Anticipating a dinner with friends from New York in town for fashion week, I booked a table two weeks in advance for a Monday night at Saturne, a renowned, self-consciously high-end "cave à manger,"* where on basis of reputation I'd expected a sparkling experience. Chef Sven Chartier and sommelier Ewan Lemoigne both previously worked at Pierre Jancou's Racines in its heyday, and Chartier had put in time at Alain Passard's L'Arpège before that. It seemed reasonable to think my friends and I were in the hands of professionals, when we arrived a few minutes after 9pm for our reservation.
We never sat down, however. To my totally incredulous dismay, Saturne had botched the reservation in a laughably amateur manner, and instead of apologizing for the restaurant's error - it was without a doubt their error, for several reasons to follow - the Lemoigne fellow instead refused to seat us and, with such unquestioning emotionless self-certitude that I began to suspect he was developmentally challenged in some way,** proceeded to insist it was my own fault.
To jump ahead a bit, I'd like to publicly wonder: is this where we are now, with dining? Have we so fetishized fine product and fine wine, on both sides of the service equation, diner and restaurant, that a place like Saturne can succeed despite its operators having no sense whatsoever of basic hospitality principles, even civility? The situation disimproved, as you might have guessed. My friends and I left for a last-minute reservation hastily gleaned elsewhere before the police arrived.
What happened, in all its mundane tedious detail, is this: despite the fact that when booking the table I'd requested that they phone me to confirm day-of (Saturne asks those making reservations to call again to confirm, an execrable diva-like practice), and despite my having nonetheless phoned again two days in advance to change the size of the table from five to six people, Saturne had cancelled our reservation, because their reservationist had misheard my phone number by a digit and was unable to reach me to confirm earlier that day.
Having previously run a restaurant with a month-long wait for tables, I can empathize with the uncertainty and annoyance restaurants face when trying to keep things full but no fuller than full. If a table flakes, that's 400€ or so out the window. That is why I'm assiduously communicative when making all reservations, regarding table size, hour of arrival, and so on. The only reason I didn't call Saturne to confirm that day is it was during fashion week, and as is customary during this time period I was maniacally busy. I didn't even notice I had received no confirmation calls from them, which silence resulted from their reservationist having misheard my phone number by a digit. I was told we could wait an hour or an hour and a half for a table, but even then M. Lemoigne could make no promises.
|Photo jacked from the excellent blog of Bruno Verjus.|
He flatly refused to accept any blame for these circumstances. I pointed out a free table our party's size at the other end of the room. Lemoigne said it was reserved. Then he walked away and began delivering plates to other tables while I was still mid-sentence talking very reasonably about what could feasibly be done to rectify the situation.
(Here, for the record, is all it would have taken to rectify the situation, which is frankly one that I have trained no less than ten teenage hostesses in LA to deal with.
You apologize for the error, even if there is some uncertainty whether it was your error. [In my own instance there was no uncertainty.]
You immediately put the guest at ease by assuring them - whether or not you have yet figured out how - that you will get them seated tonight, and that you will do everything in your power to make sure they have an awesome time once they get seated.
If there is at that moment an empty table reserved for another party, and if the error was indeed your restaurant's fault, the thing to do is to seat the wronged party at that table, and then prepare for a night of tight table turns and apologising to later tables. You will run a wait, but that is what charm is for.
If there are no empty tables - if there is physically nothing you can do for the guests - then you invite them to wait at the bar, and get them a round of inexpensive drinks. If it's going to be a significant wait, bust open an inexpensive bottle of white or sparkling wine, and later send out some charcuterie. Time it so that the guests never feel ignored, and that your appeasement gestures arrive at an effective pace.
If these simple guidelines - which essentially consist of just convincing the guest that you care about their plight - are followed, situations do not get out of hand, as they did at Saturne that night.)
With Ewan Lemoigne off delivering plates, having seemingly washed his hands of our problem having done less than nothing to resolve it, I cast about for someone else to speak to. There being no other service staff in sight, I wandered over to the kitchen, and, in the hopes that one of the folks cooking might be a co-owner, I asked aloud whether anyone could help us, since Lemoigne was ignoring us.
Getting no response, I then asked whether anyone at Saturne was acquainted with basic principles of hospitality?
I had brief interactions with M. Chartier and one of his chefs, neither of whom could help me with the situation. It was nevertheless nice of both of them to at least make the gesture of engaging with me, particularly since I must have looked like a total nutso by then.
I wandered back to the host stand and picked up the phone to make a reservation elsewhere (I got no service on my cell in the restaurant), which is when some other service dude waddled over, grabbed it out of my hands, and handed it to Ewan Lemoigne, who phoned the police - evidently his Plan B after blanket rudeness fails to appease people.
I can admit that all this was intentional on my part. When all is lost I tend to give as good as I get, figuring that one might as well keep complaining, since at best one's situation will miraculously get resolved, while at worst, one will have at least gleaned the satisfaction of sharing the squawking awkwardness with the guilty parties - in this case, pseudo-sommelier Ewan Lemoigne and the rest of the helplessly incompetent Saturne service staff, who ought to be stripped of their pull-taps and Reidel carafes and sent back to the Girl Scouts to earn a civility badge.
* Scare quotes pretty justified here. The term cave à manger refers to wine shops that double as restaurants. Saturne is sort of a parodically high-minded riff on this established trend. Going to Saturne to purchase a bottle of wine would be like entering an Apple Store to use the restroom.
** Should this indeed be the case, I'm sorry. But dude should find a new industry, or wear a sign around his neck or something so we know to treat him with kid gloves.
17, rue Notre-Dame des Victoires
Tel: 01 42 60 31 90 (but don't trust a thing they say)
A better place in the neighborhood:
Some recent reviews of these jokers:
- 15 Feb 2011
Disappointing and best avoided First contact: 1/5 poor ; 3 couples in line to get their reserved table on a not-so-busy night; no one offered to take our coats; actually people had their stuff lying on the banquet so it was hard for my wife and I to get to our seats; people had to move their stuff so it was embarrassing. Sitting: 2/5 cramped. You feel like you are having diner with the people next to you; the tables felt too smal; we could smell what other people were eating which was disturbing; at one point, I could hear the chewing sound made by my neighbor (I think he was eating with his mouth open to get a better feel of the flavor...). Space: 2/5. There is a nice airy dining with glass ceiling; unfortunately we were seated in a sort of long and narrow corridor leading to it; rather like the old disaffected smoking area! We found this to be frustrating at best, especially as we had made our reservation several weeks before. Service: 1/5. friendly but completely unprofessional and so slow... menus took a long time to come ..
- 9 May 2011
ate at Saturne this evening with a friend and we were both very much forward to trying out this restaurant. Unfortunately it was an expensive mistake and the experience was really quite disappointing. The service was worse than the standard snobby Paris bistro reception you could expect in a touristic brasserie and our plates were practically thrown in front of us like a school canteen… and well the food- under-seasoned, rather bland and lacking love all round. Yes everything was cooked to perfection but for the price and the write-up you would expect something a little more special.