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Can You Trust Your Bartender or a Restaurant Review?

It’s one of the oldest professions.  Not that one.  I’m talking about bartending.  When you’re in a strange city, a bartender will be a trusted source.  When you’re at home, a bartender knows your name and drink of choice.  For some, it’s a way to make money on the way to bigger and better (say, an acting gig).  For others, it’s life.

One of the Oldest Professions

According to the ABC Bartending Schools, bartending has roots in ancient Greek and Roman times.  Before the 15th century, bartenders owned the bars and brewed the beer or distilled the liquor.  Fast forward to 1988 and you have Tom Cruise spinning bottles for tips by night and learning the business world by day in the movie, “Cocktail.”

For any job, most employees want several predictable things–a livable wage, a decent commute, and a good work environment.  Mark Twain once said, “I can live two months on a good compliment.” A little praise now and then goes a long way.  A lot of praise can make a career.

BARTENDER FIGHTS BACK

Such is the case with Tina Braunstein, a former bartender at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a highly rated restaurant outside New York City.  The chef-owner Dan Barber gets praise such as, he “…pains to showcase ingredients instead of obliterating them with too much heat and sauce,” according to New York Magazine.  When it opened in NYC in 2000, the New York Times’ Williams Grimes bestowed 2 stars.  In 2004, with a new branch on a former Rockefeller farm 30 miles north, the paper’s Frank Bruni upped it to three.  And thus begins our story.

If it's Weds, it's the Dining Section

Frank Bruni’s review began and ended with stories of encounters with Braunstein, “one of many extremely affable servers.”   Soon after, she was fired by the general manager.  She has sued on grounds of wrongful termination, seeking damages of $400,000.

The restaurant claims she was rude to customers.  The lawyers have argued she did not perform “at a level befitting a three-star restaurant.”

Emails between Frank Bruni and Dan Barber after the review ran in the paper continued to praise Braunstein.  In fact, her legal team subpoenaed Bruni to testify on her behalf.  That won’t happen because the New York Times argued and won “reporter privilege.”

But she may have screwed herself.  In her deposition, she recalled knowing her customer that night was Frank Bruni.  Many restaurant critics depend on anonymity, but it doesn’t always work out.  So, the question is, was the New York Times restaurant critic treated like a “Regular Joe?”  More importantly, would you be treated the same way?

TWO ISSUES

There are two issues going on here: the career of a bartender and the trust of a restaurant review.

At some big companies, bartenders are unionized and have benefits.  But that is not the norm.  A bartender is only as good as her last drink, his last open ear to hear a customer’s woes.  It’s high pressure, long hours, and many endure the work because they need the paycheck.  Don’t get me wrong–many bartenders earn six-figures with tips on $20 cocktails, union or not.  And for a social, high energy mixologist, it’s a chosen career.  But over time, a few have refused to stand idly by when things didn’t seem right.

Tips From Your Bartender

It’s not the first time a bartender sued an employer for wrongful termination.  In 2005, career bartender Darlene Jesperson, lost three court battles with Harrah’s Entertainment.  She was fired from her Las Vegas casino job in 2000 for refusing to wear makeup.  The company held that its grooming policy requiring women to wear makeup and men to have hair trimmed above the collar among other rules didn’t create a greater burden on women than men so was not a form of discrimination.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed.

One story doesn’t have an ending yet.  John Vendikos tended bar at Yankee Stadium for 27 years.  The 73-year-old was forced to re-apply for his job at the new stadium.  His interviewer asked, “Why should I hire you? You’re an old man.”  Vendikos thought the man was kidding.  But then he didn’t get hired and he filed an age discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The team claims they have hired many people older than 65 for the new stadium.

WHAT’S A STAR BETWEEN FRIENDS

Whether money burns holes in our pockets or we count pennies, we don’t want to have a single bad restaurant or bar experience.  And as adventurous as we may be, sometimes you want to know if the food will shine, if the atmosphere is a particular way, or if you’re going to leave hungry.  You want to know if the place you pick for your sweetie’s birthday dinner is going to deliver.  So we read reviews.  Sure, you can’t believe everything you read, but it’s nice to know most of it is accurate.

Food is like art–pretty subjective.  One person’s “delicious” is another’s “ick.”  But whether it’s the pizza place in Brooklyn where the line goes down the street or the French Laundry where you need to call months ahead for a shot at a reservation, if the food sucked, so would the following.  Some places have yellowed stellar reviews curling off the walls along with the first dollar made.  That’s where you want to eat if you’re not feeling like rolling the dice.  The atmosphere can be a winner or a loser, but food must shine and service is a close second.

Reviewer anonymity is essential.  Ruth Reichl, New York Times food critic for six years, revealed that she wore wild guises when visiting restaurants after she left the paper in her 2006 book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.  Restaurant employees knew what she looked like, as Ruth.  But as any of her aliases–she was rarely discovered (that we know).  Sure, Tina could have “outed” Bruni at the bar. But reviewers visit restaurants several times before they write.  Did he see Tina every time?  She made quite the impression, but did she actually treat every patron like she treated Mr. Bruni?  How much did that customer service contribute to those three stars?

WHAT’S A HUNGRY GIRL TO DO

I’ll keep reading reviews.  The Dining section of the Wednesday NYT is one of my favorites.  Even if I’m not Frank Bruni, I’ll still say please and thank you, I’m usually a patient patron, and as a former waitress, I tip well.  And that’s worthy of the “Frank Bruni” treatment any day of the week.

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2 comments

1 Gary { 01.13.10 at 11:07 am }

I wanted to leave a second comment on the Lincoln College post but wasn’t able to; how do you do it?
For today’s bartenders, they need to know about lots of new beers and the syles out now … and what foods go good with ’em.

2 The Scribbler { 01.17.10 at 2:33 pm }

The Lincoln College post is under the “News” category. You can find it there!