A-R-R-O-G-A-N-C-E would be good for a start.
This multi-starred restaurant in San Francisco, where we have eaten six times and really liked the fare on most visits, has firmly moved into a zone, which can only be described as rigid and not fun.
Point in question: four of us from Napa Valley made the trek last week to Gary Danko, usually ranked Number One on restaurant dining lists in San Francisco. Maybe the departure of long-time sommelier Jason Alexander (his real name!) had something to do with our treatment, but surely, the knowledgeable and professional Maitre d’ had the authority to resolve our issue but chose not to.
Background: Being part of a winemaking team in Napa Valley, and having spent 30 years writing about food and wine and professionally reviewing restaurants, I often bring my own wines to dinner.
I have no objection to pay a corkage fee and when restaurants are extremely gracious and don’t charge corkage, I ALWAYS include what would have been the cost of the opened wines, which I brought, when calculating the tip, because why should the waitstaff get short-changed when management is gracious enough to waive the corkage fee? In this fashion, there are many meals in Napa Valley where the tip we leave equals the price of the food on our bill! We are, if anything, generous to a fault with waiters; for the record, we are not cheap, we are not whiners, we are not bumpkins.
And so, we took three bottles of wine to Gary Danko, where our foursome intended to spend the bulk of a Saturday night. Our reservation was for 9.30 pm.
I was told at the door that the corkage policy is that you may ONLY bring two bottles to dinner and that Restaurant Gary Danko charges $35 per bottle opened. I agreed to the terms and pointed out that the third bottle was simply a back-up – in case one of our primary wines was flawed, or corked, which happens these days with too much frequency.
Oh oh... the fun is about to end...
For starters, we ordered three glasses of Billecart-Salmon Rose Champagne at $32 a glass; we ordered one martini at $15. We ordered three bottles of sparkling water at $7.75 each. We ordered a delicious 2004 Vincent Girardin Puligny-Montrachet for $112. We asked the sommelier to open our two wines: a 2004 Leroy Vosne-Romanee and a 1997 Guigal La Landonne Cote-Rotie, which is considered by serious wine lovers to be one of the great wines of the world (maybe not the 97 vintage, but in general, this 100 percent Syrah Cote-Rotie is one of the wines you would choose to take to a desert island).
I have cellared the 1997 Landonne for some time, but contemporarily, if you wanted to replace it, you would have to pay $400 for the bottle. Even so, when we opened the wine, it was not a charming example; I have had this wine many times, even been to the cellar in Ampuis, France, and tasted different vintages of Marcel Guigal’s single vineyard Cote-Roties from cask with him. In short: while this was a modestly flawed bottle, I did not feel the wine would complement the delicious fare at Gary Danko. If anything, it was a comment about the quality of the food and the wine not being able to keep up with it.
So I called over the server and asked him if he would please open our third bottle, to replace the undrinkable Cote-Rotie, which we were not going to drink. Note: I was not asking for a bottle to be opened as a third beverage – I was asking for a replacement to be opened to take the place of the flawed Landonne.
I was told that this was an unusual request – we’d already reached our limit of two BYO bottles; I said that I understood, but that we wanted to open the third bottle (a 1991 Philip Togni Cabernet from Spring Mountain) to replace the less than perfect 1997 Landonne.
Ultimately, we were told that "Restaurant Gary Danko" (they always talk about themselves in the third person, which increases the drama and makes employees feel – and, I presume act – more important) would permit us to have a third bottle opened – but just this one time – (they underlined this part with great inflection in their voice) and then informed us that we would be charged an additional $70 corkage to open this third bottle!
How can you have "Highway Robbery" when you're not in a car?
I queried the charge, citing the fact that they were simply replacing an already opened bottle… and even if they felt compelled to recharge me for opening another bottle, why were they PUNISHING ME for the poorly made wine that I’d brought? I hadn’t walked in with a bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck, I wasn’t a novice at this game; I have, in fact, eaten at many three-star French restaurants to review their fare and not a one of them has ever attempted to make me, or other patrons, squirm in their plush seats by PUNISHING guests with an aggressive, unreasonable, elevated corkage fee.
In the end, our bill for the evening came to $848.47 for four people. And, for the first time that I can ever recall in 30 years of eating at, or reviewing, restaurants, I was compelled to leave NO TIP.
Rather than generously over-tip the mostly brilliant waitstaff here, I felt I had to make a statement – to “Restaurant Gary Danko” and the Matire d’ who insisted we be charged the extra fee – that they are part of the hospitality industry, not the in-hospitality industry, and that until “Restaurant Gary Danko” understands this, I refuse to contribute to the corruption of the morals of its staff for instituting and maintaining an offensive, and impudent, corkage policy.
Imagine; had the waiter, or maitre d’, simply agreed to open our replacement bottle and not made a fuss about it, we would have come away from our dinner feeling like kings. We would have told our friends to visit the restaurant; we would have planned to return ourselves. We would have graciously left a large tip. We would have returned many times in the future to spend thousands of dollars.
But from a point of shortsightedness, and the stupidity of charging an unwarranted step-up fee to open a third bottle -- replacing a flawed bottle for which we’d already been charged corkage – we will not go back to Restaurant Gary Danko.
There are many fine top-tier restaurants, and many sensational neighborhood restaurants, in San Francisco, which want our business, which go out of their way to get it and keep it.
There is no place in my life for a restaurant that heaps haughty, effete, belittling or arrogant behavior upon any of its patrons, me included; because, sometimes, the customer just actually happens to be right.