‘Napkin Lady’ at Per Se
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Shame
All I can think about is Napkin Lady.
- Did she really ‘drop’, or as Mr. Wells delineated, ‘hurl’ her napkin to the floor?
- Did she ‘drop’ it on purpose to elicit a response from the server, or to test the staff?
- Was the napkin ‘drop’ staged by NYT restaurant critic, Peter Wells?
- What kind of adult human throws a napkin on the floor in protest at any restaurant anywhere?
- Is Napkin Lady a monster?
- How did Napkin Lady’s dining companions respond to her?
- Will she be invited to dinner with Mr. Wells again? If yes, is he a monster?
Per Se, on the Upper West Side in NYC, is one the most highly-regarded, expensive restaurants in the world. On Wednesday, New York Times restaurant critic, Peter Wells awarded Per Se two out of four stars in a predominantly scathing review. According to the NYT, two stars is “very good,” but Wells’ narrative was far from that. Menu items were described as droopy, rubbery and flavorless, gluey, mushy, dismal, random and purposeless, limp, dispirited, lame, and bouillon, “murky and appealing as bong water.” The negative comments about service included, haphazard, unobliging, oddly unaccommodating, and oblivious sleepwalking. And the experience was seen as a no-fun house, lame, disappointingly flat-footed, out of date, mediocre, and among the worst food deals in New York.
The two-star review was a significant departure from the four stars awarded by legendary NYT critic, Frank Bruni in September of 2004, and the four-star review by the NYT’s Sam Sifton in October of 2011. Mr. Sifton called Per Se, “… the best restaurant in New York City…”, and lauded, “It’s synthesis of culinary art and exquisite service is now complete.” “It represents the ideal of an American high-culture luxury restaurant.”
Who cares, right? The restaurant geek world does. Most of us can’t afford to eat at places like Per Se, but following the news in and around restaurants has become a sport that consumes us. And the news about the two-star ‘demotion’ caught fire with many of those who play, enjoy, watch, and broadcast ‘the game’. The 1,000+ animated comments from the NYT website are a testament to the interest in a review of elite restaurants like Per Se. A sampling of the reactions:
- Is fine dining dead?
- Are ‘celebrity’ chefs too cocky and complacent?
- Does the critic have an entitled, narcissistic, personal agenda?
- At the Per Se price point, shouldn’t one expect perfection?
- Are servers and staff being exploited at the “best of the best” restaurants?
- Who can even afford to eat at places like that?
- Why don’t people spend money on helping others instead of lavish meals?
- Finally, someone had the courage to speak the truth.
- The first staff meeting following the review is really going to suck…
And I just can’t stop thinking about Napkin Lady…
The first two paragraphs of the review from Peter Wells:
The lady had dropped her napkin.
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
Shortly after the review went live, I posted the following on my Server Not Servant Facebook group:
Perhaps Mr. Wells’ dining companion was role-playing to test the staff as fodder for the review. Or, perhaps she’s a bitch who acted like a petulant child… Hard to imagine someone thinking it’s ok to “hurl” their napkin to the floor while eating and drinking at Per Se. That’s no “small protest,” it’s a bullshit, entitled, bitchy move, especially if it wasn’t on her dime. I’m also interested to know if Wells will ever invite the woman to dine with him again. If she wasn’t acting, and he does invite her back, it speaks volumes.
My friend, Chef Mark O’Leary replied to my tweet to Peter Wells, “That was my first question, how much entitled fervor must you have to throw a napkin on the floor as an adult?”
I emailed Peter Wells on Wednesday night and asked him:
- Was throwing the napkin staged by your dining companion or you to test the server’s response, or was it a legitimate, out-of-control, hissy fit initiated without your prompting?
- Was your inclusion of the ‘napkin drop’ hyperbole to add drama/color to the prose?
- How did you and your other dining companions respond after she hurled the napkin to the floor?
- Were you or anyone you were with embarrassed?
- Did you or anyone at your table admonish her?
- Did she apologize to you and your table and/or the server or any other workers?
- Will you ever invite “Napkin Lady” to dine with you again?
- Feel free to add anything else that you’d like me to include in my post.
Mr. Wells responded that he wouldn’t answer my questions because he makes it a policy not to comment on public reviews, especially negative ones, and finished with, ”Readers can draw their own conclusions about my words, just as they can draw their own conclusions about a post in which a woman is called a bitch twice in a short paragraph.”
I read hundreds of the comments following the review on the NYT website (sport/entertainment, right?), and I’ll leave you with one beauty:
What happens now?
Can Per Se survive this? Does the entire staff get fired? Is the chef’s career ruined? Is the owner expected to publicly respond? Do they close for a month and reopen? Are they going to have to cut prices? Do they call in another ballerina? (Just joking about that last question. Sort of.)
More importantly, is Napkin Lady a monster???