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Va Pensiero - Atrocious Service

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I don't think that I have ever had bad service wreck a meal quite so thoroughly as it did last Friday night.

For the last several years, my family has enjoyed the food, service, and ambience of Va Pensiero. We have continually chosen to dine at there to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, new years, and other milestones, and we have continually recommended it to friends and associates. Whenever I visit my father in the Chicago area, we try to make a reservation at Va Pensiero, and we have never been disappointed in the wonderful food, professional and courteous service, or elegant atmosphere.

My father, brother, and I had reservations for 7:30 on Friday, August 4, which we made almost two months in advance. When we arrived, the manager (whose name I think was Luis) led us to a table in the main corridor of the main room. Because sitting at these tables can feel like sitting in a hallway, I asked if it would be possible to sit instead at one of the many empty tables in the main parts of the room. He told me, unapologetically, that all those tables were unavailable, despite their being empty and there being no one in the lobby waiting for a table, and refused to move us until my father said explicitly that the table was unacceptable. He then grudgingly moved us to a table along the windows.

The tables that he claimed were unavailable sat empty for the entire three hours we were in the restaurant, and only one couple was seated in the corridor area during that entire time, which would lead me to believe they had no reason to keep all those tables open.

We had planned this dinner as a celebration of both my and my father’s birthdays, and as part of that celebration we brought a bottle of wine with us. Knowing the restaurant’s corkage policy, my father called ahead to make sure that the bottle we had was not already on the wine list. He was told that while the restaurant did carry that label, they did not carry that vintage, and so it would be fine.

When our waiter took the bottle back to open it, the manager came back to our table. Again neither apologetic nor friendly, he said that according to the restaurant’s corkage policy, he would be unable to open the bottle of wine because it was on the restaurant’s wine list. My father explained that he was aware of this policy, so he had specifically called ahead to ask about this bottle. He had been told that since Va Pensiero did not carry that particular vintage, it would be fine. The manager gave my father a skeptical look and asked disbelievingly who my father spoke to. When my father said that he didn’t remember but that maybe the man’s name had been Vincent, the manager looked at us triumphantly and said there was no Vincent working at the restaurant (with the implication that my father was lying about having called at all) and that we were required to pay $110 if we wanted to drink our wine. We asked if we could perhaps speak to the owner, or the sommelier, or another manager to clear up this misunderstanding. Luis said no. My father said we would therefore not be drinking wine that evening. Luis barked, “Fine!” and then proceeded to try to stare down my father for an extended period of time before spinning on his heel and walking away.

At no point during this conversation did the manager apologize for the misunderstanding, or try to find any sort of compromise. He treated us as if we were trying to cheat him out of profits, and as if we had to be repeatedly and rudely reminded of who was actually in charge.

Our waiter, Fidel, returned to take our orders, and while I was ready to walk out of the restaurant, he managed to calm us down. When I explained what had happened, he said that he would see what he could do. A few minutes later the manager returned, announced imperiously that he would make an exception for us this one time and allow us to drink our wine. Throughout this whole “apology” he remained aggressive and unsmiling. In an attempt to avoid having such an incident in the future, I asked Luis if there was a specific person we should consult the next time we called to ask about a bottle of wine; he glared at me and walked away without answering.

The only saving grace of the evening was Fidel. I have no idea how he managed to turn such a sour beginning into a wonderful meal, but he fixed every problem the manager caused and his professionalism and wonderful attitude saved our evening. (And the food was great, too, though I had lost a lot of my appetite by that point.)

As we were leaving, a departing couple passed Luis by the host stand. The diner thanked Luis and handed him money, which Luis accepted. This interaction certainly left me with the impression that the manager expects such monetary generosity in return for any effort he expends, and its absence when he changed our table is what caused his extremely aggressive and inappropriate attitude toward us.

In any event, I won't be going back any time soon. His aggressive demeanour was so totally at odds with any experience I've ever had at that restaurant, and totally out of place for that type of restaurant -- it's a nice but sleepy college-town place, not the latest Manhattan see-and-be-seen hotspot. I couldn't believe how badly we were treated.

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  1. I ate at Va Pensiero several times when I lived in Evanston (1998 through 2002) -- always enjoyed my experiences there and never had a problem with the service. Since I liked them so much, I recommended them to my friend as a place to take her parents, but they had an absolutely terrible experience with the wait staff (I think this was back in 1999). I don't really know what else to say, but the inconsistency of the service is definitely strange!

    1. They've also changed chef and I believe management in the last few years. The original chef/owner sold the place.

      1. You're a better man than I. Had it been me, I would have walked when Luis gave me a bad time about the table. That's a bad sign. I'm surprised the dinner turned out as well as it did. And the whole wine thing, f'get'bout' it!

        1. We ate at Va Pensiero about a month ago, and thought that the change in chef was an improvement, actually, compared to when the original owner ran the place. However, the service, while friendly, was very slow. It was hard to get our waiter's attention, and the meal took a lot longer than I was hoping it would, since this was a work night. Hearing the OP's experience would make me hesitate to go back soon.