Meno Mario–How one nightmare ended my rocky relationship with the Mario Batali restaurant empire

I’m passionate about great food, from 4-star to Fair Food.  I have traveled whole concourses on layovers at the Cincinnati Airport, just to grab some Gold Star Chili (not quite Skyline, but close enough), and once flew to Chicago to blow a year’s vacation budget on 2 transporting meals—one at Moto, the other at Alinea.  I am not a rich man (I’m a musician, helleaux…) so such excursions are not economically frivolous for me.  I am a decent home cook, not a chef, and my passion is discovering and enjoying great food.  When said food is purchased and eaten in an establishment where tablecloths waiters, hosts, or non-plastic utensils are used, ‘eating’ becomes ‘dining,’ which encompasses not only food but atmosphere and, crucially, treatment and service.

I feel the need to mention this because what I’m about to write is something I strive not to write, which is an old-fashioned cuss-and-bile filled rant, the tenor of which one may surmise from my wisely rejected working title, which was “Go Fuck Yourself, Mario Batali.” This working title should give some idea of my level of frustration on this matter, frustration occasioned not by one specific negative experience (which was profound, and which occurred on Thursday, March 18th 2010 at the Batali/Bastianich Italian steakhouse Carnevino) but by cumulative shitty treatment I’ve received at various restaurants under the Batali/Bastianich banner.  This leads me to conclude that the failures outlined here are not specific or situational, but systemic and institutional.  Simply, the Batali/Bastianich business model seems built on a radical notion: that if the quality of the product is extremely high, then customer service becomes a non-issue (a non-issue for the rest of us, I mean—celebrities, food industry folk, and critics/media are of course are treated like royalty, a move that ensures great reviews and ongoing press).  At Carnevino for instance there is no doubt the staff cares about the food; it’s you the paying customer they have no use for.

Some history: I’ve been in Las Vegas now for nearly a year; prior to that I lived in New York, home to the majority of the restaurants in the Batali empire.  I became a huge fan of his food, mainly at Lupa, Esca, Casa Mono, the Spotted Pig, Otto, and even the failed Bistro du Vent.  For me a Mario Batali restaurant means great ingredients, rustic, gimmick-free preparations, very good value, and an overall casual/not-stuffy vibe.  Service was sometimes good, sometimes awful, but the food was so good, and so cheap for the quality, it almost made up for it.  But great food can’t overcome truly awful service, and I finally wrote off two places—gastro-pub The Spotted Pig and the pizzeria/wine bar Otto–because I was tired, basically, of being treated like shit by the staff.

A few examples:

After waiting an hour for a ‘table’ at The Spotted Pig a few years back, my dining partner and I were finally crammed in to the over-packed dining room–at the time, furnished around a sort of East Village meets junk shop theme.  Uncomfortable?  Yes, but I knew that going in.  No matter, the sheep’s milk gnudi and awesome burger awaited us.  Settled into our re-purposed elementary school cafeteria chairs around our thimble-sized table, we found the menu (overhauled since my previous visit) to be a confusing jumble of appetizers and entrees, with nothing to indicate which was which.  Items like warm lentil salad and chicken liver on toast might be a meal,  or they might be two bites; the menu remained mum on the subject.  I gamely ordered four items from our t-shirted waiter, saying we’d start with those and see how we did.  He immediately replied “the chef prefers that you order all your food at once.” Oh, I forgot, it’s about what the chef wants!  Said the sucker to himself, who was merely paying for and eating the food.  Of course the real reason the restaurant wanted one food order is to turn the table over as quickly as possible, and cycle through yet another party too hip or stupid to realize how obnoxious a statement such as ‘the chef prefers you order all your food at once’ is.  That happened 4 yrs ago; I’ve never been back.

Batali’s popular Otto was more the abusive lover who kept apologizing and bringing me flowers the next morning, and sweet-talking me into telling the doctors my black eye came from falling down the stairs.  Oh my friends tried to intervene; they’d look at me, shaken and baffled, as we stood crammed into the noisy ‘train terminal’ themed wine bar, as our promised ’45 minute’ wait stretched past the 90 minute mark.  What is this fresh hell and why are we still here? Their faces would silently plead.  “You don’t understand–the olive oil gelato…” I’d rationalize, sounding more like an addict than a connoisseur.  But like all abused spouses, I finally reached my ‘burning bed’ moment.

I hadn’t been to Otto in some time, but was convinced to give it another shot by two friends who had heard me rave for years about the pizza and gelati.  We met there on a Sunday afternoon, four adults and two kids in total.  I knew that showing up with kids was putting a target on our backs, but thought that the off-peak time (a Sunday at 3) would mean a thin crowd and therefore decent service.  I was right about the thin crowd.  There was the typical “you’re lucky to be here” attitude, the huffy “I’ll ask the chef” grudging acquiescence to kid-friendly orders (pasta with butter and cheese—for which we were charged the same price as the menu pastas–the leaving off of fresh basil from a cheese and tomato pizza).

But my “camel, meet straw” moment  of that  Otto visit was the following Samuel Beckett play between the wait staff and myself:

Me:  “I’d like the Pane Frattau pizza (tomato, pecorino and egg), with arugula and prosciutto.”

Waiter 1: “I can’t do that.”

Me: “I know it’s an extra charge, that’s fine.”

Waiter: “But the chef won’t do that.”

Me: “Uh, it’s what I always order.”

Waiter 1: “We can’t do a side of prosciutto.  You may have ordered another pizza.”

Me: “No, I always get the Pane Frattau with arugula and prosciutto.  In fact, the reason I always get the Pane Frattau with arugula and prosciutto is because when I first ordered the Pane Frattau pizza, the waiter employed by Otto to take my order said ‘you should really try this with arugula and prosciutto, it’s an extra charge but it’s amazing.’  So I did that, found it to indeed be amazing, and I’ve ordered it at least 5 times since with no problems.”

Waiter 1: “One moment.”

Exit Waiter 1, rolling eyes.  Enter Waiter 2.

Waiter 2: “I understand you have an ordering question?”

Me: “Not really, I just want the Pane Frattau pizza with arugula and prosciutto.”

Waiter 2: “Ahhhh.  Okay, I understand.  I can’t do that, but what I can do is  the arugula and prosciutto pizza, and we can add the fried egg.”

Me: “Um, is that a pizza that contains the presence of arugula, prosciutto, and one fried egg?”

Waiter 2: “Yes.”

Me: “Well that is what I thought I ordered the first time, but thank you for correcting me.”

Waiter 2: “So you’d like the arugula and prosciutto pizza with a fried egg.”

Me: “yes, thank you, that would be amazing.”

In any Batali restaurant, ordering off the menu, or even asking for alterations in individual dishes, is usually met with derision and scorn by the wait staff; you may as well be wearing a “kick me” sign for the rest of your meal.

Just Say (Carnevi)No

Suffering from flashbacks to these and other experiences, I managed to avoid all of Mario Batali’s Las Vegas outposts for nearly the whole first year I’ve been here.  Oh, I’d stroll the Palazzo, wistfully perusing the menus of B&B and Carnevino, but found the more exotic items I enjoyed in NYC missing, and the inflated prices absurd (similar items found at Otto, such as sides and pasta courses, are marked up 50%-100%).  So with value and exotica being off the table, avoiding Batali’s Las Vegas spots was an easy decision.  But on two occasions, for different reasons, I tried Carnevino.

My first visit to Carnevino was in December of 2009.  The bearish Josh from San Francisco, who astute readers will recall from an earlier Sage post, was attending a pharmacy convention at the Palazzo, and he had generously agreed to treat me to dinner.  I warned him that was a dangerous thing to say to me, but he assured me he would not suffer from sticker shock.  I immediately steered us to (sadly now closed) Restaurant Charlie, which I’d been dying to try.  Josh wasn’t really a fish person and the menu was limited in its selection of non-swimming proteins, so he nixed that.  My second thought was to take him to the dependably great First Food and Bar, but I thought it would be a waste to squander the opportunity for a more gourmet experience since we both had the time to spare.  So we ended up at Carnevino.

I didn’t write about this first experience because I thought it would be a little unfair, given it is primarily a steak place and I ordered a pasta course and osso buco.  The food was mostly forgettable—the osso buco was dry and stringy, and came on a lump of dried-out saffron orzo.  The duck liver ravioli appetizer was very good, though not worth $17.

But of course the supposed star at Carnevino is the steak.  Josh and I were amused when our waiter, with a straight face, mentioned that one extra-aged steak was available ‘for $100 per inch.’  Josh managed to resist this, as I stifled laughter, and ordered a more pedestrian $65 dollar steak instead.  This came on a white plate, with not a fleck of parsley, or garnish of any kind (sauces can be had for $5 a pop).  I thought a dish or two of exotic salts would have been a nice touch (would have been something, for God sakes), but perhaps that would have ruined the stark tableau.  Maybe some enjoy this kind of plating, with its whiff of Hemingway; its minimalist masculinity.  I’m not one of those people—to me it seems petty, Flinstone-esque and the opposite of elegant.  In any case the bite of Josh’s steak I had did indeed taste like steak, and we agreed it was a good steak that was much like many other good steaks, and nothing to write home about.

Despite this, I decided to give Carnevino another try for its late night bar menu, offered at a 20% discount from 10pm to midnight.  Our coworker Dave P (aka The Dave) had invited us for after-show drinks/nosh, as he was meeting his visiting mom and mom’s companion.  The Dave suggested First Food and Bar, but I talked the group into trying the Carnevino bar menu, and we were joined by TLV’s Mike Dobranski (who had enjoyed the bar on his first visit) and his wife Kerry.

Four of us, minus Mike D and Kerry, arrived at about 10:40.  I told the hostess at the host stand that we were a party of six, and were interested in a table in the bar.  I could see that the bar had two big tables which were both occupied, and that café tables were the only ones free.  “Oh, you can just seat yourself,” replied the hostess, who then returned to the hard work of staring off into the middle distance.  Message: you’re on your own.

So as The Dave, myself, Dave’s mom and mom’s companion walked in, The Dave and I quickly surveyed the space and strategized.  We saw two café rounds that a previous party had already put together, with four chairs around them.  Although the table hadn’t been cleared, we thought this arrangement was a good start and The Dave and I began to round up two extra chairs.  It was then that we were accosted by a waiter who looked for all the world like President Barack Obama.  “That table has NOT been cleared!” were the first words uttered to us by Not President Obama.  “Yeah, we have a party of six and were just bringing some chairs over,” replied Dave.  “You don’t want to sit in the dining room?” snapped Not Barack.  “Um, no we really wanted drinks and the bar menu,” The Dave replied apologetically as I stood mute, having post-Batali stress syndrome flashbacks.  And so it begins, I thought.  “PLEASE wait until I clear this,” huffed Not Barack, even though we still remained standing, and were clearly going to wait for that to happen before sitting.  So we’d been dissed by two staff members within the first 5 minutes–a new record!  By the way, those were the last words uttered to us by Not Barack; he probably had to go sucker-punch some guest who asked for ketchup.

So not a good start.  A bad start.  The worst possible start, I’d argue.  Mike and Kerry arrived shortly after this episode.  I was about to suggest we just head to First when a bartender came by with menus.  He smiled, made eye contact, actually greeted us, so I resisted the urge to bolt.  Things were looking up.  He asked if we wanted food menus, and we mentioned we wanted to bar menu.  His face may have fell, I’m not sure; in any case he never returned and it was clear that we were flying coach.

A waiter came by several minutes later to take our drink order.  The Dave’s mom’s companion ordered a whiskey sour, and asked for it to be shaken, shaken vigorously, so there would be foam on top.  The waiter wore a mild scowl throughout.  I asked for water for the table, since none yet had been offered.  About 10 minutes later four of six drinks arrived.  Still no water.  In the meantime, we watched at least 6 suited hosts, captains and sommeliers fawn over the tables around us—who had wisely ordered from the big-ticket dinner menu—refilling waters, bringing more bread, and watching one another performing fetishistic rituals with knives on the various steaks ordered by the blue-chip customers around us.  For every waiter performing a task, there were at least 4 staff persons watching with hypnotic devotion, each and every one of them studiously ignoring our party.

The waiter screwed up The Dave’s mom’s and The Dave’s mom’s companion’s drinks, so they had to wait an extra 10 minutes while the rest of us tried to sip ours as slowly as possible.  The whiskey sour finally arrived; it had not been shaken, it had no foam, and it was sent back because it was, in the words of the gentleman who ordered it, ‘the worst whiskey sour I’ve ever been served.’  I am guessing this is because the bar doesn’t stock sour mix—none of Mario’s signature cocktails require it, so why would we stock it?  If it’s not good enough for Mario it’s not good enough for you, ignorant diner.

20 minutes in, we got water glasses.  More elaborate meat carvings ensued around us, with the same studious observation by all suits and waiters, who had clearly been told by Not President Obama to ignore us—at least that is the only explanation that makes sense, given that all of them were plainly observing our suffering and doing not one damn thing about it.  We stared at our empty glasses in disbelief, mentally willing hydrogen and oxygen molecules to bond midair and fill them spontaneously.

A full five minutes passed before our waiter noticed our water glasses in fact still contained only air.  It was around then that our food order was taken.  The Dave’s mom’s companion spotted a pastrami sandwich—he kindly asked the waiter if he could get one on rye with swiss?  No, “the only one we have is what’s on the menu,” he was summarily told (ordering off the menu in a Batali restaurant, as previously noted, is like saying ‘fuck’ in church).  Now a real restaurant would accommodate that request—surely if you have any version of a pastrami sandwich on the menu, in a town like Las Vegas, you know that some guest is going to ask for the standard pastrami on rye with Swiss at some point?  Why not just honor it?  Or at least be gracious when declining the request?

My steak and egg order didn’t go much better—the waiter neglected to ask me how I wanted my steak or my eggs, or even give me a choice of eggs.  “Don’t you have a variety of eggs—can I get duck?” I asked, knowing this was the case, since my waiter didn’t offer this information.  “How are the eggs done?” I asked, continuing to feed him his spiel.  “Sunny side up or what?” “They are always sunny-side up, so they act as a sauce,” he chided me in reply.  I was tempted to order my duck egg scrambled, just to see if I’d be slapped, or if the police would be called.  He didn’t bother to ask how I wanted my steak done, though I managed to get ‘warm red center’ out before he rushed off.

During the many delays, I pondered the inequality of the bread service.  Everyone around us had gotten bread—was it due to our ordering from the “Taverna” menu that we didn’t get bread?  Surely a restaurant wouldn’t base who gets bread on what menu they order from—would they?  But 45 minutes in bread did indeed arrive.  “Oh bread—who knew?” I said to The Dave, who was watching as I quietly seethed.  I noticed that one of the back-servers was someone I’d met earlier in the day at the Farmer’s Market; indeed we had discussed baby artichokes for about 5 minutes.  He didn’t recognize me, because he never made eye contact with me.  It’s not required to acknowledge every guest, but this incident confirmed for me how comprehensive the indifference of the service is at Carnevino.

With the bread came butter and whipped lardo.  I watched in disbelief as the waiter carefully spieled both according to corporate policy, while leaving only one butter/lardo service and one butter knife–for six people.  We hovered and took turns with the knife, like tsunami refugees, or contestants on Survivor.

The parade of abuse continued; I asked for fresh pepper for my eggs, none came; The Dave cancelled a drink order which never came; the side of Brussels sprouts The Dave and I were planning to share never graced our table (which we didn’t remember until the next day—pretty sure we paid for them); our check came without the hyped 20% discount, so it had to be re-run.  I honestly can’t say if desserts are available in the bar, since no one ever offered us dessert.

This all pissed me off more than usual—incensed me, actually—because of the presence of The Dave’s Mom and The Dave’s Mom’s companion.  I don’t like bad treatment for myself, but I really hate when older folks are treated like shit by servers who could be their children or grandchildren.  The fact that we had an obviously inept/inexperienced server was not the main problem (though there is no excuse for that at a place of this supposed caliber)—it was the army of experienced staff who hovered yet did nothing that really set me off.  When a room of staff can stand and watch as a steak is cut and plated while a table three feet away goes without water for 45 minutes—the rudeness is really breathtaking, and it’s completely unprecedented in my years of dining.  I honestly don’t remember the food—I was too angry to taste it.

My night at Carnevino was simply the worst restaurant experience I’ve ever had.  How, one might ask, did Las Vegas critic John Curtas recently rate it the best steakhouse on the planet?  Considering John Curtas is a well-known and easily recognized critic in town, he was treated like royalty on all his visits.  Good luck if you’re one of the faceless masses.

An ironic footnote occurred at the end of our meal.  Mike Dobranski was recognized by Carnevino’s head chef Zach Allen, who sent a captain over to give him his card with apologies that the chef could not come out and say hello.  This was telling—neither chef Allen nor the captain bothered to ask how our experience was, or how we liked the food; the message to Mike D was ‘how lucky are you that the chef knows you, and doesn’t that make you feel special?’ But this was no surprise really; all night they’d been telling us, in a hundred ways, that it was all about them.

Usually people in the business selling meat ‘by the inch’ meant for someone else’s mouth are not chefs, but they do understand that customer service is their occupation.  But not Carnevino, and not Mario Batali.

Well congrats Mario, you win—though some of your food is amazing, it’s not the worth service that doesn’t meet even the base standard set by, say, McDonald’s.  I hope that you never have to experience the awful treatment that your paying customers—who have so generously contributed to your success—have endured in the restaurants that bear your name.

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

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Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Amazing…

    So where can a local go and have a good meal and great service and why do these fucks work in the SERVICE industry. M

  2. Thanks for weighing in! My knowledge is far from comprehensive…the best service I’ve had is at Aureole at Mandalay Bay and Nobhill (now Nobhill Tavern) at MGM Grand. I find some of the local-marketed casinos, particularly the M, to be exceptionally warm and friendly. For cheaper Italian than the strip I’d head to Marinelli’s at the M. Bea and Tony at the bar on the Friday’s I’ve gone are great and if you go tell them hi from Michael at Lion King!

  3. Been reading this blog for a little while and I have to admit this one hit home for me. I lived in Vegas for 2 years while getting my masters degree and took the opportunity to dine at several of the “famous” restaurants. I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count (not always by the food, but usually the service). In fact, just last week (on a return visit to Vegas) I took the boyfriend to Simon (Palms Place) and was pretty disgusted by the service. The problems were taken care of eventually, but I was amazed that I can get better service at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

    • Hi Farah, thanks for reading our little venture! I’ve been to Simon twice and have been overwhelmingly disappointed both times. Poorly executed food and careless servers. Not good. His Cathouse restaurant over at the Luxor is even worse (if you can imagine).

      If you ever want suggestions of places to eat that will more than likely treat you right while you’re there, just give either of us a shout. If you do Twitter, you can message me at @TastingLasVegas or Michael at @TLV_Michael. It breaks my heart to see someone go to Buffalo Wild Wings, so anything we can do to help! LOL Thanks again for reading!

  4. Thanks Farah for weighing in…I believe the high tourist client base has led many strip places to let there service go–few are all that interested in building a local following. Being a chef and being a restauranteur are very different skills, and few master it. Though it should be said that Wolfgang Puck does it well–I can’t recall bad service at any of his spots (the food isn’t as cutting edge as I like, but is consistently good at his places)…thanks again and keep reading!

  5. Thanks for replying, guys 🙂 I actually am on twitter and I follow the blog twitter already. Mine is protected though, so you’ll have to add me so I can message you. My name is farah_n_pete.

    I have to admit I had good service at both Mesa Grill and Nobu – but I’m not sure if that’s common or not. The food was also pretty good when I was there.

    Keep up the good work – I’m always entertained (and educated!) by the posts and the tweets!!

  6. Whenever I hear a restaurant horror story like the one posted here, I am apt to optimistically chalk it up to “an off night” for the staff involved, especially if the tale involves a restaurant that I’ve REALLY been wanting to try out. Very convincing article, though. I suppose this sends Carnevino down to the bottom of the list …:-)

    But, hey! Glad Wolfgang Puck was mentioned in the comments section!We were at his Bar and Grill at MGM last weekend and the service was outstanding, even though they were obviously short-handed and getting slammed.

    Love the blog, guys! I’ve only been reading for a couple of days, but am thoroughly enjoying your take on things. Keep it coming!

    • Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Kai! I think what we experienced at Carnevino was that the bench isn’t all that deep. Meaning that if the guy on the front lines falters, there isn’t anyone behind him to help him out. The management staff literally just stood there and watched this poor kid die all over himself. Not that I want to speak for Michael, but I think that is where the main frustration came from. My personal thought is that in a place like this, the kid shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, another fault of management.

      I just went to another Wolfgang Puck restaurant, Lupo at Mandalay Bay, tonight and the service was spectacular! It seems in Wolfgang Puck’s fine dining restaurants that nothing is going to knock you off your feet, but the food is very good and very solid with excellent service behind it. Nothing but good experiences for me at CUT (which I regard as one of the best steakhouses in town, next to N9ne), Brasserie PUCK and Lupo. I had two bad experiences at Spago years ago, but with how good the other three places have been recently, I want to give it another shot.

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