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Apr 5, 2008 09:38 PM

Nightmare at Bouley

We just returned from what was undeniably our single worst service experience in recent memory, at Bouley.

To a certain extent this makes me feel fortunate. We eat out a lot, as I suspect most reading this board do; and now that I reflect on the service aspect of the meals we've had, I realize that it has been, generally, excellent. Perhaps we're just lucky -- or, as I suspect, perhaps service is simply improving all around -- but it's really quite rare that we've had serious complaints about the service at a restaurant. Sure, there will be the occasional service blips, but rarely is it that we have gotten the sense that our server, let alone the entire FOH, just doesn't give a shit.

We had a 9:00 reservation and were seated at 9:15. We were given a wine list but it took a while for menus to appear.

At one point the lamp at one end of our table (a 5 top) went out. This was pretty noticeable, but it took quite a while for us to get someone's attention to come over and fix it. Moreover, even with the lamp fixed, my end of the table was excessively dark. I have young eyes, and I can't remember ever complaining about a place being too dark, but this was just ridiculous. It took a while to get someone's attention, and then we asked for a candle for our end of the table. Several minutes passed, and we asked someone else for one, and one was eventually provided.

It took quite a while for our appetizers to come out. They were fairly unexceptional. I should say that the amuse, a gazpacho with green apple sorbet and slow-cooked shrimp, was excellent. But my father said that his bluefin tuna dish was mediocre; I had the "panache" of three salads, in which the shrimp and scallops were overcooked and underseasoned, the foie "Napoleon" too sweet, and the mushrooms lacking flavor. The steamed egg dish could, I think, have been quite successful, but it was overwhelmed by what I swore was coconut (though this wasn't in the dish description).

The real problem was that we waited for approximately an hour and fifteen minutes for the mains to come out. At no point during this wait did anyone come to our table to apologize, let alone offer, say, a glass of champagne, or a salad, or another appetizer (all of which we would have declined, but at least the offer would have demonstrated that they cared). We were visibly tired and hungry. At one point my fiancée was essentially asleep on the table. No one came.

After over an hour we managed to get someone's attention and asked about our food; we were told that it was being plated, and no apology or explanation. We waited probably ten minutes more and decided to leave. My father asked for the check. Nothing happened. After five minutes or so the mains finally arrived, and we sent them back, reiterating that we wanted to leave.

We then waited over 5 minutes for the check to actually arrive. (I was urging that we should simply leave -- how long could we reasonably be expected to wait?) Now, the one thing that the restaurant could have done at this point to salvage the possibility that we would come back in the future would have been to comp what we had had so far. Of course they didn't.

By now it was probably 11:15. On the way out we told someone whom I presume was the maitre d' that our experience had been pathetic. Delays happen, I told him -- what matters is how you handle the situation. At the very least simply go to the table and apologize for the wait. If it were my restaurant I would, as I said, offer the table a round of champagne, or a salad; something. Just something to suggest that you're aware of the issue, and that you care. This isn't rocket science, I explained; this is basic customer service.

The gentleman's response was hilarious: he said that we didn't give them the opportunity to make the wait up to us. Normally, he said, they would have comped dessert; but we left before the mains. This guy just didn't get it. If a table is waiting for an hour and fifteen minutes in between courses, you have to do something while they're waiting -- even if it's just telling the table that dessert will be on the house. Unbelievable.

My father left no tip, which I don't think he has ever done before; and ordinarily we would not want to punish all of the servers for the errors of one or two, but in this case the problems seemed so systemic.

There is no way that we will return to this restaurant in, say, the next 15 years.

Snootiness is one thing; you can emanate a certain snootiness and still provide the fundamentals of customer service, still show that you care. This was more like sheer and utter cluelessness and indifference, again of a level totally and completely beyond anything we have experienced anywhere in recent memory.

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  1. Your experience is precisely what happened to us (minus the lamp problem) about 15 years ago. The only difference is we stayed through the meal (it was a special occasion, we were hungry, so we tried to make the best of it. I also left no tip, which I have never done before or since, and the idiot maitre'd came running after us on the street screeaming. I have never had such a miserable dinner in any other restaurant at any price level. We had been there twice before that and though there were delays in seating and service, it was tolerable. So, obviously it is inconsistent, but it was the total lack of concern of the staff that shocked me.

    1. Wow! This from a 3-star restaurant! It might have been totally shocking to me except....

      Years ago, when Bouley opened his original restaurant, I heard story after about how people with confirmed reservations were kept waiting 2 and 3 hours before being seated. That seems to compute with the experience rrems describes. (rrems, Were you kept waiting for your table?)

      In my view, no matter how many accolades the food receives, treating patrons that way is inexcusable. It so totally turned me off that, to this day, we have never been to Bouley in any of its incarnations. Your horrible experience serves reinforces my disinclination to ever go there.

      8 Replies
      1. re: RGR

        I seems that many Americans feel that being treated poorly goes hand in hand with fine dining which is ridiculous.

        I ate a Daniel a couple of years ago and had to send back a seared foie gras dish that had the consistency of cardboard. They were initially incredulous that someone would send something back and were rude about it, then apologetic after someone in the kitchen checked it out and saw that it was WAY overcooked.

        We have not been back since, as there are other places (e.g., L'atelier, EMP, etc.) where excellent service and stellar food are not mutually exclusive.

        1. re: heightsgtltd

          My late uncle always said that anyone who accepts bad food in a good restaurant deserves exactly what they get. I remember rejecting a bottle of wine (how dare a mere woman do such a thing?!) several years ago. Everyone was incredulous. It couldn't be. I (the poor patron) must be wrong. Until the maitre d' condescended to taste it. He certainly deserved what he got for taking a large sip of what I might have used for salad dressing. The bottle was whisked away. He personally opened and checked the replacement bottle which he wouldn't even serve. That got whisked away and he came back with the wine list and several suggestions for a different wine. The one we selected with his help and in the same price range was excellent. The experience - priceless!

          1. re: heightsgtltd

            I have no compunction about sending food back that is either not properly prepared or not served at the correct temperature. But I do have a question. How exactly does one managed to make seared foie gras the consistency of cardboard? As best as I know, if fresh foie gras is overcooked, it disintegrates into a puddle of fat.

            Happy to see that you've mentioned my favorite NYC restaurant, EMP, where, as you said, patrons always receive stellar food *and* superior service.

            1. re: RGR

              We were as surprised as you regarding the texture. It was tough and did not disintegrate like you'd expect. It appeared "fossilized" for lack of a better term.

          2. re: RGR

            Hi RGR,

            Yes, we were kept waiting more than half an hour for the table. That was bad enough, as we planned to order a tasting menu and it was awfully late getting started. It only got worse, as after an an amuse and the first course, the next course did not arrive for an hour. At the time that Bouley first opened, there were much fewer options for top-level cuisine than there are today, with many of the old-guard French places closing or just going downhill, so David Bouley's cooking was notable for its fresh take on haute cuisine, but today there are so many better options that I can't understand why anyone would risk being treated so badly. By the way, when we went to Danube several months ago (somewhat against my better judgment) we were kept waiting about 40 minutes for a table, with a reservation, though the service was fine. Unfortunately, the food was quite unexciting (I have a post on this). So at this point I have no inclination to patronize any of Mr. Bouley's enterprises.

            1. re: rrems

              Isn't he about to close this location and reopen in another one?

              So sorry to hear of everyone's terrible experiences - at my one lunch, we had v. courteous, professional and timely service. Places of this caliber shouldn't be so inconsistent.

              1. re: MMRuth

                Apparently, yes, but I don't think that will make any difference. The present location is not the original one, so will another move change things? I can't imagine it would.

                1. re: rrems

                  Sorry - didn't mean to suggest that - it was just a general query.

          3. Wow. I certainly empathize with your experience. What a nightmare, particularly when you are out with a group and the awkwardness of leaving hungry at 11PM might compel most to just quietly suffer through shameful service. Good for you for putting your foot down and for not tipping.

            I am however going to say one thing in Bouley's defense. I have never eaten there for dinner, and maybe that's where the disconnect lies - different service manager during the day? But the place is a favorite with my parents for their reasonably priced brunch, and I have been taking them there several times a year for about seven or eight years now. They're out of towners, love food, but my mother can be exceptionally picky and difficult to please. She has had her share of walk-outs in other restaurants, some more justified than others. But at Bouley the servers have repeatedly, consistently bent over backwards to make her happy, so much so that I found it even a bit hard to believe myself. Never once have we left with anything other than rave reviews about the food and service. The few times that a dish was not up to par, it was whisked away instantaneously and replaced with something better. The lunchtime servers had always been the epitome of professional, kind, unobtrusive service and the pacing on the courses always seemed to be just right.

            You are not the first person I've heard describe disappointing food and a different ethos during dinner service, and that's just really unfortunate. Rightfully you won't be returning there anytime soon, but I would encourage people who were interested in trying Bouley and might be put off by these stories to try them for brunch - you'll be spending a lot less and hopefully your experience will be consistent with mine over the years. Maybe they need to promote the daytime FOH manager!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Nikitenka

              I too haven't been for dinner but I've always had a good lunch experience. Sometimes the servers seem a bit lacking in confidence and hover but I can't really complain.

            2. I've had a couple of lovely experiences at Bouley owned restaurants -- unfortunately that was many years ago.

              My husband and I have had repeated problems at Bouley (2 times), the old Bouley Bakery (once) and Danube (once). Why did we go back? Some were business dinners. Also friends encouraged us that things had changed.

              I even tried speaking to the management about it, but to no avail.

              There are too many great restaurants in this city which show appreciation and concern for their guests for me to take a chance that I'm going to be treated with disdain at the Bouley owned ones anymore. And frankly, MANY of the top tier ones now beat them foodwise as well. This isn't the Mid '90's anymore...