Poor service at Freemans

Today New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni published his review of Lower East Site hot spot Freemas. While he seemed to enjoy a lot of the food, it was the inconsistent service he kept returning to. Coincidentally, Freemans is the restaurant I wrote about yesterday where I had poor service while dining with some friends. His review captured the experience we had at Freemans on Monday night.

Mr. Bruni reports there was "dismissive service." A "bossy, brittle man" wouldn't let his party order the artichoke dip while they read the menu–at least our server allowed us that! He describes a hostess who "had all the cuddly charisma of Cujo." Ouch. In the end Mr. Bruni gave it no stars, simply "Satisfactory."

Yesterday, Eater ran a two-part (Part I, Part II) interview yesterday with William Tigertt, Freemans' owner. As I read it, I was struck by how much Mr. Tigertt was concerned with getting the food just right for Mr. Bruni's visit. He changed things on the menu and worried about what Bruni and his party ordered. It was as if running a restaurant were only about the food.

But in my experience, and as Mr. Bruni's review demonstrates, a great restaurant is more than just its food. It's a welcoming environment that sets you at ease. It's a place that treats each and every guest with respect, whether they're a big-time restaurant critic or a few friends stopping in for an early dinner with babies in tow. Perhaps the New York Times review will spur Freemans to improve their service. I hope so, because I enjoyed their food, and I'd like to go back there again someday.

Update: Eater has a final update from the Freemans owner. Even after reading the review, they're still concerned about the food. My hopes for a service improvement are dashed already.

Gourmet names Chicago's Alinea number…

Alinea is number one in GourmetGourmet names Chicago's Alinea number one in their bi-decade list of the Best 50 Restaurants in America. Chef Grant Achatz "is redefining the American restaurant once again for an entirely new generation." This is great news and for one I agree completely with one of these "best" lists. I loved loved loved Alinea when I ate there in late May of this year. (See Alinea's most exciting food and the June 2006 archives for lots of Alinea-related links.)

Update: There's no link to this information because it's not online. It's in the October, 2006 Gourmet, the one with Moto chef Homaro Cantu on the cover. Mine arrived in my mailbox today.

In Japan McDonald’s tags food…

In Japan McDonald’s tags food with high-tech nutrition information. "Known as a QR Code, these printed codes look somewhat like a barcode and are scannable by many photo cellphones. All sorts of information can be packed into these little codes, from the website to find the amount of calories and fat in a Big Mac to a company’s contact information on a business card."

Babies and the tipping point

Last night I had dinner with four adults. One couple and one woman were accompanied by their babies (both well under the age of two). We were at a popular restaurant, but arrived at 6:30 when it was still empty. Over the course of two hours, we ordered appetizers, main courses, and dessert. We also ordered two bottles of wine.

During that time, the server was so-so in his attention to us. Our salad forks were cleared and no new ones were brought with our main dishes. When we asked for some additional items (another fork, salt, a fresh napkin), another server was short with us and exasperatedly asked, "Is there anything else?" After we finished our first bottle of wine, the servers cleared empty wine glasses rather than ask if we wanted more wine. They seemed irritated with us, as if they were trying to get us out the door as quickly as possible.

So, when the bill finally comes, our server puts it on the table and says, "The tip is included for parties of six or more."

I rarely mind when the tip is included for large parties, because I know they can be difficult. But usually the service that accompanies the included tip is well earned. I'm not sure that was the case last night. On top of it, we were a party of five adults. As I don't usually dine with infants, I'm not sure if it's common to include them in the count. But saying we were a party of seven seems like a stretch. Though I suppose we weren't a usually party of five either.

It felt like the server invoked the "six or more" rule because he found our table difficult and wanted to be sure of a large tip. We paid and left, but not before my friend (who herself had worked as a server for many years) left a note on the check saying the food was great but the service was bad.

So what I want to know is, is this common? Do babies count? Was the server in the right to invoke the large-party-tip-included rule? Or should we have protested? Or is this one of those nebulous areas of American tipping custom that make the whole process so frustrating you wish service were just included in the bill?