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WHAT PRICE A PIECE OF RETURNED FISH?

I got a call the other day from a young and talented chef-restaurateur in the area who wanted to discuss something that had been bothering him: A party of four had come into his establishment (which, incidentally, is small and simply furnished but sophisticated in cuisine) one night recently, he said, and sat down to dinner.

All had gone well until they received their main courses. Two of the party had ordered the same thing--a halibut dish--and one of them liked it just fine and tore into it happily. The other, though, found it not at all to his taste--and, in fact, thought that the fish had gone bad. He told his waiter this. The waiter returned the offending plate to the kitchen. The chef-restaurateur and his staff tasted the fish and decided that nothing was wrong with it at all. The customer was so informed. He was also told that he could order some other dish to replace the fish if he so desired. He declined. And the fish was left on the bill.

The party of four was outraged, paid under protest, and stormed out threatening to boycott the place and to invite their many friends and associates to do likewise.

“Did I do wrong?” the chef asked me, vaguely, plaintively. “If I had taken the fish off the check, wouldn’t it have been the same as admitting that I had served bad fish--which I would never do? What do you think?”

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I told him what I thought: that every case was different, and had to be decided on its own merits, but that building and keeping a clientele was probably worth far more to a restaurant than the cost of an occasional piece of fish. But I also telephoned several other local chefs and restaurateurs, posing the case hypothetically, and asking how they would have responded had it happened to them.

Patrick Healy, chef at Colette in Beverly Hills, agreed that it was a subjective matter. “It’s not a cut-and-dried situation,” he said. “But I don’t think pride should come into it. A restaurant has to realize that if it offends a customer it’ll probably never see him again--and then ask itself whether it can afford to lose him.”

Lalo Durazo, co-owner of Lalo and Brothers in Encino, replied that it would depend upon the customer. “Somebody might come in and his wife is divorcing him and he just filed bankruptcy and his house has been repossessed and he’s in a foul mood and complaining about everything. But if he’s one of our regular customers, we’ll try to do anything we can for him. If it’s somebody we don’t know, I’ll confront him personally and discuss the matter with him, and see if I think there’s any integrity to his argument. Then I’d make a decision based on the attitude of the customer.”

On the other hand, Evan Kleiman, owner and executive chef at Angeli in Hollywood, said simply: “If someone’s truly unhappy, for whatever reason, we’ll deduct the questioned item from their check, or offer them something else. Our prices are so low that we don’t lose much if we do that--and we can still deduct it as a business expense, anyway. Above all, we don’t want people to leave our restaurant with a bad taste in their mouth.”

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And Leonard Schwartz, executive chef at 72 Market Street in Venice, laughed when I posed the problem. “I thought this was going to be a difficult one,” he said. “To me, there’s no question. If somebody thinks something is wrong with something they’re served, you take it off the check--period. I’d even offer them another serving of the same dish or another dish altogether and not charge them for it. There’s no accounting for taste.” He added something that is perhaps the best answer of all to that troubled chef-restaurateur: “The meeting of a restaurant and a customer is not--and shouldn’t be--an adversary relationship.”

TABLE TALK: The Alpine Village in Torrance launches its annual Oktoberfest on Sept. 6 (I know, I know--but the Oktoberfest begins in September even in Germany). . . . Rex Il Ristorante, downtown, closes for vacation for a week beginning tomorrow. . . . L’Hermitage also closes tomorrow for two weeks, while undergoing renovation. It reopens on Sept. 15 with a special champagne festival. For reservations, call (213) 652-5840. . . . Laredo, serving Tex-Mex food, is new in the Beverly Center. . . . Also new: Zilda’s Brazilian Delicacies on National in Palms, the Fish Kitchen No. 2 on Pico in West Los Angeles, and Calesa on North Tustin in Santa Ana (run by Mario and Nenuca Benetiz, whose Mario’s restaurants in Manila and Baguio, the Philippines, were well-known for almost 20 years).


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