Saturday, July 3, 2010
Last night, I was invited to celebrate a good friend's 30th at a trendy pizza joint in Sydney's Paddington, a place so groovy there's not even a sign on the street indicating what kind of restaurant it is, just a pile of unmarked pizza boxes inside the front window.
I was excited to be going back somewhere I'd enjoyed many impromptu evenings with loved ones, savouring tasty pizza and having cheap bottles of plonk poured into reimprovised water glasses by attentive staff. One of my former faves, and now post-baby, it also symbolised a return to form.
With said babe tucked away in the loving arms of his granny, we coasted across the harbour bridge, night lights twinkling in the winter air, classic Michael Jackson tunes pumping and the promise of crisp bases and fabulous toppings in our mind's eye.
It was the same restaurant: same busy vibe, the same owners we eyeballed on the way in, same yummy pizzas. But something had fundamentally changed.
As I brought forth our wine, I glanced down the table thinking it looked barren. Everyone had been there some time, perhaps they'd all become teetotallers when I wasn't looking? Fat chance. A girlfriend whispered that the restaurant was now licensed and they were still waiting for drinks.
In fact, after querying a staff member, it transpired they were both BYO and licensed, and I could pay $10 corkage per bottle to enjoy our two bottles of wine (which probably cost me $25 to buy). Checking with the husband of the birthday girl that it was ok for us to pop the cork and unscrew the lid, he relayed that staff had already told him 'no BYO for large groups'. But this waiter had just OK'd it? Oh well.
I brushed the inconsistency aside, happy with a glass of sparkling in my hand and the promise of a great evening.
We enjoyed our pizza as it came forth in dribs and drabs, though we had to chase up the food and a waiter took our plates away, even when there was more food to come. Still, I knew there was a special chocolate cake to be enjoyed, which had been dropped off that morning as a surprise.
Sadly though, the surprise had already been blown.
After accepting the choccy cake, the restaurant decided to call the person who made the group booking to tell them there was a 'no cake policy' and that it would not be served that night. The person who took the call was the birthday girl.
Surprise! You're getting a cake, but you can't eat it.
When I found this out, my shitty customer service radar started tooting its hooter at an alarming rate. Looking around though, I saw the big cake sitting reassuringly on the table. We sang happy birthday, she blew out the candles with cameras flashing, and we cut the cake.
And then, the strangest thing happened.
We all left the restaurant and ate the cake on the steps outside in the freezing night air, napkins stashed in our pockets. We took a photo for posterity, and probably, to stick it to the owners, who I had politely asked on my way out about their confounding new approach.
He explained that it was about their bottom line, said there were desserts on the menu, and if they did plate the dessert they would need to charge us $8-9 per person extra. Oh, and that it was a health and safety issue. He did mention that BYO was still available but didn't argue the point when I mentioned $10 corkage per bottle was probably not conducive to bringing a bottle of plonk along.
Still, I smiled, commented that I found it very surprising for what used to be such an accommodating venue, that many other restaurants didn't appear to face the same insurmountable problems serving birthday cake, and departed into the night, never to return.
It was fun, eating our cake on the footpath like dessert renegades, but the problem with venues who have been in business a certain amount of time is that they can become smug and run the risk of alienating their most loyal customers.
Sadly, I am no longer a loyal customer. There are too many venues in Sydney to enjoy without returning to the ones that have decidedly lost their shine and charm.
Now, with an unpleasant taste still in my mouth, how else am I to speak of the experience? And since many of us also socialise with our friends and networks online, what could these poor standards mean for a business's bottom line? If each of the twenty people at that table mention it to ten others, that's a couple of hundred people. But what if five of those at the table also Facebook, tweet or blog about it? Suddenly, thousands of people could be in the know.
After all this, perhaps it would have been easier for the restaurant, having accepted the cake, to have gone the extra mile and let us eat it. As a venue that prides itself on word-of-mouth marketing, they have taken customer service to new lows.
A love supreme? More like a no-name experience. And what a shame, too.
ASIDE: We ended up being charged $44 corkage, for two bottles that cost about $25 to buy. Go figure.
Have you had a bad dining experience? Leave a comment and tell us what you did about it!