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Aug 30, 2009 09:44 PM

Fine Dining WITHOUT the Southern Hospitality: Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina

My family, friends, and I were in North Carolina for my graduation from Chapel Hill. While there, we decided to take in the Magnolia Grill because of its reputation for fine food in a nice atmosphere. Once we arrived, the nightmare began. We were seated promptly in front of an area through which one could view the kitchen and an area highly trafficked by the wait staff. We promptly asked to be moved to another table (it was a Thursday night and at no time during our visit did the restaurant fill to capacity). We were curtly denied by the manager who said that there were no other tables available for a party of 5 even though we saw several that could have been pushed together to meet our needs.

We ordered drinks from the bar and had 4 appetizers while waiting for our entrees. When my 79 year old mother received her veal chop, she found it too salty and was asked by our server if she would like to return it, to which my mom replied yes. Since we could see into the kitchen, we were able to witness the manager pow wowing with the cooks...a few seconds later, the manager returned to our table with my mother's plate and asked her what was wrong with the plate. My mother responded that she found the chop too salty and felt that it would not be good for her to consume so much salt because she has hypertension. The manager responded: "The plate has been prepared the way it was supposed to be and therefore, you will have to pay for it. Of course, you are free to order another entree, but I will have to charge for that as well." My mother declined and sat there without anything while the 4 of us ate our dinner. Needless to say, we were very embarrassed and felt humiliated. Adding to our humiliation was the obvious discomfort of our server who was excellent and tried her best to make the best of what she clearly recognized, as a bad situation.

During the dessert course, our very sweet server brought complimentary desserts for my mother and one for the table. At no time did the manager come over to apologize or to see how things were going. The coup de grace was during dessert when we were fortunate (because of where we were sitting) to be able to witness the cooks spraying cleaning fluids over the hood of the stoves and ovens at the end of the night. It's hard for us to believe that this is the "best" of fine dining in North Carolina. We will never return to the Magnolia Grill, we won't tell others to go, and we will discourage all those who tell us they are even considering the place.

Disappointed in Durham

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    1. What a horrible story. I've never been treated that way there, but totally believe you. What a shame.

      1 Reply
      1. re: LulusMom

        1) with everyone moving into duke and unc this is not the best time to dine at most locations in chapel hill or durham. the barkers are also out of town in august most years -- not an excuse but "it is".
        2) i've eaten at magnolia plenty of times and from the bar with a good view of the floor -- those seats will fill up and are booked, they are careful with their reservation planning. given how loud it can be there you should be thankful of that -- they could generate many more covers by cramping the reservations.
        3) i'm surprised they didn't swap out the entree -- that was a poor decision by the floor management
        4) they've been around for a couple of years -- i suspect the cleaning procedures have some thought behind them

        i'm sorry you didn't do more research on magnolia grill. i see you are a somewhat prolific poster -- the pros and cons of magnolia (noisy and "trafficked" seating are the two main ones) have been well discussed here and other places. you could have requested quieter seating in the "back" dining area. your opening shot at "fine food in a nice atmosphere" i think shows the lack of research or executing upon whatever research was done.

        i'm very sorry for the poor treatment your mother received. i think a phone call or letter to ben barker would be more appropriate than trashing a very good restaurant on an online message board, though. i think you have a legitimate complaint about that treatment, but the tone of the rest of your post and the conclusion are a bit over the top. you basically have a very legitimate beef with the floor manager -- but you don't mention once the rest of the dining experience.

        i love magnolia and the food, but i've counseled more than one person/couple/group when choosing a special event restaurant in the area to strongly consider that the atmosphere is not "intimate" -- it is a bit loud and busy.

        congratulations on graduating from the "right school", though.

      2. If you do wish to try again with a part of 5 for a nice dinner, I would suggest Bonn Soiree (sp?). It is closer to UNC and a bit more intimate. You may or may not have already been there during your tenure, but I would think it would fit the bill just fine.

        1. Did you experience this back in May during graduation weekend, or was this a summer graduation? In any case, the two worst times of the year to dine anywhere in the Triangle is May graduation and August move-in.

          A few comments where I think your criticisms are perhaps somewhat unjustified in light of the ability to do some preceding due diligence:

          1) Magnolia Grill has never claimed its atmosphere to be a quiet, fine dining sort of atmosphere. It's a place where the food is supposed to be the star, but the atmosphere is boisterous. Any quick search of any published review of the place online would have revealed that.

          2) The entire aim of Magnolia Grill's dishes are to combine 40 different ingredients and somehow make them all work together. It's like you take the old Southern "dump cooking" method, refine it through an Alice Waters lens, and get one of the best examples of the nouveau Southern genre. Because of this, the kitchen there is unable to do "substitutions" or modifications of ingredients. It's like pulling out a card in a house of cards - the entire thing will crumble, based on the underlying concept upon which the dishes are constructed. The menu itself clearly notes this at the bottom. Given that, the appropriate thing for a customer at MG to do is to make any dietary restrictions or concerns known prior to ordering. If your mother has hypertension, a quick mention of that to the waiter/waitress would've been met with respect and recommendations as to which dishes would suit her needs, and which ones wouldn't. Respect is a two-way street, and the diner needs to respect a restaurant's vision too.

          The kitchen there doesn't misfire. They simply don't. If it had been a misfire, I'm sure they would've replaced your dish. But when you're dealing with the underlying construction of the dish itself executed the way they want to, well it is sometimes up to a patron to find out more about just how exactly a dish is constructed if they have certain tastes or needs. No need to jump blindly into it - food is a conversation, so here it seems like some conversation should've taken place during the ordering process.

          5 Replies
          1. re: mikeh

            I beg to differ.

            The kitchen there *does* misfire on occasion, and your unequivocal defense is "perhaps somewhat unjustified in light of the ability to do some" due diligence. A significant number of the reviews of Magnolia Grill over the years have definitely dunned some of the entrees. Most people think they shine at the appetizers and the desserts, but it is not uncommon to hear people who have dined there to laud those aspects, but to criticize the entrees.

            I've personally taken issue with their service before, in several ways, which I won't bother to readdress here.

            Personally, between the loudness / crowdedness issues, and the results of some of my experiences there, I choose to put my money into other places on our restaurant rotation. If someone else wishes to treat, well that's another thing. Then I go and keep my mouth shut.

            I also find that restaurants that are unable or unwilling to return dishes which do not suit the taste of the patrons, particularly 79 year old women, are not suitable for me to grace with my money. The Barkers certainly would have heard from me in spades regarding this issue, and in addition, I would put it up anywhere I thought I could provide feedback.

            If their attitude is "let the buyer beware", they should note that they have an explicit policy of this. Otherwise, they should make the occasional return. If they think someone is abusing this privilege they should ask the customer not to return.

            I find that *really excellent* chefs are able to easily accommodate changes in their dishes, *especially* when they're overly complex assemblages. Their "no substitutions or modifications of ingredients" policy just indicates to me that they're not really *that* good, or that the substitute chef in the kitchen doesn't know enough to know how to adjust it.

            I could go on, but really, why bother. If you like the place, fine. But your attitude to the OP just adds insult to injury of their experience, and in my opinion, unjustifiably, given my personal experiences over the past two decades there.

            1. re: fussycouple

              I guess there's a fine line between a kitchen misfiring and simply not liking the way a dish was conceived. I've had a few dishes (just entrees, never apps. or dessert) at MG that I found could have been greatly improved if one or two changes had been made to the recipe. Perhaps I'm too deferential to restaurants when it comes to not sending back food? If I don't like the concept, I keep my mouth shut and don't return. If there's a serious error in the outright execution of the dish (undercooked, foul meat, etc.), then I'll send it back.

              Maybe this is just a matter of one's personal approach to dining. I was just trying to come up with MG's best possible defense to the particular treatment that OP received, given their overarching vision. If the argument still doesn't hold water with some, then that's okay. But it's always good to be acting with as complete information as possible.

            2. re: mikeh

              "The kitchen there doesn't misfire. They simply don't."

              When an elderly woman is left sitting with no dinner because she isn't comfortable consuming her dish due to health concerns, the entire establishment has misfired. This party clearly wasn't angling for freebies - they seemed to have no problem paying for several other dinners - but it's more than a little tacky to make a patron feel that badly about not wanting to consume a dish.

              1. re: Suzy Q

                At most fine restaurants (Town House in Chilhowie, VA, for example), they always ask upon a party making reservations whether the party has any dietary restrictions that need to be taken into consideration, and they ask again upon any guest's arrival.

                Upon further consideration, maybe if MG is to have such a stringent policy on not sending back dishes, they should enact a similar notification program. Because once you start dining somewhere, you're a captive audience. The restaurant business and customer's expectations are very different from, say, attending a movie you end up not liking and then asking for a refund, which obviously wouldn't fly.

                If I had been in such an uncomfortable situation personally, I would've walked out. I wouldn't have subjected an elderly table-guest to sit there watching the rest of us eat. If the restaurant tried to sue me or something, I'd say bring it on. See if they survive the negative publicity.

                1. re: mikeh

                  We were at MG a few weeks ago and had a much different experience. My wife cannot eat peppers in any concentration. The crab cake appetizer was loaded with these to the point after one bite she was done. She explained to the waitress, who apologized, and removed the dish from the bill without question.

                  That is exactly the experience I would expect at a top notch restaurant. It is most unfortunated the original posted was not treated in the same manner. The Barkers would most certainly would not want a diner to leave with such a poor impression.

            3. The original comment has been removed