10 Things Your Restaurant Won't Tell You

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Like having somebody else cook for you? Well, eating out may not be the treat you think it is.

1. "You want romance? Then don't eat here."
It's coming. The day when you make up for past foul-ups and show that special someone how much you care. Yes, Valentine's Day. Well, do yourself a favor. Give candy, roses, jewelry. Just don't take your one-and-only out to dinner.

First off, some restaurants mark up prices as much as a third that night. At Erawan, the highly touted Chicago Thai restaurant, the nine-course tasting menu normally runs $65 per person; on Valentine's night a similar menu in 2002 started at $85. Plus, you'll face crowds. The National Restaurant Association says one out of every three adults eats out that night — so you'd better book an early-bird reservation. Two years ago, by the time Christine Sicam and her boyfriend sat down at Manhattan's Brasserie, the restaurant was out of fish entrees on its Valentine's dinner menu. Sicam, a vegetarian, had to order pasta — a meal "I didn't want," she says. What made the evening even worse, she adds, was that "they rushed us." Joanne Jordan, spokeswoman for Brasserie, admits the restaurant fell short, but adds, "We strive to give everybody a good experience."

2. "Our markups will gag you..."
Dine at a high-end steak house and you expect to pay a lot for your sirloin. But it's the extras that will carve you up. Just ask Steven Weil. He shells out $31.95 for a steak at Gallagher's in Saddle Brook, N.J. "What gets me," he says, "is the baked potato. They charge $4.95 for a $1 potato." Bryan Reidy, a Gallagher's spokesman, says, "It's a 16-ounce potato, and that price is norm to steak houses."

Gallagher's is hardly alone in getting a lot extra for its extras. French fries at Ruth's Chris go for up to $5.95; a romaine and iceberg lettuce salad at Morton's is $6.95. Jim DeJoy, purchasing manager for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, Calif., contends that some restaurants turn their offerings into cash cows. For instance, he says 4 pounds of lettuce that should produce 20 portions will cost a restaurant $8 — or 40 cents a serving. However, he has seen some dining spots charge $6.50 per salad — or, roughly, a 1,500% markup.

3. "...plus we'll charge you when you least expect it."
Want to bring a birthday cake to a restaurant as a surprise dessert for a friend? Go ahead, but be prepared to pay a cutting charge. Or how about trying that exquisite bottle of merlot you've been stashing in the cellar for your next visit to the family's favorite Italian restaurant? Sounds great — just know you may have to pay the restaurant a corking fee.

Increasingly, restaurants of every scale are charging for services we once took for granted. The French Laundry, a four-star eatery in Napa Valley, charges customers $50 to open an outside bottle. "It's actually a great value," says the restaurant's sommelier, Bobby Stuckey. "We decant the wine, provide proper glasses for specific varietals, and those glasses wholesale for $70 apiece. The fee is fair for everyone." Even restaurants without a wine list are charging. At Tomboy in Chicago, you'll pay $5 for up to four people. A Tomboy spokeswoman says, "The charge covers glassware, the bartender, our time and breakage."

4. "Our food is sickening."
On a Sunday night last September, Brad and Julie Welty took their two children out for Chinese food at King Garden in Wooster, Ohio. Within days their younger daughter, four-and-half-year-old Ashley, was hospitalized and diagnosed as having contracted E. coli 0157:H7, which causes a toxin to form in the blood and can lead to kidney failure. Ashley wound up spending two weeks on kidney dialysis; her sister, six-year-old Breanne, was also hospitalized but with milder symptoms.

"They're okay now," says Julie, "and we hope they stay that way. But there's no telling whether or not Ashley will have further kidney complications down the road." In the meantime, the Weltys have retained attorney William Marler to represent them in a products liability suit against the restaurant, filed in Ohio's Wayne County Court, for allegedly serving contaminated food. Marler is also representing four other people who, he says, picked up E. coli at King Garden. The restaurant replied to the suit by denying all charges.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest estimate is that each year more than 173,000 illnesses are caused by foodborne E. coli in the U.S. While not all cases originate in restaurants, Roy E. Costa, a public health consultant near Orlando, suggests that if your meal seems to be the wrong temperature, don't just return it; demand a whole new dish. "If toxins have already developed," he says, "they will not be (resolved) through reheating."

5. "We attract kleptos — and you'll pay for their habits."
We all know someone who swipes hotel towels. But restaurant cutlery? Meet Jeffrey Seglin. For several years he repeatedly walked out of fancy restaurants (including some located in Hiltons and Ritz-Carltons) with butter knives. As Seglin says, "I took them from restaurants I enjoyed. It seemed like a nice way to remember each place."

Seglin, who writes a business-ethics column for The New York Times, has since curtailed his sticky-fingered ways. But plenty of diners still leave restaurants with more than full stomachs. Arlene Spiegel, a New York food and beverage consultant, says 2 to 3% of a restaurant's supplies are stolen annually by diners and employees alike. For instance, at the West Street Grill in Litchfield, Conn., owner James O'Shea says klepto diners have taken everything from cutlery to a $100 bottle of 1995 Chateau Beychevelle. To combat such thievery, Geoffrey Zakarian, chef and owner of New York's Town restaurant, adds an extra 1.5% to food-and-drink charges to compensate for stolen stuff. "And when we see a customer sneaking something into her purse, we put it on the table's check," says Zakarian. "We tell people they're welcome to the pepper shakers — at $200 apiece." 6. "We can't control our help."
Last February, Greg Walton paid for dinner with a debit card at Ocean Five Bistro, a cafe near his home in Miami Beach. "Next time I saw my statement, I noticed two extra transactions for $10 each," Walton recounts. "Somebody at the restaurant took $20 in cash advances." The restaurant later reimbursed Walton for the staffer's transgression and says it has had no similar incidents. Still, Walton says, "I was angry at getting ripped off."

These days unsuspecting diners can get taken in lots of ways — including being fleeced by a waiter using what law enforcement officials call "the skimmer." This palm-size device lets a waiter run a credit card's magnetic strip along a tiny reader, trapping information used later to create a seemingly legitimate, untraceable card. Jonathan Smith, agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, recently arrested a T.G.I. Friday's waitress in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., whose handiness with the skimmer contributed to more than $200,000 in fraud. Smith says diners should reconcile financial statements immediately upon receiving them and report suspicious transactions to the police and card issuer.

7. "Our fancy names will fool you."
You love Chilean sea bass? Are truffles your mushrooms of choice? Your favorite restaurant may lure you by offering these delicacies, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll get what you ordered.

"Chilean sea bass is actually Patagonian toothfish — not bass," says Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a food-oriented think tank. "It comes from near Antarctica and ships, frozen, out of Chile." For restaurateurs this name game has but one goal: spice up menus without dulling prices. For instance, to justify using truffles in a dish's name, restaurants often will either spike cheaper mushrooms with truffle oil or put in a tiny amount of the luxe tubers with ordinary mushrooms. Eric Ripert, chef at Manhattan's four-star Le Bernardin, warns that if a restaurant offers pasta with black winter truffles from France for only $20, you're getting a raw deal. The truffles alone should go for $40 or so.

8. "We're as loud as Ozzy Osbourne."
When mike pecen took out-of-town relatives to Rosario's, a top Tex-Mex place in San Antonio, he anticipated interesting conversations and hearty food. Instead, "it was so loud there," says Pecen, "we got tired of yelling and ate in silence."

There's no getting around it: Some restaurants are noisy. (Even a Rosario's manager admits the restaurant is "a loud place.") Barbara Overhoff, president of Bill Main & Associates, a restaurant consulting firm in Chico, Calif., says that, at some restaurants, high volume encourages a fast turnover. Perhaps, but at what physical cost to diners? A 2000 survey of noise levels in San Francisco restaurants conducted by researchers Lisa Lamson and Robert Sweetow showed peak decibel ratings of 145 points in some spots. That's like being "near an airplane engine," says Lamson, a clinical audiologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

9. "Don't drink the wine."
Randall McCrea, a wine lover and chairman of the Houston chapter of the American Wine Society, anticipated a sumptuous dinner when he brought fellow oenophiles to one of Houston's top restaurants three years ago. Then he tasted the $45 syrah, ordered on the waiter's strong recommendation. "It was too young and too rough," remembers McCrea. "That wine ruined our dinner. It shouldn't have been opened for another five years."

Some sommeliers and critics contend that restaurants rush wines out to customers for the sake of expedience, not for a pleasurable experience. Ron Washam, sommelier with the Los Angeles steak house Pacific Dining Car, points out, "It's expensive to age wine." Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, wine columnists for The Wall Street Journal, suggest staying away from those Bourdeaux, red zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons that are less than two years old and cost more than $100.

10. "Our chefs are masters — at making TV dinners."
When Georgia Sampson found that her $18 entree of portobello mushroom ravioli tasted "like the frozen, boxed stuff at the grocery store," she asked her waitress at the Railroad Italian Cafe in Humble, Tex., whether or not it was fresh. The waitress admitted that the dish wasn't made in-house. Sampson was so appalled that she contacted a local newspaper to report her experience.

She shouldn't have been so taken aback. John Imbergamo, a Denver-based restaurant consultant, says most restaurants — save for those on the highest end — use prepared products. And Wayne Falgiano, owner of the Railroad Italian Cafe, admits, "Let's get real. Frozen foods are an accepted part of the restaurant business." Still, Imbergamo estimates that 95% of U.S. restaurants "use blanched frozen potatoes for french fries." And he has yet to come across any midlevel chain restaurant that "makes mozzarella sticks and popcorn shrimp from scratch."