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Amanda Cohen Breaks Down the 'Us VS. Them' Mentality in Restaurants

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Here now, chef Amanda Cohen takes a break from moving her NYC restaurant Dirt Candy to a bigger space to tackle the lack of trust between restaurants and their customers.

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From Dirt Candy: A Cookbook
From Dirt Candy: A Cookbook
Ryan Dunlavey

For some perverse reason, it fills me with joy that one of the last reviews little Dirt Candy will ever get on Yelp is a one-star review from someone who didn't even eat here. I don't want to give Gerard M. a hard time, but his review of my restaurant is a teachable moment, and I would not be the big mouth I am if I did not do my best to teach it.

lt's a long review and you're all busy people who don't have time to sit around reading the internet, so allow me to summarize. Gerard M. was in love and wanted nothing more than to plan a special night with his vegan girlfriend for her 28th birthday. On the day of her birthday, after extensive research, he decided that Dirt Candy was that place. He called that afternoon and here the confusion began.

I answered the phone and gave the same spiel I've been giving for six years: We are very small, we have 18 seats, they book up months in advance, but we do hold a few tables for walk-ins and if he wanted to take a chance, he was welcome to come on down. In Gerard's defense, we have crappy phone service and Verizon tells me tough shit, they can't fix it. Also, since Gerard seems to hail from Barcelona, English may not be his first language. His interpretation of my response was that we ONLY take walk-ins and people had to show up and wait in line to get a table.

So Gerard and his lovely girlfriend came down. When they arrived, he was shocked to see no line and a full restaurant. This was not what he thought I'd said on the phone. Upset, Gerard spoke with one of my waiters who told him that most people do make reservations and walk-ins are a crap shoot. Depressed, he decided we were a bunch of liars who had tricked him. I'll let him take it from here:

As a big foodie, and a passionate traveler, I have been eating in some of the best restaurants in the world. I also have a few friends running amazing restaurants (some of them 3* Michelin rated).  I understand you want to make sure your tables are full. But please mind that there are limits in the way we want to catch people's interest.

Coherence, integrity and respect for people's time is also part of a brand. There are thousands of good restaurants in New York, not only because of their food, but also for the service they provide. If you really want a long term success in such a competitive market you may want to add some consistency to the message you send out. I hope it helps.

I've got nothing but sympathy for Gerard. First off, his girlfriend sounds amazing. If my husband planned a special night for my birthday and didn't start calling restaurants until that afternoon, and then took me to one where he thought we had to wait in line, I would stab him to death. But second off, no matter whose fault this was, it sucks to have your night ruined.

But what is the scam Gerard thought I was running? Let's break it down:

1.) Amanda Cohen wants to make sure her tables are always full. Therefore, she...
2.) ...tells people on the phone that she does not take reservations, tricking them into coming to her tiny restaurant where...
3.) ...they discover that everyone else had a reservation and all the tables are full.

Now, I'm no MBA, but there are easier business plans. I do hold a few tables for walk-ins on a first-come, first-served basis, and I do run a wait list every night in case a table no-shows or cancels at the last minute. I know it's not a perfect system, but it makes more sense than lying to people about whether or not I take reservations at all.

The restaurant business has become infected with a toxic sense of Us vs. Them.

But the point is: Gerard came down, saw that the information he thought he had was faulty, and instantly assumed I'd lied and wanted to take advantage of him.

That's where this becomes about more than just Gerard. The restaurant business has become infected with a toxic sense of Us vs. Them. Before giving me the benefit of the doubt and assuming there was a miscommunication, Gerard assumed I was a filthy liar full of lies. He was actually polite about it on Yelp (thanks, Gerard!) but I'm seeing this feeling more and more.

People call and ask if I have a reservation available and I tell them "no" because I don't have a reservation available. Their assumption? I'm saying "no" because they are ugly and I hate them. Someone asks for a different table than the one I have to give them and when I say "no" they immediately assume it's not for a good reason but because I want to ruin their evening.

And you know what? I get it.

Photo: Shutterstock

How many times have I been to a restaurant and felt like the hostess is looking at me the way she looks at something stuck to the bottom of her shoe? How many times have I ordered a $28 dish and gotten an enormous plate with a tiny speck of food in the middle and thought, "Are you kidding me?" How many times have I been stuck at a table jammed in a corner next to a bussing station or seen the wait staff suddenly disappear despite the fact that I'm dropping $400 on dinner for two? More often than I should.

Three of the most miserable meals of my life have been at restaurants with two or more Michelin stars.

There are restaurants in this world that are on cruise control, and they give the rest of us a bad name. There are crappy owners and crappy chefs and crappy servers and crappy hostesses who really don't give a damn about their customers. And I'm not only talking about small places. Three of the most miserable meals of my life have been at restaurants with two or more Michelin stars where I spent over $1000 but was made to feel like an un-person.

But most of us aren't like that. The cynical reader is going to dismiss what I'm about to say, but this is the most honest message I can ever give diners about restaurant workers: We want you to have a good time. Almost every single chef, at the end of the night, wants everyone to feel like their dinner was worth it. We genuinely want you to make you happy. Going out to dinner is like going on a blind date. The customer arrives full of hope. On both sides of the menu, everyone is full of optimism. And yet, in those first few crucial minutes, there are so many ways it can go wrong.

Restaurants deserve some of the blame. Getting a reservation can feel like an interrogation, and there are reservationists who act like they could care less if you show up, or drop dead. From the restaurant's point of view, so many customers no-show their reservations, or make reservations as a back-up plan in case somewhere else falls through (and then never call to cancel), that it becomes impossible to take customers seriously until they're actually in the dining room. In reality, only a few customers do this, and only a few restaurants, but it happens often enough that reservationists become suspicious of every single customer, and every single customer becomes suspicious of every single reservationist. Before you know it, the meal is off on the wrong foot.

I've been confronted with menus written entirely in Italian, then made to feel like a hillbilly when I ask questions. I've encountered sommeliers who make my table feel like they're going on an adventure, and sommeliers who sound like used car salesmen trying to get every last dollar out of my pocket. A waiter performing a script for the 5,000th joyless time can turn a fun meal into a grueling slog. But then again your waiter's mom might have died that night, she may have just found out she's being evicted, who knows what's going on in her life? But the customer, understandably, assumes it's their fault.

There has to be more trust between those of us who work in restaurants, and those of us who eat in them.

There has to be more trust between those of us who work in restaurants, and those of us who eat in them. When I ask if you enjoyed your meal, it's not a pleasantry. I genuinely want to know, because if you're not happy I want to fix it. When your server asks if you have questions about the menu, it's a real question. This is her job. If you don't like the guy pouring water every five minutes, ask him to stop. Chances are his telepathic ability to gauge your hydration levels are on the fritz that night.

People who work in restaurants deal with hundreds of customers a week, sometimes thousands. And unfortunately, the ones we brood over are the jerks. Sometimes this makes us regard all new customers through the lens of our worst experiences. Customers eat hundreds of meals in their lifetimes, but a handful of bad ones can put their guard up permanently. What I see happening is chefs, staff, and customers all regarding each other with suspicion, waiting to be tricked, waiting to be blamed. In reality, 99% of customers want to have a good time, and 99% of restaurants are dying to make you happy. But somehow we've all become trapped in what feels like a massive miscommunication.

So on behalf of 99% of restaurants I want to tell customers: No one's out to get you. There's a reason some restaurants do weird things. They may not make sense to you, but could you trust us? Restaurants have one goal in life, to make money. And the easiest way to do that is to help you have the time of your life. And to chefs, this is a service business. It's not about our egos, or our margins, or our precious, precious food. It's about making people happy. That's all most of our customers want.

I'm glad Gerard left that review, because it's a reminder to me that I may serve 60 or so people a night, but Gerard's girlfriend only had one 28th birthday. I don't think it was my fault, but that birthday got ruined and Dirt Candy was involved. So, Gerard, if you're in the city after I open the new Dirt Candy, drop me an email. I'd love for you and your girlfriend to come in and have dinner on me. Trust me, I'm not out to get you. I only want to make sure you have fun.

Dirt Candy

86 Allen Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 228-7732 Visit Website

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