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Le Bernardin Ultimately a Disappointment

My mother took me to Le Bernardin for my birthday a few weeks ago. I've been hesitant about posting, since I've been conflicted about the experience. The meal, in terms of freshness and quality, was very good. We had the Le Bernardin tasting menu with wine pairings. The wine pairings were excellent. However, the overall experience was very blasé. First of all, the decor was underwhelming, outdated, and felt oddly like you were dining on a cruise ship that needed an upgrade. The service felt very rushed. When we first sat down, the waiter came over and I informed him that we had a harried experience getting to the restaurant, and that we needed a few minutes to unwind (we had 5:30 reservations so I was rushing from my office downtown and my mother commuted in from Long Island). The waiter came back to the table 3 times in the following 10 minutes to see if we were ready to order. He didn't even notice that we hadn't opened the menus or looked at the wine list or thought about cocktails or finished catching up. People complain about neglectful service, but at the same time there's something to be said for waitstaff that breathes down your neck. Feeling the pressure, we both just decided to order the tasting and pairings just to get the meal underway, though we would have liked to peruse the menu and the wine list more closely. As we watched bottles of champagne being delivered to other tables, we were disappointed that we didn't have a chance to order a bottle instead of the pairings.
Again, I know this place is the darling for many in terms of seafood restaurants in New York. I went in believing I would be dazzled and thrilled. Perhaps I've become too accustomed to bolder and more creative dishes, overlooking the simplicity of what was put before me. But frankly, the meal was just ok. My mother agreed. The standouts were the pounded yellowfin tuna, peekytoe crab and the pork-belly calamari, although still not mind-blowing. The courses were rushed as well, and our wines started to gather on the table before we could finish each glass with its accompanying dish. For a six course meal; plus amuse, wine pairings and aperitifs, we were in and out in about 2 hours. Fastest $500+ meal I’ve ever had.

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  1. I have had similar experiences there (plural only because it is a convenient place to go on business lunches/dinners). I have never been bowled over by the food, although it is consistently good. I agree wholeheartedly on the decor and in fact have actually used the "cruise ship" description! The last meal we had at Esca, we thought was better than Le Bernardin. You might check it out if you haven't been there.

    4 Replies
    1. re: food_for_thought

      I had a similar experience there a couple years ago. You could tell that in terms of craft and technique, the dishes might have been perfect. And of course the fish is impeccably fresh. But to be honest, I've enjoyed far more casual meals at places like Tides or long Omakases at great sushi bars. I think a lot of these very high end places are missing a sense of fun. It seems to be a combination of stuffiness and a pressure to turn tables quickly. I'm not sure. I have actually found the most relaxed high end meals to be at Babbo very late at night. I've actually been seated at around 11PM and lingered for hours (along with the rest of the packed dining room) without a hint of pressure.

      Maybe that's a good idea for another post. Of the high end restaurants, which maintain a sense of FUN?

      Thanks for your review and eat well!


      1. re: JeremyEG

        I have eaten at Le Bernadin many times. I have had incredible meals there with great service, but I have also had just good meals with mediocre service.
        I have found that if you go there early, and this is certainly not right, they are too eager to turn over the table.

        1. re: JeremyEG

          I agree with you on Babbo. It's great if you can get a late reservation and just sit and enjoy. I've had earlier reservations there too, and I must say, I have never felt rushed. I find that stuffy has its place, and if it's appropriate in the setting, I don't mind, however it is never appropriate (IMHO) for diners to feel that they are pressured because an establishment is trying to turn tables, especially at these high end places. Patrons are paying a pretty penny, and it's not just about the food - it should be about the entire dining experience. We have found Bouley to be very good in this regard. Never rushed and the whole environment is a treat for the senses.

          1. re: JeremyEG

            I'm biased because I'm not such a seafood fan, but I too was turned off by the stuffiness at Le Bernadin.

        2. Sorry to hear that. I had dinner with my father in law few weeks ago -- 5:30 on a Saturday and upon being seated, we told our waiter that we wouldlike to take our time with our meal. We sat for almost 3 hours and ate and drank happily with one of the best service. My impression was that is is a simplicity that stands out at Le Bernardin -- just as you had pointed out the "crab cake" (peekytoe crab).

          Again, I am sorry to hear of the disappointment...

          1 Reply
          1. re: Hanachan

            I have come to the conclusion that at this point in time all the 3-4 start restaurants are not worth it anymore.Most everyone is is paying such high rent that basically you are paying $45 for a dish that should really cost
            about $25-28,such is the case at Le Bernadin,the food is good,well prepared,great wine list but do you really want to be paying $40 bucks for a piece of fish that cost maybe $7 at the most???

          2. I had a similar experience myself. We sat at 6:00-6:15, were offered a cocktail, ordered, and after that it was a blurr. Courses came out one after the other, was very rushed and by the time 7:30 rolled around, we were being pointed at by one of the managers every 10 minutes and overheard him saying to get them out of there to turn the table. The restaurant had a 8:00 reservation.

            I did not want the table all night, but I wanted a nice experience.....hard to have it when you are rushed.

            The food was great btw....

            But for

            1. I have never been rushed there. I/we have always taken several hours to go through the tasting menu. The wait staff has always asked if we were ready for our next course. I have always been served several extra courses each time too. I really enjoy dining there. Hope you have better luck next time.

              1. Sorry to say, but I don't think that luck has anything to do with this restaurant. I wish I would have paid more attention to what people were saying before we went because a "rushed experience" sounds like it is commonplace at this establishment. Not only did we experience a six course meal in less than 2 hours, we actually tried to purposely slow down the meal because they were all over us from the very start. 3 times asking us what we wanted to eat in a 5 minute span. In hindsight, I should have told them to slow it down.

                I probably would have been more tolerant if the food had been good. However, to be frank, it was marginal.

                1. I have been twice for lunch and loved it, I think this is due however to deliberately sitting at the bar. The main room does seem too formal to me and I much prefer sitting at the bar with my husband and friend. It seems more initmate and the guy behind the bar was really sweet. We chatted away between the four of us and we did not feel rushed just pleasantly full and a bit tipsy.

                  1. Hmmm. I just had a very unsettling telephone conversation. This Saturday a friend and I are making the trek from Philadelphia to Manhattan for a 6:00 dinner reservation at Le Bernardin. When the hostess called to confirm the reservation, she told me that the table would be turning over at 8:00 p.m. as they had another reservation. Based on the below, it looks like they are just acknowledging the practice referenced below. Does anyone have recent experience with this? I was certainly surprised at this comment from a restaurant of this puported magnitude and wonder now if we have made the right decision. Karen

                    14 Replies
                    1. re: kkliniewski

                      This is a more than 2-year old Le Bernardin thread. A few weeks ago, someone posted about the very same situation you are describing, that is, being told when reconfirming that the time at the table would be limited, something that was not divulged at all when the reservation was originally made. Also, he was informed that he would not be able to partake of a tasting menu because it would take too long. Iirc, he canceled.

                      It now appears that this is a pattern with Le Bernardin, i.e., not disclosing this limitation when the reservation is made. Reprehensible! Frankly, at a restaurant of this caliber, one should be able to relax and not have to worry about being rushed to finish. Unless I were going to the theater and had to be out anyway, I would never accept a time-limited reservation. I think it would be better to go to Le Bernardin with a later reservation -- say, 9 p.m. -- when they will not be turning the table.

                      1. re: RGR

                        Le Bernardin has been open for 20 years, 11 services a week. It has always had three seatings for dinner, two for lunch. It has served thousands upon thousands of extremely satisfied customers. I am sure there is an obvious reason for that. It is an exceptionaly wonderful place to have a meal. Also, if you have a complaint with the reservationist ask to talk to the manager. In my experience they are usually extremely forthcoming.

                        1. re: sethd

                          There are enough reports about this now that it is more than reasonable to see and respond to this as a policy set by management rather than an incident with a reservationist. RGR has already made reference to another poster who was informed only very shortly before the date of his reservation that a time limit was being imposed. That poster (you can find the thread on the "Not About Food" board) did send a letter to management. We have not yet received an update on the board re: any reply, but since people are still being told of this time limit, it's a fair assumption that this approach hasn't been changed so far. Le Bernardin could have perfect food and otherwise impeccable service, but whether a two hour time limit for a long tasting menu leaves diners feeling rushed and less able to enjoy the food is, I think, still a valid point of criticism.

                          1. re: planetjess

                            May be, but why don't address it and ask to speak to someone higher in the restaurant management foodchain than the reservationist.y, Next time hat I eat at Le Bernardin, (probably in the next 2 weeks) I will ask Ben, the restaurant manager, what if any the policy is regarding tasting menus and whether time limits are imposed.

                            1. re: sethd

                              The poster who originally posted about this time-limited situation made it quite clear he was told by the person confirming his reservation that he would not be permitted to order a tasting menu. It's a good bet she was relaying what she was told to do by management.

                              We recently had dinner at Le Bernardin, party of four, and had the tasting menu. The pacing was of the Goldilocks variety -- not too fast, not too slow, but just right. We were there for three hours. So, even if management agreed to allow the tasting within that two-hour limit, the meal would have to be a total rush job.

                              The thing that makes this situation even more reprehensible is that the information about these restrictions is not provided to patrons who book for the first seating at the time they make the reservation. It's only when they call to confirm the day before that they are told. Totally unacceptable!

                              1. re: RGR

                                Don't you think reprehensible is a little strong. I still say if you call and confirm and don't like the response from the reservationist, rather than stew and go complaining to this board to describe this "reprehensible" act ask to talk to a manager. Mention that you would really like to have the tasting menu,etc. As I said, I am sure they would be forthcoming. Has anybody having the tasting menu at Le Bernardin ever felt rushed. I have never been told anything by the reservationist when calling Le Bernardin for a reservation nor when I confirm: a procedure I have done more than almost anyone on this board. I have had tasting menus at first sitting at Le Bernardin without a problem. In fact, I have seen many patrons having the tasting menu at first sitting at Le Bernardin and I always eat first sitting at dinner.

                                Let's also remember, the New York fine dining scene is centered on turning tables. Only one fine dining restaurant has allowed patrons to have the table for the evening; ADNY.

                                1. re: sethd

                                  My experience was quite similar to the OP - right down to me coming from my downtown office and my Mother commuting from the Island to make a 5:30 pm reservation.

                                  I, too, was told of the time limitation. I was fine with it - two hours seemed ample time to enjoy a meal - but I felt rushed to finish even quicker. By the end of the meal, the waiter literally hovered over the table waiting for me to sign the tab.

                                  My impressions - the place is stuffy - like sitting in some old dusty Victorian living room. People seemed cautious not to speak above a whisper.

                                  The food was, of course, quality - but nothing memorable.

                                  My Mom had wanted to go for the longest time, so I am glad I was able to do that for her. But I don't think I would ever care to go back.

                                  1. re: sethd

                                    Reprehensible is an understatement how much people are paying for this experience. Really, how can you defend this outrageous policy? The New York fine dining scene is about service and good food, not turning tables. Please let me know some other places you think fit this latter description so I can avoid them, as well.

                                    PS: I recently advised my parents, who love seafood, to check out Le Bernadin. I'm going to call them today and urge them to reconsider their plans.

                                    1. re: sethd


                                      I don't think using yourself as an example of how Le Bernardin treats its patrons is a good idea because by your own admission, you have been to Le Bernardin a gazillion times, thus making you what the restaurant considers a favored patron. So, just because you have been served the tasting dinner countless times during the first sitting doesn't mean the same privilege is routinely granted to patrons not known to the house. Obviously not, from the evidence we have. And why should the average diner have to ask to have the tasting menu when it *should* be routinely served to all patrons who pass through the front door?

                                      Yes, reprehensible is exactly the right word. Le Bernardin should inform prospective diners of the two-hour limitation *at the time the reservation is made*. Instead, they conveniently neglect to provide that important piece of information. It is totally wrong, imo, to only let patrons in on it when they re-confirm the day before they are supposed to dine there. At that point, if they are unhappy with the situation and prefer to go somewhere else, it leaves them next to no time to try to make alternate arrangements. The poster who originally posted about this got lucky and was able to secure an accommodating reservation elsewhere. But that might not be the case for others.

                                      And, btw, when you have all those 6 p.m. reservations, when you confirm, does the reservationist ever tell you that you must vacate by 8? I can guess the answer...

                                      1. re: RGR

                                        First, I became a regular customer solely because of the level of service during my initial meals at the restaurant. I like. many of you, won't return to a restaurant with horrific service (my experiences at EMP and Gordon Ramsey come to mind) Secondly, since not every diner at Le Bernardin is a regular and I have noticed many tasting menus served during the first sitting, not all being eaten by regulars, than it leads me to believe that it is possilbe to have a tasting menu during the first sitting. Thirdly, how many of the complaints exist compared to the thousands of happy, satisfied customers who have eaten there since opening in 1986. If somebody doesn't want to go to Le Bernardin based on these criticisms, so be it. If we are going to boycott every restaurant with such "reprehensible" service issues, they will not be any place to eat in the city save our own kitchens. I also think that appropriate communication with appropriate members of a restaurants staff can and should alleviate such problems. As I mentioned, I will be more than happy to ask Ben about the restaurants policies when I next go there.

                                        1. re: sethd

                                          Please let us know what Ben says. I myself will be dining at Le Bernardin in the next month or so. I will be certain to ask for Ben and tell him Seth sent me--maybe some regularity will rub off on me.

                                          There are any number of restaurants on Chowhound that the vast majority love--that doesn't mean that they are without their issues, or that people should be reprimanded for sharing aspects of their experiences that are less than stellar. For example, I am very glad to know of the OP's and others' experience re: the table-turning policy that appears to have been instituted. It would certainly bother me to feel rushed during my dinner. Does that mean I will boycott the restaurant? No. But these posts have performed a great service for me--I now know to book for the last seating rather than the first or second turn. The result? The restaurant you defend will still have my custom, I will (barring unforeseen catastrophes) have a lovely dinner, will be more likely to leave a lavish tip and return another time. Everybody wins. How is this a problem?

                                          In the meantime, some diners *are*, as mentioned more than once on this thread, communicating their displeasure to management. Others will select other restaurants. Eventually, the appropriate equilibrium will be reached. If there are still plenty of people willing to comply with the two hour limit (and thereafter enjoy their dinners and do not tell others that this new policy makes them feel rushed and disappointed), then big bonus for Le Bernardin--more tables will be turned, more dinners will be served and Eric will make more money and maybe Ben will get a raise. If two hours is too tight a limit for a sufficient number of diners (or they want to be able to order the tasting menu they have been salivating over--apologies, RGR, I had forgotten that part), Le Bernardin will lose business and either re-think their policy voluntarily or it will lapse because it will no longer be necessary due to lack of custom. I doubt you think this latter scenario is likely, but were it to come to pass, its cause would be due to a policy which places rigid table turns above hospitality, not due to some failure of customers to fulfil some kind of obligation re: how and to whom to express their displeasure.

                              2. re: sethd

                                I have eaten at many higher end places in NYC (Jean Georges, Cru, Babbo, Blue Hill, LB etc) and often order tasting menus that go on for close to 3 hours or more. Never in my 10 years of living here have I been given a time limit (with the exception of Yasuda now that I think about it). I also would never think paying for a meal at any of the above establishments had a time limit been imposed. Perhaps I've always been lucky but I don't think this is the norm here in NYC and I am certainly not a VIP of any sort.

                                Reprehensible? That might be a little strong. Reprehensible is a good way to describe war, not reservation policy. : )

                                1. re: JeremyEG

                                  This isn't isolated, though. There was a bit of to-do when Gordon Ramsay at the London started doing this last year. I wouldn't go so far as to imply a causal relationship, but note that GRatL isn't suffering from a surfeit of diners, last time I checked. NYC is much more flush with high-end choices than with discretionary dining dollars and expense accounts right now, and plenty of the best restaurants are going out of their way to make diners feel more welcome, not less--even LB can't survive on its regulars.

                                  1. re: planetjess

                                    "...[but note that GRatL isn't suffering from a surfeit of diners, last time I checked."

                                    There have been rumors that Gordon Ramsay at the London may close.

                          2. My family and I had a very similar experience - good food, but not memorable. The atmosphere was very stuffy and our server was actually fairly snotty. The next night we ate at an inexpensive, family run Indian restaurant on Lex and the experinece was 100 times better than Le Bernadin...

                            1. Even if I would likely be leaving within the 2-hour time limit, merely being informed of this cutoff or the fact that I would not have the option of ordering the tasting menu would be quite enough for me to say, thanks but no thanks. Unless they are giving the meal away, I do not feel inclined to adhere to these kinds of rules or restrictions. Way too many other great places to dine in NYC where the service is pleasant and accommodating. Many people tend to be cowed by high-end places like Le B when they should just vote with their feet. We are, after all, consumers!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: City Kid

                                Most who dine at Le Bernardin find the food superb and the service extremely pleasant and accommodating. I know I do. There must be a reason Le Bernardin consistently gets rave reviews from reviewers both professional and amateur . Perhaps many New Yorkers are too impressed by the lack of formality at many fine dining establishments and are suprised and shocked. by the level of perfection constantly achieved by the professional staff at Le Bernardin.
                                Another issue is what makes for a suboptimal experience at a restaurant of the caliber of Le Bernardin or Jean Georges or Per Se or EMP, where hundreds of diners leave amazingly satisfied with their meals. Is such an "poor" experience solely the fault of the restaurant or can the patron also be at fault. For example, I have had at least a 1000 meals at Jean Georges over the last 8 years. I have had only one meal that i didn't enjoy: When I left that evening I realized that I was solely at fault; I was not in the mood, after a stressful day at work, to enjoy the experience. In addition, what is the patrons knowledge of the restaurant , experience with fine dining, or level of expectation prior to the meal. None of us will go to the Louvre and complain about the lack of Impressionist paintings . However, often we go to restaurants with the lack of adequate research.

                                1. re: sethd

                                  It would be a poor four-star restaurant indeed that did not take every opportunity to provide a consistently perfect experience to any diner who, by his own count, dines at that restaurant, on average, once every three days. One might query whether this perfection is a result of your performance as a customer, for which you are admittedly well-trained, or the type of experience that any diner, even if somewhat petulant or otherwise ill-behaved (in ways not directly disruptive to other diners), might expect to receive at a restaurant where he apparently spends over $20,000 a year.

                                  I, however, expect to receive at least an excellent experience should I choose to spend $500 at a restaurant even once. I know the difference between VIP and non-VIP service levels (though the difference between them, except for VVIPs, thankfully narrows as the restaurant gets better), and if an aspect of my meal is sub-par, that represents a failure by the restaurant, not by me. I am comfortable asserting this because I know myself--I know that I am more forgiving of accidents, servers' exhaustion or bad days, inadvertent kitchen errors and other flaws than most. For me to leave a restaurant actually unhappy to the extent I would call the experience poor, it would take either (i) unrectified subpar food, (ii) bad attitude from the staff or (iii) being subjected to a policy that strips away the mutually beneficial artifice at restaurants of this caliber that they truly care about me as a guest and not just as one of many pocketbooks they will see that evening. And my "training" in fine dining has been wholly adequate, thank you. Would that the same were true for everyone working and setting the policies at those establishments.

                              2. It never ceases to amaze me the rudeness people are willing to put up with to dine in some "temples" of cuisine. Dining in an upscale restaurant shouldn't turn into a research project on a particular establishment's rules and reg's. How tiresome! Dining out is supposed to be a pleasure where it is the restaurant's job to ensure your enjoyment. There are many sophisticated diners on this board and if they take umbrage at certain policies, they are probably correct. As OP's suggest, things ultimately will seek the right level. There should be a lesson here for Le Bernardin and others that think it is the restaurant calling the shots when it is the customer...many defunct restaurants -- especially in this environment -- prove this point.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: City Kid

                                  When I refer to research it is not the knowledge of the restaurant "rules and regs" but the type of experience one can hope to achieve at said restaurant.
                                  As I have mentioned, I wouldn't have returned to Le Bernardin if my initial experiences at the restaurant weren't superb. My experiences have always been pleasurable. To go to a restaurant, have a sensational meal, to escape from the pressures, trials, and tribulations of living in the city, is exactly why I dine out as often as I do. I usually eat as a single diner. Perhaps, because of that I am much more influenced by service issues than if I ate in a group. Eating as a single does offer me a different experience, both in my interaction with the staff, my ability to watch those around me, etc., I don't mean to insult anyone on this board. I do realize that my experiences at restaurants is different from many on this and other boards who don't frequent cdertain restaurants as often as I do. However, I do hope that Le Bernardin and other restaurants of its class, always attempt to give a perfect dining experience to all who have the pleasure of eating there.

                                  1. re: sethd

                                    Based on the posts we have seen regarding the issue of time contraints, Le Bernardin is not providing the "perfect" dining experience. If a patron has to turn sommersaults, i.e., having to ask management's "permission," that adversely affects the experience right from the get-go. Diners should be able to come to Le Bernardin at any hour, choose the menu that most appeals, then relax and take as much time as they require to finish the meal without waiters breathing down their necks to hurry them up. Since Le Bernardin does offer tasting menus, they need to factor that in to the way they schedule table turns, not prevent diners from ordering one so that the table can be vacated more quickly.

                                    Let's fact it. Someone who dines at a restaurant 1,000 times -- "a friend of the house" -- is going to receive more special treatment than the patron who has come there for the first time. That's just human nature. That doesn't mean that service for the first-timer cannot be welcoming, cordial, and polished. As you have pointed out, a restaurant has only one chance to make a first impression (my guiding philosophy as well). The time constraints Le Bernardin is imposing on some diners, and especially not telling them when they first make the reservation, does not offer the first-time diner a very welcoming impression of the restaurant. It's more like: We'll be happy to take your money. But here's your hat; what's your hurry?

                                    You never did answer my question as to whether you have ever been told when reserving that you must vacate your table within a strict time limit. I'm sure that you have not. A single diner can probably finish a tasting dinner in well under two hours. But even if you couldn't, I'll bet that since you are a Le Bernardin VIP, you would never be rushed to finish up so that your table -- which can certainly seat two, if not four -- can be turned.

                                2. I have been to Le Bernardin twice in the past eight months (didn't go for a long time before that, so I am not a "VIP"), once on a Thursday night at 8:30pm and once on a Saturday night at 5:45pm. Both times we had the tasting menus.

                                  I was told, when I was making the 5:45pm Saturday reservation (not when they called to confirm), that they would need the table back at 8, 8:15pm. We did the Chef tasting menu and did not feel rushed at all.

                                  I did a search on chowhound, and could only find two instances in which people complained about being told of the two-hour limit when Le Bernardin calls to confirm (as opposed to when the reservation is made). If there are more, please provide the links.

                                  I have also only found one instance in which a patron was actually disallowed to have the tasting menu during the two hour limit.

                                  So I am here to provide a counterexample: I ate at Le Bernardin on a Saturday night, was told of the two-hour limit at the time of making the reservation, was not disallowed to have the tasting menu (in fact, we added a dessert course so we had an extra course), and did not feel rushed when we left at 8:15pm.

                                  My guess is the negative experiences (the two of them) could be due to particular receptionists who were not familiar with the rules, or were isolated incidents. Is it excusable? Maybe not. But it need not be generalized, in my opinion. I had a terrible experience at Eleven Madison Park in terms of service and food, but I don't jump at every post about EMP to bash the restaurant.

                                  I am not going to start a debate about whether the food was good, whether it was worth it, whether the atmosphere was stuffy... etc. Those are a matter of taste. But I wanted to provide objective information about my experience regarding the reservation and time limit policy.

                                  1. Interesting thread. I have not been to LB, so cannot comment, but if you go to a Michellin three star establishment, no-one should ever be made to feel rushed, period. That blanket approach should extend to, but not be exclusive to tasting menus, which obviously tend to take longer. Personally, I would probably be cautious when booking at a one/two star/other, and would likely ask about table turnovers when booking an earlier slot (indeed, this is what I did when last booking at GR @ The London, and selected a timeslot where a table turn was unlikely, but the receptionist was clear there and then that a 6/6.30 slot may be needed for a 9pm table). If I was made to feel rushed at a 3 star, then perhaps I wouldnt wish to destroy my evening further by complaining there and then, but complain I certainly would at a subsequent stage, and I would probably never return; there is enough choice out there in NYC to apportion your preferences to those establishments that get things right consistently, rather than 90% of the time.