A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted with a dinner at our neighborhood bistro, Café du Soleil, on New York’s Upper West Side. The reason? For one thing, it perfectly satisfied the carnivorous cravings of our family of four, including hangar steak and leg of lamb for the parents, a steak au poivre for the 12-year-old and a good old hamburger for the 16-year-old (all with some of New York’s best French fries). Beyond the food was the price of a high-end bottle of California cab -- $20. This was not some special wine offer but the very modest (by New York standards) corkage fee the restaurant charges, which permitted us to enjoy Hawk and Horse’s excellent 2007 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $65 and which I had received as a press sample. Clearly the owners want to bring in business, and with good food and an encouraging bring-your-own-wine policy, I look forward to our next dinner there.
For Jamie Wolff, a partner at New York’s Chambers Street Wines, it was a far different experience when he and some friends sat down at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Jamie began to relate the experience the other day when I stopped by the store (one of the country’s leading retailers of artisanal, small-production wines) and told him about a piece I had written about ridiculous wine markups. I asked Jamie to send me an email about his experience, and here is some of what he wrote:
“Somewhat against our will(s) we were talked into going out for an early dinner on New Year’s Eve. Not wanting a fixed-price extravaganza, we settled on Tamarind, a large and quite expensive Indian restaurant in Tribeca. It’s an interesting modern room in a vaguely art deco mode, with widely spaced tables and excellent acoustics – you can actually hear the other people at the table.
“Given the occasion (and the inventory at my fingertips) I wanted to bring some special bottles of Champagne to dinner, but was informed by the person answering the phone that they did not permit byob. I brought the bottles anyway, because in the past I’ve found that a sommelier, manager, or owner can often be more flexible about byob than someone who has to follow an official line. Thus a gentleman was introduced to me as “one of the owners.” He was very courteous but absolutely unwilling to bend. I offered to pay any corkage he proposed. No. I explained that I was in the trade in his neighborhood, and that I’d brought some special wines and would happily pay any corkage he proposed. No. I offered to buy wine from the list, but have them pour my wine in its place. No.
“There is little I understand about the challenges of operating a restaurant, but I’m in a customer-oriented business myself, and while we do sometimes have to draw a line, I could not / cannot even guess why Tamarind (and not a few other joints) follow this kind of inflexible policy. I was offering to pay more or less any amount for the privilege, and the cost to Tamarind would not have exceeded that associated with service and the use of their glasses. The net result for Tamarind was that we drank one of their least expensive bottles (which, to be positive, was tolerable but not more). We – well, I anyway – had a pleasant time but will certainly not go back, which, despite the only ok food, we might have done if our whim had been better received. I will certainly not recommend the restaurant to any of our customers – and we have several people a day asking about where they should eat in the neighborhood.”
Now, which restaurant would you rather go to? While most restaurants don’t advertise a corkage fee, it certainly pays to ask.