Restaurant trouble is rearing its ugly head once again. As usual, the problem is money.
Barry Gross, of Silver Spring, is first out of the gate, with a complaint about a place in Rockville called La Fonte. Barry says he took his wife to dinner there in June. The couple each ordered veal dishes -- among the most expensive items on the menu.
But when the check arrived, management had tacked on a 50-cent surcharge, to cover the "additional two rolls that we requested after we finished" the first two, Barry writes.
Barry paid, but his feelings were rubbed as raw as a veal cutlet. "Shouldn't the management announce such charges before surprising their patrons with the additional hidden charge on the bill?" he asks.
Mary Sharif, a manager at La Fonte, said the menu does indeed warn of a surcharge once diners go beyond two rolls per table. She pointed out that La Fonte doesn't charge for extra cheese, extra sauce or extra anything else.
Then why charge for extra bread? Mary said the restaurant sometimes waives the fee, but reserves the right to charge it. She wouldn't say why the fee exists. My guess: Patrons who eat a lot of bread won't want desserts, salads or side orders, because their tum-tums will be stuffed. The surcharge for rolls is a way of dissuading potential big spenders from being nonspenders.
Asked to comment, Linda Ross, whose public relations firm, Linda Ross Associates, represents many D.C. restaurants, said she has "never heard of such a thing" as charging for extra bread. That goes double in middle-range or high-end places, Linda said. La Fonte certainly qualifies on that score. Its entrees range in price from $5.95 to $14.95.
Perhaps La Fonte should offer a verbal warning as the initial bread basket is being placed on the table. But the restaurant really ought to search its soul a bit. Gouging people for quarters is the surest way not to see their future dollars. What's next? A dime for an extra napkin? A penny for an extra packet of sugar?
Next, we jump the river to Arlington, where Loula Kinna took computer in hand as soon as she returned from a recent lunch.
She and some friends had just eaten at Asahi, she told me in a lengthy e-mail message. Each diner kicked in her share of the bill and left extra for the tip. As the crew got up to leave, a waitress surveyed the money left in the change tray and asked:
"Why didn't you leave a larger tip? Was the service not good?"
Loula says that she and her friends were "mortified." She says they always take pains to be sure an adequate tip is left, and they felt that the tip left on this day (about 10 percent) was adequate.
Still, the complaint from the server produced the result she wanted. Loula and friends each "reached into our pockets and each forked over a dollar."
Of course, the larger issue is whether they'll be back. The answer is still up in the air. But if this lunch bunch goes elsewhere, one pushy question from one pushy server will have cost Asahi considerable bucks. Loula says the gang has eaten there every Friday for the last six months. One member of the party had eaten there three times in one week.
"I think the server was completely out of line [in] asking for a larger tip," Loula says. "What do you think?"
I agree that the server shouldn't have raised the issue, Loula -- but I don't agree that the issue shouldn't have been raised.
The server should have notified the manager, who should have asked the question. That way, it would have sounded like genuine concern about whether the restaurant had fumbled the ball, not like a greedy attempt to line one's own pockets.
I also don't agree that 10 percent was a sufficient tip. Fifteen is routine. Twenty isn't unheard-of. This is why restaurants build a tip into the check for large parties. I hate that practice, and have written so many times. But this story illustrates why restaurants insist on it.
Jay Lee, manager of Asahi, said the restaurant has no policy about minimum tips, and no policy about whether employees should ask for larger tips. It's up to individual servers, and "I trust my employees," Jay said.
Asked to comment on this situation, too, Linda Ross said restaurants are sincerely interested in finding out if they've made a customer mad, and why. Linda said restaurants always want customers to speak up if service is poor, not just flee after leaving a skimpy tip. She pointed out that Asahi did not chase Loula and friends out onto the sidewalk, "screaming, `What are you, cheap or something?' "
I hope you'll give Asahi another chance, Loula. When you do, I hope you'll designate one member of your group as tip collector.
This person should make sure (before everyone has one arm in her coat) that the server has been taken care of. This way, there are no scenes, no embarrassing questions, no hurt feelings.
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