“You go into Carbone, and the whole thing is so fake…I went for dinner and I was embarrassed to be there”

Says Sean MacPheron in an interview with The New York Times. He’s the guy behind Waverly Inn, which sells $55 truffled mac & cheese to celebrities. He’s also the guy who’s allowing Tao, a Buddha-themed restaurant that sells $88 Wagyu ribeye to tourists, to open underneath his Maritime Hotel. 

So to be fair, the dude clearly knows a thing or two about fake. 

“Mr. Bouley is setting up a computer system so that diners can get digital images of what they’ve eaten before they even get the check.”
From an amusing article about the downsides of food photography (which we’re in favor of), as published in a January 2013 issue of the New York Times. This Bouley system seems particularly ridiculous. 
“I could go on against tipping, but let’s leave it at this: it is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

So says NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells in his fine essay against tipping, a ridiculous American practice where guests are expected to “voluntarily” add 18-20% to any restaurant bill to compensate waiters for their services. 

The Bad Deal has long argued that mandatory service-charges or European-style service-included pricing are fairer than tipping for both diners and wait staff. Earlier this year, we broke the news that Sushi Yasuda had eliminated tipping. We also published an interview with Manresa’s David Kinch arguing that tipping is the last major hurdle holding back dining in America. You know it: It’s time for tipping to go. 

“For dozens of Korean and Chinese immigrants living in Flushing, Queens, riding the casino buses has become a way of life. Twice a day, they descend on unmarked bus stops off Main Street to secure a $15 seat to the Sands casino in Bethlehem, Pa. Many do not gamble. They make the trip solely for the free gambling and meal vouchers they receive when they arrive, coupons they sell on the black market. A half-day trip to the Sands can net around $40.”
From a brilliant New York Times photo essay on how the promise of easy money at the casinos have lured a vulnerable segment our society into a never ending commute. As this quote reminds us, a free meal is never really a free meal. 
“While the service can be among the best in the city…it is not always that way for everyone. When people who are known at the restaurant tell me about their meals, they look blissful. Others look disappointed or resentful as they tell me about cramped tables in the neoclassical arcades around the grand sunken dining room and hasty, perfunctory service.”
Pete Wells downgrades Daniel from FOUR STARS to THREE STARS in his review for The New York Times. Do click through for the full read, as it includes a brilliant play-by-play account of his VIP treatment versus the every-man treatment of a colleague at another table, who orders the same six-course menu ($195) and encounters very different service.  

California's Most Expensive Restaurant Facing Claims of Underpaying Workers.4

Urasawa in Beverly Hills, where dinner for two can easily exceed $1,000, is facing state and civil accusations of underpaying workers and withholding overtime, the New York Times reports. The sushi bar, which previously housed Masa Takayama’s Ginza Sushi-Ko, is California’s most expensive restaurant, with a starting price of $375 per person before drinks, tax and tip. 

“The Internet might have made pimps less necessary, but today’s escorts are as marginalized as ever, and every bit as vulnerable. The police rarely help them when they are at risk, and they rarely take their disappearances seriously." — Important New York Times read about the new economics (and human cost) of pimp-free prostitution.  

The Internet might have made pimps less necessary, but today’s escorts are as marginalized as ever, and every bit as vulnerable. The police rarely help them when they are at risk, and they rarely take their disappearances seriously." — Important New York Times read about the new economics (and human cost) of pimp-free prostitution.  

Restaurants Paying Workers with ATM Cards Whose Fees Can Push Pay Below Minimum Wage4

Taco Bell and other restaurants are paying hourly employees with debit cards (rather than with checks or via direct deposit) that require those workers to withdraw their hard-earned money via ATMs, the New York Times reports.

The authors write, "In the overwhelming majority of cases, using the card involves a fee. And those fees can quickly add up: one provider, for example, charges $1.75 to make a withdrawal from most A.T.M.’s, $2.95 for a paper statement and $6 to replace a card.

It’s a raw deal for low-wage employees who work hard to make ends meet. Click through for the full NYT report, which gives us a fascinating insight into a very interesting class of Americans: Those without bank accounts. Turns out that without these cards, some of the un-banked would instead resort to check cashing services that charge even more. 

There’s your lose-lose dilemma of the day. 

“The only time the room feels small is when you are attempting to book one of the 28 seats, but even that is a fairly painless process thanks to a widget on Chez Sardine’s Web site that lists open time slots rather than making you guess. (I hope the technology catches on.)”
Hey OpenTable, Pete Wells is talking about you! He’s criticizing those reservation time GUESSING GAMES you make us play. End the madness and just tell us when there are available seats, OpenTable! 

The Marrow: When Critics Disagree

We always like to say that when critics disagree, the consumer wins, as diversity of opinion beats reading the same review over and over again.

No, you can’t really divine the truth about any particular restaurant (or from any individual critic) by comparing star ratings (Time Out’s is “out of five”, the rest are more or less “out of four”). But in this case, the stars are a pretty good indicator about how each of these critics feel about Harold Dieterle’s Italian-German joint. Some of them like it a lot, others, a little. (Bad Deal editor Ryan Sutton, of course, is the man behind the Bloomberg review). 

Here's a New York Times Story about how the director of admissions for a Greenwich Village nursery school and her banker husband look for a $1 million apartment.4

As the director of admissions for a Greenwich Village nursery school, she had had awkward street encounters with students and their families. Out of context, it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who. (Once, a mother approached her at the hairdresser.)” 

We realize this isn’t a topic we normally cover here on The Bad Deal, but somehow, for reasons we can’t quite explain, this piece seems to fit quite nicely on our site. 

Should Waiters Get a Higher Minimum Wage?4

Following President Obama’s call in the State of the Union to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, Pete Wells of the New York Times sparked a lively Twitter discussion among members of the food world about the welfare of restaurant workers. Commenting in this fine NYT Twitter roundup are Tom Collichio, Grant Achatz, Nortnern Spy, Ryan Sutton (that’s me!), and others. 

Now here’s the thing: The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour, Wells correctly reports, while $7.25 is the current the non-tipped minimum wage. Making up that difference depends not just on the generosity of the dining public, but how much you, as a waiter, are required to kick back to your bussers, backwaiters and bartenders. 

We at The Bad Deal are big fans of Per Se-style “service included” pricing, which ensures waiters earn a stable wage, and which also lets kitchen staffers earn a bit more too (that’s a big deal at fancy joints where wait captains make bank while line-cooks come home with much less). Then again, service-included pricing is a touchy issue in America, where many diners (incorrectly) think they deserve to control how much a waiter earns based on his or her “performance” that evening.

So, should waiters get a higher minimum wage? Feel free to chime in below. 

Pete Wells on Why Restaurants Can Be More Important Than Post Offices4

pricehike:

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells makes a profound point about the importance of restaurants and fundraising in our post-Hurricane Sandy New York. Here’s what he has to say: 

  • A good restaurant can be more important to its neighborhood than the post office. I suspect that’s why so many people have been donating to the many fund-raising sites set up by flooded restaurants. I can’t think of many for-profit businesses that people would pay to subsidize without getting a direct return on their investment. But if the place where families go to celebrate birthdays just disappears one day, it can leave a big hole in the community.” 

What Wells is saying reminds me of the way society, particularly the wealthy, subsidizes artists. Whether through foundation-supported grants, or direct gifts from high-net worth individuals, artists depend on our support to do what they do. And I’m not just talking about buying their paintings or photos; I also mean simply giving them money, without the expectation of something immediate or tangible in return, because we know that doing so will let the artist continue his or her lifestyle, and hopefully make our world a better place. 

Sometimes, members of the culinary cognoscenti tend to think of restaurants in very transactional terms; just look at my blog, The Price Hike, dedicated to tracking the minute (and sometimes not-so-minute) price changes at restaurants across the U.S. You really don’t get more transactional than that, and I’m okay with that, because, well, that’s what I do, and we only have so much money to spend! 

But the reason this quote by Mr. Wells strikes a cord with me is because he’s encouraging us to contemplate the joy of restaurants in terms that transcend “I pay $58 for a steak and I get twenty-two ounces of USDA Prime in return,” or even, “I’m donating $500 to this GoFundMe account and hopefully the restaurant will give me a signed cookbook as a present.”

This quote is about restaurants not just as businesses but as community centers, places that make us happy for reasons we can’t necessarily put a finger on, and sometimes it’s hard to put a quantifiable price on that.