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Apr 6, 2005 01:11 AM

Service lapses at the French Laundry! (moved from SF Board)

  • h

The food, of course, was wonderful. I was served a one-by-one-by-three inch piece of steak that was so good that I would like to eat it every day for the rest of my life. We also had some phenomenal squab, cauliflower custard, Dover sole, and a pea puree so smooth it was probably forced through the toe of a nylon stocking. I sent back a glass of Chardonnay that was one of the suggested pairings (he substituted a nice Rousanne), but otherwise the wines were also first-rate.

But during the meat courses, I waited and waited, and waited some more, for a piece of bread, for crying out loud! Our regular guy spaced out after saying he was going to get some, then I asked the server and he said yes but didn't, and we couldn't catch our guy's eye or anyone else's for waaay too long. Long enough for us to say all right already, at these prices and with 19% included for service this is unforgivable. Then for me to say whoa, I hate to be a person who gets all bent out of shape over a piece of bread. But the whole point of a place like this is perfection, and if there's anyplace to be that way, it's here. It's the only excuse THEY have for acting the way THEY do, after all. And what really rankled us was that when our regular guy finally showed up and we told him we'd wanted bread for twenty minutes, he didn't apologize! He said "oh, well, let me get you some now, and I'll give you an extra dessert, all right?" But he didn't act as if he recognized I'd been put out. He was too breezy about it.

It got chaotic during dessert, too. A fellow came and filled my husband's coffee, and before he'd left the table our regular guy came with his own coffeepot. Also, I had to send back my tea twice because they kept straining out the leaves before it was strong enough. There was a subtle tone in the guy's voice when he said "Okay then, I'll just leave the leaves in the pot this time" that made it sound as if he was the one getting put out.

At the very end of the meal our main guy apologized for the bread thing. And I have to reiterate, I am not usually a fussy sort, I know these things weren't a big deal, and I didn't let it spoil my experience. But I'm much more inclined to overlook this kind of thing when I get a $6.50 burger and fries than at the French Laundry, where we paid $650 for lunch for two. And I'm even more surprised that they weren't better able to be humble and gracious when I insisted, graciously, on better service.

Any thoughts?

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  1. You are of course right that at the prices the FL charges, and with a mandatory service fee of 19% to boot, there is no excuse for the types of service
    lapses that you encountered.

    The terrible thing is that as you start to get upset about something like you went through, if not exactly ruining your meal, you are left feeling the exact opposite of how you ought to be feeling as you leave a "once in a lifetime" (for most people) experience like eating at the FL.

    Even having to bring this to someones attention more than once, and then being made to feel as if you are being "unreasonable", (as with the tea leaves incident) will dull the keen edge of your unbearable lightness of lunching.

    1. The thing that astounds me is that you paid $650 for lunch for two people. That is more than my rent!!!

      Good God! They should have flown the bread in from France and had someone stand at the table and butter each bite and place it in your mouth for you for that kind of money. That chef is laughing his ass off all the way to the bank. I'm dying to know what you ate...aside from the late bread!

      31 Replies
      1. re: Cyndy

        Ha ha! Well put! They should chew it for you too!

        1. re: Cyndy

          I was kind of wondering that myself-what makes a lunch worth $650?

          1. re: Cyndy

            This is a story about Don and Jane who planned on visiting the Napa Valley, to celebrate their second year anniversary. After six months of planning their trip of sight seeing,wine tours,and restaurants the first day of their vacation finally arrived. With much difficulty Jane
            secured a reservation at the French Laundry for(lunch.) As this was going to be their big splurge meal of the trip.
            Half way through lunch they strolled out through the garden to take a break between the multiple courses. It was a beautiful spring day with the garden beginning to come alive with all its beauty. Jane said to Don have you ever had a meal like this before. Don answered no never. After four hours the experience was over,and as
            they walked back to the Inn they were silent. As it was one of those evenings when words are not needed.

            Seven years later Don and Jane take their son to his first fancy fine dining restaurant. Will looks over the menu like a little mature man,and glances up at his mom and says Mom,I think I'll have the duck. She smiles at Don and says"I guess we will be bringing him to the French Laundry next!"

            Twenty years later Will is having Sunday dinner at his parents house with his wife and children. As they were enjoying their meal Will says Hey dad Renee and I finally visited the FL last weekend for.(lunch) It was everything you and mom said it was and more! Don responds I told you.

            Thirty five years later Jane sits in the dining room looking at the old faded framed menu on the wall. As a tear rolls down her cheek she remembers that beautiful spring day in the garden so many years ago at the French Laundry.

            My little story is just a example to try to express how
            'lunch' at this restaurant is a experience that is so much more then just a afternoon meal.

            1. re: RR

              Yeah yeah husband and I just celebrated our second anniversary...we had a beautiful and memorable meal in a botanical garden, complete with the mid meal stroll and live music from a wandering minstrel with a lute, beautiful wine and wonderful ambience. Total price for 6 dishes and dessert...$75. Canadian. For two.

              1. re: Cyndy

                I have no doubt that I'm beating my head against a rock trying to convince some people that spending that much money on lunch is worth it. But were not talking about grabbing a quick burger on your lunch break here.
                Were talking about a experience to remember for a lifetime. Can a price be put on that? As short as life is I doubt it.
                Sure its alot of money, the cost of that lunch is more then my mortgage a month. But in the end the bills will still be there.

                1. re: RR

                  and you won't be able to pay them because you spent all your money on lunch :-)

                  I understand the concept...I AM a chef and all that, I get spending money on food, believe me. But there is lunch and then there is 'I have so much money I don't need to worry about the prices'. I am just fascinated by the lifestyle...'cause I sure ain't living it!

                  I get the feeling from the original poster, and more power to her, I say, that this was not an isolated experience...which I think is great if that is your lifestyle, but WOW! I'm dying to know what they ate!

                  1. re: Cyndy

                    I was a chef for 25 years to a heart attack almost checked me out for good a few years ago.

                    Drop me a line at the above email and I will be happy to direct you to all the menus and information about the French Laundry that you wish to read.

                    When I visited Per Se last year it was on a single household income, my wife and I were eating boxed mac and cheese afterward for a week. LOL Ok maybe not that bad but I'm sure you see my point. Was it worth it?
                    You bet.

                    1. re: RR

                      Many many women my age with my income regularly spend $650 on a purse or shoes they'll use for one season, then buy another next year. I can't fathom this. If my income quadrupled, maybe. I can, however, see spending that one time in my life on a restaurant experience unlike any other. Bourdain's "Cook's Tour" book made me want to try French Laundry, even at that price. Someday.

                      Some people spend $650 per year buying starbucks coffee every morning. I can't fathom that, either.

                      1. re: Jess

                        I hear ya! Says she who is currently wearing (under last years tee shirt) a flaming yellow bra bought for no other reason than it was marked down to $7 and it fit :-).

                        some day I will drag the husband to a restaurant like that...someday...sigh.

                        1. re: Jess
                          janet of reno

                          see? Its all about priorities. I've never spent 650 dollars on a single article of clothing in my life...not even a coat! and I usually only go to Starbucks when someone gives me one of those cards as a gift....and even though I've never been to French Laundry, I HAVE spent $650 on a meal for two(more!) and not regreted it one bit. And there are a few perfect meals in my lifetime that I will always remember....I had this argument recently with a non-chowhound friend who is coming to San Francisco next of our party suggested we go to Chez Panisse and she was horrified that we would spend so much on a meal where we had no choices! (We compromised and made a reservation at CP cafe). Same friend had no problem with running out and buying a brand new underwater digital camera that she will use (and ony use) on her upcoming 10 day trip to Hawaii.....

                          1. re: janet of reno

                            See, I'm seriously in to food. And I've had food that I will never, ever forget (actually, I never forget food - You name a place I ate, I can tell you exacty what I had) - but I just don't believe that you have to spend $650 to have that experience, is all I'm saying. And I still have a hard time understanding what the difference is between food that you spend $200 on and food that you spend $650 on.....can it BE $400 worth of better? Seriously?

                            1. re: krissywats

                              I think people would argue yes. I'm willing to spend the money one time in my life to find out.

                              I mean, is a Van Gogh REALLY 10,000 times better than the top notch art school student stuff selling at the local coffee shop for $300? While I love Van Gogh, I don't really think so. But a real art hound might.

                              1. re: Jess

                                "I mean, is a Van Gogh REALLY 10,000 times better than the top notch art school student stuff selling at the local coffee shop for $300?"

                                Probably not, but man, you ought see what Thomas Kellar can do with an ear and some chervil!

                                1. re: Jess

                                  It's not just about whether a given Van Gogh painting is a quantifiable degree better than another (which I believe that it is, but that is wholly subjective). You have to consider things in a deeper context. Van Gogh changed the way that people think about paint, color, light, movement, and rhythm forever. He--like other geniuses--blasted open a new way of seeing the world. You can't put a price on the value of changing the world and getting humankind to take a big step forward...

                                  Some would say that chefs like Keller and Adria are doing the same for food, texture and taste now. There's a whole philosophical and intellectual component to what they are doing.

                                  Personally, I'm more interested in Adria than Keller and I would prefer to spend my Euros at his restaurant. I identify more with what underlies his experimentation with food, so it is worth it to me, even though it is ridiculously extravagant and will require economic sacrifice on my part. However, I feel extremely lucky to even be in the position that I can entertain the notion of having a meal like this.

                              2. re: janet of reno

                                let me know if she wants to sell that camera...:-)

                                which is of course the only problem with your analogy: you can recoup some of the cost of the bag, the camera, or whatever, after you use it once.

                                though I suppose the memories of a meal can be how you recoup the cost, so in that sense, yes, I agree. Someday I do hope to go to the French Laundry to decide for myself how I feel on this issue. In the end, really, how else can one truly judge?

                            2. re: RR

                              Oh I'm sure...I've done that once or twice myself...I don't cook except for private parties anymore because I became diabetic and just can't physically manage it anymore.

                              I'll email you from home for those links...I'm trapped like a rat in tech support hell at the moment :-) God love laser printers and the people who buy them!

                              1. re: RR

                                pictures and chowhounder descriptions below


                                1. re: fl maniac

                                  That lunch was a couple of years ago now, and prices have gone up somewhat.

                                  I actually think the prices are reasonable considering the quality of the ingredients and the labor-intensiveness of the preparations -- someone told me there are over 40 people in the kitchen at the French Laundry, which only seats about 65. If you count the service staff (host, waiters, sommelier, etc.) there's probably more than one person per seat!

                                  Everyone spends money in different ways. You don't have to be affluent to have a $650 lunch, you just have to decide that it's worth saving up for and spending your money on.

                            3. re: RR

                              My ONLY problem with what your saying is that it sounds as if it costs $650 to ever have a once in a lifetime experience and that isn't the case - many things in my life that are unforgettable cost next to nothing at all. And my question is, is the food really THAT much better than it would be at $300 for two people, or $150 for two people. I mean, what else can you DO to a steak? Or a piece of fish?

                              Are you paying for the 'experience' or the food? If it's the experience, I'd be pretty mad, unless I get a show and a night in a hotel. If it's the food, my questions above still stand?

                              I've had some fantastic food, but even the best in my lifetime wasn't worth $650 and that's what makes me scratch my head.

                              And no, I would never spend $650 on a pair of shoes or a bag, either.

                              1. re: krissywats

                                I sure hope I did not give that impression because that was not my intent at all. Some of the best things in life are free.
                                The French Laundry is not for everybody but if you enjoy great food and I can only guess you do otherwise you likely would not be visiting this site,then approach the price with a open mind and google up the French Laundry and do some research. Maybe it won't be for you and maybe it will.

                                Is the steak or fish better then what other chefs are doing ? Well if I told you about the care Keller takes with fish before it even hits the pan you would likely think he was crazy and never do that research. LOL
                                So I think I'll hold off awhile before I answer that one.

                                1. re: RR

                                  Hmmm...ok. Challenge taken. I will shut my mouth and research before mouthing off any more....I'm skeptical, but I'll try to keep an open mind that one afternoon can be worth that amount.

                                  You're sure there are no angels singing or mind-altering drugs or sex involved (or all three?)? heehee

                                2. re: krissywats

                                  I went to Per Se for dinner nearly a year ago. I can still taste most of the dishes, and it's not because I don't brush my teeth. Thomas Keller's food is an experience that burns itself in your brain. It is a revelation of "how can food even >be< like this?".

                          2. re: Cyndy

                            And everything you touch should be of the purest gold and every bite cause orgasm.

                            All I can do right now is list off all of the really expensive things that are less than that:

                            *Half of my rent in NYC
                            *My first car
                            *Headshots (an actor thing - they are notoriously expensive)
                            *Prostitutes (I used to know one - don't ask)
                            *My entire wedding (we eloped in Reno)
                            *295 gallons of gasoline in New York right now
                            *Our grocery bill for a month and a half
                            *My last entire paycheck for an acting gig
                            *My contacts for 6 years
                            *Our bedframe
                            *6-10 Broadway shows (orchestra)
                            *13 of my tickets to see Madonna in Madison Square Garden
                            *2 roundtrip tickets to Florida
                            *Our entire 3 day vacation in a B&B in upstate New York

                            I think I could go on!!!

                            1. re: krissywats

                              Everyone makes choices about what things they MUST have, and what things they'd never find an acceptable value-to-price ratio for.

                              If you'd spend the whole meal thinking "there goes another 100 headshots" every time you got another course, then it's best to take a pass on it, because you'd never enjoy it enough to make it worth your while.

                              I know a grad student who, amazingly enough, eats out a TON (and writes it up on Chowhound.) I asked him how he managed it on a grad student salary and he told me eating out is his ONLY indulgence.

                              I've had a few meals that I just can't think about the cost of, but if it's a once or twice a year indulgence, I can justify that as worth it... to ME. I can completely understand another person not placing the same value on this experience, and just as I wouldn't judge them for not prioritzing great food over money, I'd expect them not to judge me for throwing money away on a consumable that's gone and never to be seen again. Not that I'm saying you are doing that, but I think it's easy to jump from saying "It's not for me" to "how can you spend that much?"

                              To each her own...

                              1. re: Chris VR

                                I wasn't even saying it wasn't for me. Another post I put up got pulled, and I'm not sure why - I don't believe I was insulting or attempting to stop the thread, just disagreeing and pointing out a misperception - anyway, that was all said completely in jest. As was the one I replied to.

                                In other conversation, I was earnestly asking what the difference in food is between a $300 meal that is exceptional and a $600. Is it really in quality or at that point is it simply like designer jeans - it's all about the name? THAT'S what I'm attempting to understand.

                                As someone pointed out, they had the music, the stroll, the somalier, the exquisite food, the whole deal for half that price - THAT'S why I'm asking. I'm not being smart or judging anyone. I was making a joke, like others, out of sheer sticker shock.

                                I have no problem with how much someone wants to spend their money. But when the price is mentioned, I assume it's fair game.

                                Regardless - whether paying $650 or $50 bucks at Olive Garden - waiting 20 minutes for your bread isn't acceptable.

                                1. re: krissywats

                                  "In other conversation, I was earnestly asking what the difference in food is between a $300 meal that is exceptional and a $600. Is it really in quality or at that point is it simply like designer jeans - it's all about the name? THAT'S what I'm attempting to understand."

                                  In my experience, there is a tangible difference in the quality of both the food and the overall experience. I'm sorry someone had a bad bread waiter (and I highly suspect that the management would be >shocked< to hear about that), but for me, the $600 meal at Per Se was more than twice as good as the (relatively few) $300 meals I've had the pleasure of sharing. This is what I've been trying to get across. The $300 meals are good, but Keller's preparation, presentation - just everything about the meal, actually tangibly changed the way I approach food.

                                  THAT is why I think it's worth it.

                                  1. re: Caviar

                                    "The $300 meals are good, but Keller's preparation, presentation - just everything about the meal, actually tangibly changed the way I approach food."

                                    Thank you. That I can understand. You are saying it's not just a name and not just an intangible 'experience' but something changed for you and yes, the food can be THAT much better. THAT makes sense to me....I'm glad you took the time to explain it in such a direct way - thanks, again.

                                    I'm still going to do my 'research' about the preparation. I'm intrigued. And interested how much of this amazing food preparation can be incorporated into a very special meal at home. I'd love to be able to tangibly change how someone approaches food. Even if just a little bit.

                                    1. re: krissywats

                                      I know I've seen discussion (I think on Home Cooking, if not then on General Topics, before Home Cooking was established) about how to make the Salmon Cornets, would be worth looking for that thread to get an idea of what goes into home preparation. There is also a French Laundry Cookbook.

                                      And I didn't mean to say you said it wasn't for you- what I was saying is if it were me, and I would not be able to focus on the meal because I just couldn't get over the price tag, then it's an experience I'd best pass on. Sorry if it came across otherwise.

                                      1. re: krissywats

                                        You should check out the French Laundry cookbook. I find it incredibly daunting. Where other chefs have 2-3 steps, Keller has 8-12. His entire process is about stripping away layers, finding what's best about each individual ingredient, breaking them apart, and putting them back together again so that you can't tell they were ever anything but one coherent unit - the end product looks like something recognizable, but it's gone through an intense transformation along the way.

                              2. re: Cyndy

                                I find it really interesting that in all of these discussions, the sticking point seems to be that the LUNCH was $650.

                                So, my question is, why is lunch LESS valuable than dinner?

                                I have a feeling the "shock-and-awe" would have registered less if the OP had been posting about a dinner at FL (which, incidentally costs exactly the same as lunch).

                                1. re: Annan

                                  Dinner or Lunch - I would have been shocked at the price.

                              3. What I find horrifying is the suggestion that the best way to make it up to you, is more food!

                                I thought this was meant to be an elegantly balanced tasting menu, with intentionally smaller portions.

                                And apologizing by giving you more food has this Denny's kind of air, that all Americans want and would be grateful/pacified to receive more food at all times.

                                Given the elegance of the surroundings this

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Tucker

                                  Regardless of whether the menu is intended to be balanced, with smaller portions, or not, I agree that the way to correct service issues is *not* with more food.

                                  I had a very bad service experience at Roy's in San Francisco. Obviously, not at the level of FL, but nonetheless, I did express our dismay to the waiter. The response was 'oh, we will make it up to you': and next thing we know, two desserts we didn't order are brought to the table. Fine, except that the desserts in question were not ones that anyone at our table of seven had any interest in trying! I pointed this out, and got nothing more than a shrug.

                                  Now, had he waited for us to order dessert (there were other items on the menu we wanted to try), and then comped some or all of what we ordered, I would have felt much better: but it felt as though the restaurant was saying: "too bad that you had a bad experience, but we can shut you up by bringing you something that wasn't selling well anyway". Their offerings went uneaten. It is a very different message than offering to comp some aspect of the menu that would be ordered anyway, or even than just giving a sincere apology.

                                2. You have every right to be perturbed over this. Even in a regular restaurant, I don't enjoy "managing" the wait staff with "More water please", "More bread please", "Can you check on our food please", etc.

                                  I will say this though, don't be surprised if you get several posts defending the wait staff from some of the restaurant industry crowd who frequent this board.

                                  1. This is of interest to me b/c we were thinking about the FL for our anniversary, but decided to go elsewhere this year for various reasons. Sounds like the food was what some may deem as close to perfection as it gets but that there was a significant chasm in service.

                                    When you drop $650 for lunch for two, then I do think you have every right to demand excellent service to match the food and your own sacrifices for dining there. So a typically unfussy diner like myself would transform into a more fussy and nitpicky person in this context.

                                    That doesn't mean that service has to be flawless or that they should anticipate your every need (although they should anticipate most needs). For me, good service is also about handling requests w/ grace and being genuinely apologetic and sincere re: lapses. Throwing in another dessert in response to your complaint was amateurish and insensitive IMO. That might work if I was an 8 y.o.

                                    One question: you mentioned that you sent back a glass of Chard. I'm curious why? Was it corked or off or did it conflict w/ the course? How was that request received?

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Carb Lover

                                      We allowed the sommelier to choose most of our wines for us, from their half-bottles and wines-by-the-glass, so that we could have appropriate pairings for every course. And I just didn't like the Chardonnay--heavy and oaky, it was a shock to my palate after the Gruner Veltliner and Riesling we had been drinking. It was in fact a good match with my lobster with saffron-vanilla sauce, but I needed to pace myself with the wines as well as with the food, and we still had a half-bottle of French Burgandy coming, so I wanted something lighter.

                                      I didn't actually "return" the Chardonnay. My husband and I had been sharing a glass, which had been made into two half-pours. I asked for something different, and he brought us both a half-glass of Rousanne, without removing my husband's Chardonnay.

                                      The whole experience with the sommelier was terrific. With a 70 page or so list of mostly incredibly expensive wines, 14 courses to plow through, and a long drive home, it was imperative to have a bunch of glasses. He made us very comfortable with our knowledge level and individual tastes while using his own to steer us toward what would work best for us.

                                      1. re: heidipie

                                        Thanks for the elaboration. Glad to hear that the wine service was first-rate.