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Jun 5, 2008 10:28 AM

Eleven Madison Park goes off the rails

This past long weekend was a big celebration for my wife and I. We love New York, so we decided to do our celebrating there (we’re from Chicago). I wanted to find a great restaurant for the big night, so I spent a lot of time reading all the great information posted here (thanks all!). It seemed pretty clear that the near-consensus top pick for a very special occasion was Eleven Madison Park. I made the reservation and tried not to read the menu every day at work in anticipation.

When we arrived we were greeted with a smiling congratulations on our big day. The room is beautiful, and we were led to a romantic table and presented with personalized menus. We each picked a cocktail to sip while we decided if we were up for the tasting menu (OK, that actually took about 2 seconds to decide: of course we were up for it). The drinks came a bit slowly, and we were actually presented with “appetizers” ( a tray of 4 small bites for each of us – I remember a salmon and cream freche bite, and a delicious lamb empanada-type bite) prior to our drinks’ arrival. OK, unexpected that they arrived so soon but certainly not a big deal. The drinks do arrive and we sit back and start to enjoy (we waited for the drinks to begin nibbling – server take note!). At the halfway point of our cocktails, the first wine pairing arrives (champagne) followed quickly by the first course. Now I’m a bit miffed at the timing, but still hopeful it will be corrected by what I assume is an attentive, experienced serving staff. We finish our drinks without touching anything else, then move on to course 1. The champagne (sorry, I don’t have the list) was the best I’ve ever tasted. Generally if I’m up for a spluge, I do it on red, not sparkling, but this glass made a great case for a champagne splurge. The first course, caviar and poached egg, was outstanding. I felt myself settling in to be wowed. Alas, it was not to be so.

After the next couple of courses were timed just right – certainly not overlapping like the cocktails and first course, and with a few moments to savor each course before the next arrived – things slowed to a c-r-a-w-l. We don’t know what happened. It was a weeknight and getting later in the evening. There had been several 6-8 tops in our area of the room who were leaving. Was some of the staff (waitstaff? kitchen?) starting to do side work? Whatever the reason, after the foie gras (course 4) was cleared, we waited long enough to notice and start looking around the room quizzically, which went unnoticed. After the halibut plates were cleared, we waited. And waited. After about 15 minutes (!) with just bread on the table and several minutes of both of us clearly looking around for some help (and our server in the area the whole time), I have to raise a finger to get him to come by. (This should never happen in a room of this caliber, not after we’ve been clearly trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone. Not well after the point that someone should have been by with an explanation without prompt.) We tell him that it’s been quite a while since the last dish was cleared. He responds “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were wanting to slow things down.” (Why would he think that? We had given no indication as such. It just came off like he was trying to avoid blame.) We said no. He says he’s sorry again and heads to the kitchen. He returned with our dish (wonderful pork belly!) about 5-7 minutes later, which again seemed quite long unless someone had forgotten to start our dish at an appropriate time. But he was very apologetic, fine, we enjoy some more great food and move on, assuming the problem is behind us.

That dish was cleared, and we wait 15 minutes again, the last 5 spent searching the room for eye contact, visibly annoyed. I again have to flag the waiter down (really? Twice?). I say, more forcefully this time, “the timing has really slowed down since the foie gras.” He replies “I’m terribly sorry, your dish is being crusted right now. I’ll go check on it,” and off to the kitchen again. He returns to our area of the room with no dish, talks to two or three other tables while we try to get his attention, then disappears. Now we’re pissed. An assistant comes by to fill our water or something and we tell him we need to speak to a manager. He returns and says the manager will be by in about five minutes (are you kidding?) and I say no, we need to speak to him now. Assistant disappears, manager appears and asks what the problem is. We explain the situation, and that our server now seems to be avoiding us. He is very apologetic and says he will straighten things out. He returns a few minutes later with our beef dish. In those few minutes, we’ve just gotten more and more upset that we’re out celebrating and having to argue and deal with incompetent service issues. Manager returns and my wife tells him again that this has really been unacceptable, that we’ve been to great restaurants and never experienced issues like this (all the while throwing out compliments about the quality of the food). Manager is as apologetic and professional as it is possible to be and asks what he can possibly do to make things right, and won’t we please enjoy our next course. We say OK, but now we’re both just too upset to stay any longer. We take a few bites of the (again, exquisite) beef, catch the manager’s eye and tell him that we have to leave, please bring the check. He has comped the food portion of the bill and asks if he can contact any of the great restaurants in Chicago to “arrange for something special” for us. We paid the remainder of the bill and left, just wishing there were some way to get our big night back.

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  1. Hard to really know what happened or how bad this lapse on their part was but I think they were EXTREMELY generous in making it up to you and I am a very hard grader.
    I will leave it at that and I understand it was a "special" dinner.

    Out of curiosity, do you mind stating how much your bill was for what?
    2 tasting menus comped is about $300, trying to see what percentage of your total that is. Thank you for that info if you decide to share it.

    2 Replies
    1. re: foodonlygood

      I tried to make it very clear that the manager was great and did everything he could to make amends. But the evening should never have been allowed to devolve so far. The server should have involved others after our first complaint, if not before (when he noticed the lag without any mention from us - yes, that's the service I expect, and have generally gotten, at the very best restaurants). When we're out for a very special occasion, it's never about dollars and cents, and it's always a shame when the end result has to be measured that way. The tabs we paid at Alinea, Moto, and Avenues are long forgotten, but those very special evenings I get to keep forever.

      1. re: ryanandjess

        I get it about the occasion but I am sure if you were charged double or triple I think you would not say it is not about the $$ at all.
        A bad job reading how to serve, shouldn't happen but it did.
        Yes, the best services are seamless, they know what to do without much outright input.
        I am still not sure that waiting 5 min for the manager is such a big deal. You seem to have been overly indignant about it. Their transgression was you waiting an extra 20 min over the course of a long meal. If the manager had NOT come by within 5 min, then assume they are just screwing with you.
        I am not sure where I stand on the whole restaurant(no matter how high end) and service to particular needs. They should serve everyone equally, not offer you better service because you told them it was a special occasion. You pay no more than someone else who did not mention this. Or is this an unfair point in light of the $$?
        They can do a few extra things if they care to but seriously, why would anyone think that it should be much different if you have a reservation with no sidebars? In short, if you do not like the service, don't return and give them a bad review. Since it isn't about the $$, I assume you did not accept the comp and paid in full for the proper principle of the matter and now can vent as any other customer should.
        As Jsmitty said, make another big night with the gift you were given.

        I am not excusing them but if you say no $$ can make up for it. I am sure there is a number out there that could, so then it is just the $$ that were in play could not make up for it.

        Take them out of the rankings of top, top level places for food, decor and service. That is fair if you perceived 11 Mad as one of those. Though then you would not recommend it and not return.

    2. Is there anything more frustrating than going out for a special dinner and receiving such bad service it ruins the meal and experience. Seems to happen more and more these days.

      1. The original comment has been removed
        1. I'm very sorry to hear about your less-than-stellar evening at EMP. I think most of us generally assume that a high-end restaurant will deliver on those special occasions. Unfortunately, even a high-end restaurant is still just a restaurant; although one would think that such gaffes are unacceptable at such high prices, even the best restaurants (and people, for that matter) have off nights. It's unfortunate that this occurred during your special night out, however, I will say that the manager's attempts to try to make amends were about as generous as possible. It doesn't salvage your evening, but this fact is worth noting.

          I hope you managed to try and celebrate again... but with better results!

          1. I had a very nice experience at EMP for lunch. The food was excellent, of course, and the service was thoughtful and more than competent. Of course there are going to be isolated incidences of subpar experiences in every restaurant. Looks like the hammer just happened to come down on you at the wrooooong time. Sorry bout that.