence.

        1. re: jen kalb
          Walter M. Kaufman

          Nina & Cabrales are two experienced posters, so what they say has meaning. Some observations:
          1. Could there have been no sommelier due to it being Sunday.
          2. Since Cabrales did not inform the management, (and, quite properly it's not her job to), do you think anyone from Boulud management reads chowhound, and has read these perfectly legitimate complaints.
          3. If the restaurant is short handed, and therefore lacks the service it would normally have, had everyone come in to work, should not they offer a discount, or comp a course, to offset the lack of service. Why should Cabrales and Nina pay the same price, for bad and/or slow service due to the restaurant being short handed, as they would pay if everyone showed up for work. This is just my two cents.

          1. re: Walter M. Kaufman

            Yes, I somewhat expected to be comped a glass of wine, or dessert, or something - they apologized once for the wait for a table, and apologized for screwing up the check. And I'm sure our waitress knew we had asked someone else for menus - just to give 3 examples. Nada.

            I agree - while they may have been short-staffed (although I have heard that this kind of harried service is not unknown there) - frankly, that's not my problem. It's theirs.

            1. re: Nina W.

              Nina raised an interesting point about the appropriateness of comp'ing people for drinks at the bar if they arrive at the reserved time and their table is not available for a meaningful period of time.

              This happened quite a bit when Bouley first reopened. There were often waits, but at least diners would get comp'ed champagne or another drink they specified. That has also happened to me (not that frequently) at Chanterelle, which tends to comp on drinks in the beautiful small lounge with the menu artwork examples on the walls, if diners have to wait.

              1. re: cabrales

                So, the reception was poor, and the wine service was inappropriate. Within those limitations, is this a three star restaurant?

                Based on the description provided by two insightful diners, it sounds like several visits (by Cabrales) and a recent visit (by Nina W) suggest it is less than three stars...

                1. re: Rail Paul

                  Maybe so. But let me add this: the food was very good indeed.

                  1. re: Nina W.

                    You guys were unlucky. I think I've been three times over the last twelve months, and not had service problems. A slight wait for the table on one occasion, but that's hardly unusual in Manhattan.

                    I do think the food is easily three star. I hope you both give it another try.

                  2. re: Rail Paul

                    On three stars (NYT), I wouldn't necessarily say that the cuisine is not up to that. I might have to go visit a bit more to be in a position to evaluate, but I'm not inclined to revisit any time soon.

              2. re: Walter M. Kaufman

                I do not believe we should have been comp'ed on anything. In general, I believe that restaurants should fully charge clients regardless of whether service has been adequate. I generally don't complain explicitly, unless I believe the situation can change over the course of the meal. I believe my best recourse is to not go to the restaurant, or to take the unhelpful service into account when choosing whether to visit the next time.

                This might be controversial, but I should note the kitchen could potentially focus a bit more carefully, through the video cameras, on the situation with respect to the service, and offer helpful suggestions as appropriate.

                It's not incumbent upon me to alert Cafe Boulud to inadequate service, unless I believe such discussion would assist my own meal (I don't believe that's selfishness; it's just efficient allocation of my energies).

                I should also note that, for reasons I would rather not elaborate on, I am temporarily not taking in alcohol (very, very difficult for me). The bar at Cafe Boulud said the only things non-alcoholic available were soda, soda water, tap water and bottled water. They had neither sparkling water nor still water in sizes smaller than a *full* bottle. Why not have smaller versions of bottled water for solo diners or people who dish that at the bar?

                As a final note for now, it is egregious that a restaurant like Cafe Boulud had no sommeliers on any night. Many restaurants of CB's size would have at least two sommeliers assisting.

                1. re: cabrales

                  Really, Cabby? When a restaurant is clearing having a service problem, which should be obvious to them, they should do something? Comp a glass of something, a dessert, whatever? I guess I feel like if I'm paying good money (and Cafe Boulud is plenty of good money), a certain level of service is expected. If that expectation is reasonable and customary, and is not met, then I am not getting what I paid for. Their end of this particular implied "contract" has not been adhered to.

                  If you, for example, went to a beauty were made to wait despite having an appointment, the manicurist you asked for is unavailable, or some such thing - do you think they should charge you full price, or perhaps give you a coupon for something else for a future date, or...? What makes a restaurant different?

                  1. re: Nina W.

                    I strongly disagree with your position that it was inappropriate for the restaurant not to have comp'ed us on something.

                    If you have a bad haircut, do you argue that you shouldn't pay for it? If you order a bottle of wine you don't like, that was recommended by the sommelier, do you refuse to pay for that? If you get a manicure and the shade that looked good in a bottle doesn't pan out the way you intended, are you entitled to not pay for that?

                    1. re: cabrales

                      Those are not comparable examples! The "product" in the restaurant is the food - I'm not talking about sending my food back - I'm talking about service. In the beauty salon example - I didn't say anything about the result - I spoke of service. The risk when you get a haircut is that you won't like the haircut. The risk in a restaurant is that when you order something, it might be prepared a certain way that you just don't like. But blatant service errors, in either case, are something else.

                      1. re: Nina W.

                        Whether a service error is blatant is in the eye of the beholder. A restaurant can't comp for a wide range of potential service errors from the perspective of different diners, with varying subjective assessments of service.

                        Consider the slow provision of a menu. That's not as troubling as spilling food on a diner (which, in my mind, would be a "blatant" service error), or getting the order wrong (not just switched among diners). :)

                        1. re: cabrales

                          We shall have to agree to disagree. But I'll say this - when a restaurant provides service which is blatantly bad, and obviously not up to the level that is reasonably expected, given the prices, reputation, whatever - they should make at least some gesture. I expect this from ANY service establishment.

                          If I go get my car repaired, and they say it will be ready in 1 day, and it takes them 3 days, they better give me a little discount off of the price initially agreed upon (just an example). Having nothing to do with the quality of the repair.

                          1. re: Nina W.

                            Nina -- Are you addressing the service throughout the meal, or the wait prior to seating?

                            As for the wait, while it's not ideal and I was unhappy with it, I don't believe it's MANDATORY for a restaurant to comp something when there is such a wait. You might consider it preferable as a matter of business practice, but it's not inappropriate not to do so. When a person goes to a doctor's appointment, she does not ask for a reduction in fee or additional services because she is made to wait a bit. I appreciate that's a flawed analogy, but it is not an irrelevant analogy.

                            Unfortunately, in an environment (like the US) where tables are turned and a diner does not obtain a table for the evening, there are bound to be certain waits after the time has passed for a reservation. However, I note that at CB waiting seems much more prevalent than at most other NY places.

                            1. re: cabrales

                              This thread has moved from its original topic and this aspect of it is more appropriate for Not About Food, as it is not Manhattan chow specific. Please continue there.


              3. re: jen kalb

                This was not "casual American" service. This was bad service.

                1. re: jen kalb

                  "I cant say as I remember ever having the names of my dishes announced in a Danny Meyer restaurant for example"

                  I've had dishes announced at both Gramercy Tavern and Tabla, not at Union Square Cafe (can't remember Eleven Madison Park - onlt there once).

            2. Since I have never been to Cafe Boulud....

              Did the situations you describe occur only when dining on Sunday evening? (Was your second visit on a different night?)

              Presuming that you have dined there reasonably often previous to the evenings you describe here, has it always been the fashion for them to describe the dishes as they are served so that this became a lapse in service? In my experience, this is something that is done regularly in very upscale French restaurants. But I have to say that in a place that calls itself a "cafe" (though this is certainly a rather upscale one), I would not have expected a description of the dishes when served.

              Did you bring any of this to the attention of the manager on duty? Or, perhaps, consider writing to Daniel Boulud?

              2 Replies
              1. re: RGR

                I dined there last night, and have dined there on a number of different nights of the week (mostly dinners). I don't recall the service having been so mediocre until the last several times, although I'd have to admit that I'm probably more picky now than before.

                On "Cafe", Cafe Boulud, even though it is less formal than its sibling Daniel (and more formal tha db bistro moderne), it is not necessarily a "cafe" in the normal sense of the word (not in the US or in Europe). It is a restaurant where one is supposed to have fairly good service, coupled with fairly good cuisine.

                I did not call attention to these service defects, as I don't necessarily consider it my role to alert restaurants to what they should or should not be doing, if it does not affect my immediate experience. Given my perceptions, I was proactive in attempting to hail waiters and initiate the next step in the dinner (e.g., asking for the menu). However, that was about it.

                I did express shock upon learning, on a prior occasion, that there was no sommelier on duty on Sunday evening. I should note, in connection with Sunday evening, that this restaurant is rather bustling on that evening (UES alternatives are slim).

                The wait for a table past the time of reservation has occurred to me more than twice now.

                1. re: cabrales

                  i've been there -- not with cafe boulud, but with daniel.
                  i had a DISASTROUS meal -- spent 400 bucks w/o wine -- it was a complete travesty from beginning to end. one of the most uncomfortable, unpleasant, FOUR AND A HALF HOUR experiences of my adult life.

                  i stewed, i lost sleep over it. finally i couldn't take it anymore and vented my rage to the general manager in a five page, single spaced aria about my horrible experience from beginning to end. i expected to hear nothing. a few weeks later i get a letter FROM DANIEL himself -- telling me he held a staff meeting and reprimanded everyone. he invited my friend and i back for a KICK ASS fabulous meal -- which felt like a completely different restaurant. it was a brilliant meal. do i think everyone will get this kind of treatment? no. was i happy that my complaints and grousing were redressed? YES.

                  write daniel. he is actually a cool guy -- and he's not a snob. he wants people to like his restaurants. he wants them to run well. let him know how you felt.

                  that's my two $$.


              2. As an aside, a factor I noted in the restaurant's description of dishes persists. Last time I went to CB, I noted that duck parpadelle mostly had duck KIDNEYS, and argued that the restaurant should be more explicit about the use of such ingredients ("Not About Food Board" a while ago).

                This time, Nina ordered a frissee salad with lardons, chicken livers and soft-poached egg. She reported the inclusion of a bit of chicken gizzard. Even though livers are reported, the inclusion of gizzard is along the same lines as the duck kidneys (although less blatantly a deviation from the chicken livers, arguably). :)

                1. It certainly sounds as though management is letting standards slip, and enough small to medium annoyances can ruin a meal even if the food is up to snuff. I, for one, think that the tip should be used to indicate relative satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the service I receive when I'm at the table, but I recognize that not everyone agrees, and some of your complaints clearly go beyond deficiencies on the part of the servers.

                  The implied contract, being implied, is kind of vague, but I don't think a restaurant is ever required to "comp" you, although you should never have to pay for food that is bad. Nevertheless, when a restaurant does not maintain appropriate standards of service or treatment of customers and apologizes, a "comp" is a gesture that shows you the apology is sincere. Lack of such a gesture may influence how you feel about that restaurant in the future.

                  You're clearly correct that it's not incumbent upon you to provide the restaurant with a critique, but if it's a restaurant you expect to return to, and if you think they care about your experience, and if it would not make you uncomfortable to do so, then it's probably in your interest after the meal to say something to a manager, or to drop a note to the proprietor. Sometimes, restaurants lose focus or get sloppy, and many of the top restaurateurs would very much like that sort of feedback, because they can't always be on the scene. In Danny Meyer restaurants I sometimes comment even on relatively minor matters, because I know that they would want me to. Since you seem to frequent Cafe Boulud, and given Kiki Aru's report that Daniel apparently cares, maybe you should say something to try to turn Cafe Boulud back to the paths of righteousness before you give up on it.

                  So far as I know, it's not standard practice at top flight restaurants here, or in Europe, to announce the dish being placed before you: "Madame, les supremes du hippogryph!" Some do, but many do not. I think that a good restaurant that does not follow the practice will accommodate you if you simply ask them to.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: MDekay

                    I would agree that announcement of a dish is clearly not practiced uniformly in the US, although restaurants like French Laundry, Gary Danko, Fifth Floor, Blue Hill, Le Bernardin, Trio, Clio and Charlie Trotter's commonly practice it. In France, I would say that it's more than 50% likely that, at three-star restaurants, they would announce a dish.

                    Perhaps it's not universal for a dish to be announced in the US, but I consider it a sign of good service. At CB, only the amuses were announced.

                    I should add that, as far as I could tell from visual inspection, the cheese service at CB was fairly good. Four to five relatively unusual selections (made by the restaurant), together with luscious-looking honey in a comb-like structure, physallis (minis), certain crushed nuts, and grapes that were slightly largely than champagne.

                    The madelaines to end were also nice, although I've had better in NY with the ex-pastry chef of Atelier and of Cello (madelaines accompany only certain desserts, in the latter case).

                    1. re: cabrales

                      The cheeses were terrific. And there were slivers of fresh green figs on the plate as well.

                      I also adore the butter they use - same butter at DB Bistro Moderne and at Daniel, too - I think it's beurre d'Isigny.