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Question for restaurant-business experienced people

I have eaten shockingly subpar meals at some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, including Valentino, Spago and Michaels. The common factor? In each case I was attending a pharmaceutical-sponsored dinner featuring a guest speaker, with an audience of about 20 guests. There was no ordering off the menu - dinner was a set menu with perhaps two options for entrees.

My question is: why such poor quality at such prominent establishments? Do the restaurants pre-cook all these dishes in advance? Do they unload excess ingredients en masse to these unsuspecting groups? Do restaurants always have multiple tiers of food which they serve depending on the client in question, i.e. dinner vs. catering vs. special events vs. holiday dinners?

I'm very naive about the restaurant business and would be fascinated to know the answers.

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  1. The first thing that I would ask about this would be is it on a night when the restaurant is not normally open? Often nice restaurants will be closed monday, because that is Chef's day off, but if someone hires a private party, they will open for that day, but using a sous chef...
    The other idea would be that they are trying to get too many of the same thing up at the same time, so some of it sits at various stages longer than it normally would.

    1 Reply
    1. re: dagoose

      Restaurants were open that night; our party was in a separate room, so I could not look around and see what was on plates of regular patrons!

    2. Let me try and tackle some of your questions:

      "why such poor quality at such prominent establishments?"
      Really depends, can be a variety of factors, including the fact that food, execution for special events (liked hosted or sponsored parties) usually do not require a restaurant to be in tip-top shape. Most of the folks that are dining at such events are there for the event itself (e.g. in your case drugs) and not the food. The restaurant knows this and cooks to its audience -- generally speaking of course.

      "Do the restaurants pre-cook all these dishes in advance?"
      Pre-cook? No, that would probably be overstating it as "pre-cook" in my mind brings up images of microwaves and saran wrap. Typically, for large group events, restaurants will usually devote their line cooks to making the meals and if the restaurant is still servicing regular customers, then the sous chef will be devoted to those customers.

      "Do they unload excess ingredients en masse to these unsuspecting groups?"
      Not necessarily. Often the set menu that is provided will be chosen (with some restrictions) by the host of the event.

      "Do restaurants always have multiple tiers of food which they serve depending on the client in question, i.e. dinner vs. catering vs. special events vs. holiday dinners?"
      Yes, but then this will vary restaurant to restaurant. You must understand, it is generally MUCH easier to put 100% effort and attention to making a particular dish 3 or 4 times a night. It is much much harder to put that same level of attention when making that same dish 100 times a night, consecutively without interruption. Think about it this way. Leo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is what it is because, arguably, it is a singular unique rendition. It would hardly be as dynamic and artistically inspiring if da Vinci decided he was going to paint 100 (nearly) identical Mona Lisa's -- all in one day, no less. The former is what an artist does; the latter is what Kinko's is good at. Same is true with food and chefs.

      Sorry to hear about your experience. But, hey, at least the meal was comped, right? :-)

      3 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        Thanks for the info. Yep, the meal was comped!! Only problem is that I don't really feel like I've truly dined at those restaurants... will need to go back and pay for a real meal!!

        1. re: jono37

          Meal for 20 comped? Could you please confirm that???

          1. re: RicRios

            I think when we said "comped" we were referring to the fact that the host of the event (e.g. big pharma) paid for the meal -- not comped as in the restaurant paid for the meal.

      2. a reserved group of 20 should not put a big restauarant off its game. i can't speak about michael's, but both valentino and spago struck me as pretty tired when i went there, and that was ages ago. but the marquee value of the names means more folks will actually turn up at the dinner.

        the organizer of your dinner selected the menu, so tries to appeal to the masses. pharmaceutical companies also now must adhere to very strict expense guidelines, set by the feds, when they host these things. the restaurants aren't purposely sending out crap food, and they don't have a walk-in devoted to sub-par ingredients. i just think you had banquet-style budget-conscious meals at places that no longer deserve the hype.

        1. Usually those type of menus are reserved for private parties, and a combination of the restaurant and the client will decide what to offer. For example, a group of 20 may be able to order off the menu early on a Tuesday night without a problem, but if the party is on a Thursday night the restaurant might only want to do a fixed menu. On the other hand, the client may want to only spend a certain amout, and having a fixed menu is one way to guarantee that. Having been a banquet manager where we did host pharmaceutical reps, let me just say little to no thought went into the food. They simply picked menu items they thought were the most appealing to the most people. As far as the back of the house, if we thought it was going to be a busy night someone was usually scheduled to cook for that party alone, and left when they were done. This person was always a line cook, and never the chef.

          1. Eating at a restaurant with a preset menu for a group, and dining at that same restaurant can be two completely different experiences. Budget is definately an issue, you get what you pay for. Most restaurants will do a party where the guests can order off the menu, but that gets pricey. It is also possible to do a pre-set menu or one with a couple options and still have a qaulity meal. I'd recomend giving these restaurants another try with just a signifigant other or a small group, if they still suck, well there you have it.

            1. My conclusions are that I should give up any hope that a pharmaceutical company-sponsored dinner will reflect on the true quality of the establishment, and that I should probably give those three restaurants another try on my dime. Hard to believe that three such venerated restaurants aren't better than they were on those nights. I will confirm that the guests at those dinners are NOT particularly sophisticated diners, and are happy to get a free meal of any quality at place whose name is recognizable.

              1. You would think a pharmy company would have the cash to throw down and go big.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Carmelizedbunions

                  as i mentioned in my post above, these companies are now heavily restricted by federal guidelines as to budgets for these events. their allowed spending is rarely the equivalent of a normal per person dinner, at least in the restaurants in which i've worked.

                  since the reins have been pulled up, doctors very rarely attend, and instead send their office staff or residents.

                  1. re: Carmelizedbunions

                    business meals for entertainment are only 50% deductible, wether you are a mom and pop or merck.

                    1. re: byrd

                      pharm. companies are now (as of 2005) federally mandated to spend no more than $100 per person, with an additional requirement that bottles of wine must be under $40 -- and that's included in the $100 pp.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        in boston and nyc that's basically a six pack and a fancy chicken dinner.

                        1. re: byrd

                          lol, i work in a restaurant in boston and booking these dinners has become a nightmare. they insist on booking in fancy places as an incentive to guests, but then nickle and dime us on the bill.

                          i can only assume l.a. is the same, hence the op's lousy dinner.

                  2. i agree with above posters that anytime you have a big, prearranged party, the menu is set and catered to those particular guests. like mentioned above, there is no reason to assume that these guests are foodies or anything so the menu is not shooting for anything grand. the attendees are there for some event, NOT for the food. that right there dictates the overall quality and flavor of the meal.
                    i would NOT say tho that any of these restaurants send out leftover or no-good ingredients to those parties. restaurants LOVE big parties - huge profit compared to ala carte dining. its all pre-decided. soooo much of the prep can be done ahead of time.