39 Rue de Jean in Charleston: Terrible service experience (longish)
This past Saturday night, my wife and I dined at 39 Rue de Jean. The food was good, and the service was adequate if not exceptional until the dessert course, which is when the wheels came off. When we ordered dessert, my wife ordered a 10-year tawny port and I ordered a coffee. Our desserts arrived (via someone who was not our regular waiter) about 5 minutes before our drinks did, which was the first bad sign. When our waiter did appear with our drinks, he told my wife they were out of the 10-year tawny she had ordered, so he had poured her a 20-year tawny instead. We expressed our gratitude, which immediately and sadly turned to suspicion when upon closer inspection, the port in question turned out not to be a tawny at all. Its taste, its smell, and its deep red color revealed it to be a ruby port or at best an LBV (late bottled vintage) port, which is basically a slight step up from a ruby in taste and quality. Rue de Jean listed both a ruby and an LBV port on their menu, both cheaper than the tawny port my wife had ordered, and we suspected the wine was one of those two. Interestingly, the menu did not list a 20-year tawny at all.
When our waiter returned, we told him that what he had served my wife was not a tawny port. My wife indicated she did not care to drink the wine, and the waiter removed the glass, but he did not offer to remove the wine from our bill, which he had already left on our table. He insisted that the wine was a tawny, and he said he would bring the bottle back to the table to show us. We agreed. He returned a few minutes later without the bottle (big surprise). Instead, he offered up a lame explanation that 20-year tawny ports taste different than 10-year tawny ports. This was of course a true statement as far as it goes, but 20-year tawny ports do NOT revert to tasting like ruby ports. My wife and I were particularly insulted as we have been sampling tawny ports for years, including the very 20-year tawny he claimed to have served us. As the waiter started to turn away, I asked him to remove the charge for the wine from our bill, since he clearly wasn't going to volunteer to do so. To his credit, and the only credit I'll give him during this episode, he removed the charge without further debate.
Serving my wife the wrong wine, and a cheaper one to boot, may have been an honest mistake, and we were willing to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt. However, when the waiter came back to the table without the promised bottle of wine and yet still insisted he had served us correctly, it was clear the episode was a DIShonest mistake at best and a deliberate attempt to deceive us at worst. Furthermore, my wife e-mailed the restaurant about this episode that very night, and four days later, we have yet to receive a reply. We are left to believe, therefore, that the restaurant's management condones its waiter's behavior.
This episode reminded me of something I witnessed at a restaurant in San Francisco a few years ago. A waitress passed along an order for a shot of Absolut Citron to the bartender. Because they were out, the bartender proceeded to pour a shot of bottom shelf vodka and then added a spash of sour mix. The resulting concoction was then served to the unsuspecting customer. It's sad that a much-beloved restaurant like 39 Rue de Jean would display this same kind of contempt for its customers.
I think that Rue and Coast, while being very professionally run (minus tricky wine service mentioned above) are both very overrated. The "French" food at Rue is very uninspired and a lot of it is just downright bad. I've eaten there a number of times and had meals ranging from ok to terrible, including a few funky mussel dishes, an almost inedible hamburger, over-salted fries (every time) and so on. To their credit, Rue is a beautiful space with great yuppie watching and a vibrant feel. Go eat at La Forchette right around the corner on King St, order the cassoulet and duck fat fries and you will see my point about Rue's food.
I'm sorry about your experience. Rue is a favorite of mine, but I have had feelings like maybe it might be going downhill. I had an unpleasant experience with Coast about 6-7 months ago, they are owned by the same people. My sister was in town, and she wanted to go to Coast so we made reservations by leaving a message on the host's voice mail. Since we were out and about we never checked back to confirm, and neither did Coast. We arrive, and surprise there is no reservation, fine we didn't call either. However, after that we were treated by the staff and manager like liars when it was obvious by their actions they never checked the voice mail. We were told that there was no way they could fit us in at all that night, but we could go next door to Rue for dinner and be seated right away. We did, we were hungry, and we were rewarded with a forgettable dinner with slow service. The whole experience left me with a take it or leave it attitude for both Coast and Rue.