‘Napkin Lady’ at Per Se

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Shame

Posted: 01/15/2016

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 And the experience was seen as a no-fun house, lame, disappointingly flat-footed, out of date, mediocre, and among the worst food deals in New York.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:

“rk-Nashville”:

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???


4 Responses to “‘Napkin Lady’ at Per Se”

  1. Peter Wells reviews are worthless because he is an arrogant prick who presumes that he knows good food but who does not have the talent to cook anything more than ramen.

    He is a torch artist, who stirs up controversy by writing tabloid “reviews” of popular restaurants. He knows how to write trash, but he is incapable of honestly evaluating culinary talent. Do a google search for “peter wells best reviews”. The asshole doesn’t do good reviews, except when he is required to do a “top 10″.

  2. Big Louie says:

    I was enchanted by the “bong water” comparison. Wells was a bit harsh, and gratuitously so. However, to his credit is that many fail to heed the “fine print,” located near the key to what the star ratings mean. Stars and reviews are assigned not necessarily because of outright quality of product and service, but the *value* one receives. Over the years, Times reviewers have handed three- and four-star ratings out to some very humble establishments.

    Wells, in his Per Se skewering, sums up by discussing value very overtly — he tells diners that it’s a “bad deal” and ought therefore to spend their money elsewhere.

    To the question at hand, of course civilized people don’t engage in such dysfunction as to purposely drop a napkin to see who picks it up. As I see it, this was the woman’s childish response to having her expectations dashed to pieces. Her wine glass went empty a course at a time. She was regarded icily from the greeter to the Captain to the busser who removed her napkin and “purposely,” according to Wells, failed to investigate who needed a replacement. And whether or not it was Well’s Times credit card that paid the bill simple service failures should not go un-noticed in this kind of setting.

    Once again, however, that does not excuse the fashion in which the woman in question decided to air her grievance(s).

  3. The arrogance of Napkin Lady is tangential to the words used to describe the food – all of this makes me wonder what’s happening at the (very) high end today. Will fine dining survive or must it change? I think that’s the real question the review raises. It’s shocking yet in the same review Wells does praise some of the menu offerings.
    It makes me wonder if one of the things that’s happening is the result of (lower) paid BOH workers, a labor shortage that has become a big crunch in many cities this year, and an economy that, while improving slightly, is still not robust.

  4. Frederick says:

    I don’t view the ‘napkin incident’ so critically. As part of my work, I do have occasion to eat at restaurants like this. Fairly often. If I were paying out of my own pocket, I’d also be outraged at the price value proposition given at most of the current crop of fine dining restaurants. Some get it right, amazingly so. But others are just there to suck you dry and rely on the (often quite correct) assumption that you are too stupid or too shy to call them on it. And let’s be honest, a fair number of the nekulturny diners really do have no idea what fine dining is, except that its expensive.

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