Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Diner takes off glasses, suckered into $2200 Screaming Eagle ... or was he?

Rule 1: never take off your glasses
It sounds like an urban legend, or a hoax like this one. A diner in an expensive Atlantic City steakhouse asks the waitress to recommend a wine. She brings him a bottle and says it costs "Thirty seven fifty."

The bottle turns out to be Screaming Eagle and he's charged $3750.

According to NJ.com, this really happened. It's an outrageous story on many levels. Here's the short version:

* Joe Lentini and his wife are at a "business dinner" for 10 people at Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. We don't know what kind of business, but I assume that if he was this state employee, the site would have reported it. Right?

* Only 3 of the diners want wine. The others order Anchor Steam beer, rum and Coke, and diet Coke.

* Lentini is not the host of the dinner, and is not supposed to be paying, but he wants wine, so the host, unnamed, tells him to order something.

* Lentini tells NJ.com that he asked the waitress to "recommend something decent because I don't have much experience with wine." UPDATE: Eater reports that the Borgata now says he "asked for the restaurant's best bottle of Cabernet," which would explain a lot.

* The waitress recommends Screaming Eagle 2011. As one would.

* "I didn't have my glasses," Lentini tells NJ.com. "I asked how much and she said, "Thirty-seven fifty."




Courtesy David Gard for NJ Advance Media
* When the bill comes, Lentini gets a nasty shock.

* The restaurant knocks the price down to $2200 when he complains, and he pays it.

The standard response to this story is outrage at the waitress, the restaurant and the casino. And if the story is as first reported, it is outrageous.

I have doubts about the story, and so must NJ.com.

You can barely make out the date on the photo of the receipt posted online, but it looks to me like it's 7/28/2014, which would mean NJ.com sat on the story for three months, which is what you do when you have doubts. (To be fair, it could be 9/28. The story doesn't say.)

There's Lentini's version, in which Nina (her name's on the receipt) is the hooker/waitress with the old Barbary Coast switcheroo spirit, and the casino -- possibly Mob-backed -- has the power to demand its payment or else.

And there's the restaurant's version. The Borgata, in the original story, says both Nina and the sommelier verified the bottle, which doesn't mean much if you don't know what Screaming Eagle is. But they also said that the host of the party asked how much the bottle cost before dinner ended, was told, and did nothing. NJ.com talked to the host of the story, and he confirmed that much.

UPDATE: Eater's story has a different tale from the same Borgata employee who talked to NJ.com,  and it looks a lot worse for Lentini, including that another diner at the same table asked about the price before the bottle was consumed. Maybe the Borgata is only saying more now that it's being pilloried nationwide. Now I really want to know what business was expected to pay for this dinner.

Nobody should be stuck with a $2200 bottle of wine -- or a $220 bottle of wine -- they weren't expecting. Bobby Flay and the Borgata might deserve the national opprobrium they're getting.

But consider the number of circumstances that came together for it to happen. You have a customer who doesn't bother to look at the price on the wine list, or apparently any prices. While $3750 is an insane price for a bottle of wine, $37.50 is cheap enough to raise eyebrows at an expensive restaurant.

Why does Nina target this group? Just because they're not paying attention? Because Joe admits he doesn't know much about wine? Does she and/or the restaurant target everybody they can fleece?

I decided to check that theory so I read the restaurant's reviews on Yelp. You'll note that a number of people have taken to Yelp to bash the restaurant over the story, without having dined there.

Yelpers are up and down on the place. There are enough reports of bad, inattentive or rude service that it may be an ongoing issue. It's Atlantic City, for Chrissakes, not exactly known for the best service even in New Jersey. But I didn't see any other diners complaining about a similar wine ripoff.

So if this was a one-shot Screaming Eagle scam, why Lentini and his group?

And why did the host quietly ask the server before dinner was over, "How much was that bottle of wine they ordered?" but not complain about it or share the answer with Lentini?

There's certainly a profit motive. Even at the marked-down price of $2200, that's $1400 profit over the mailing-list price, which is probably what the restaurant pays. For Nina, a 20% tip on a bottle of $2200 wine is $440, a lot nicer evening than the $10 tip she'd earn on a more normal steakhouse wine. But again, why them?

I feel like there's more to this story that we might never know. I'd love to hear Nina's version.

In any case, I love Lentini's review of Screaming Eagle. He claims he doesn't know anything about wine, but I had exactly the same reaction every time I've had Screaming Eagle: "It was okay. It was good," Lentini said. "It wasn't great. It wasn't terrible. It was fine."

The real story here is, yes, that's exactly what a $2200 bottle of wine tastes like. It's what "94 points" tastes like translated into everyman diner talk.

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7 comments:

FranksWine.com said...

Those bankrupt Jersey casinos have to make a buck somehow!

Hana Aoi said...

“Business dinner” paid by someone else? Wonder if Mr. L forgot his glasses on purpose.

Kiley Evans said...

From the perspective of a former Somm, the actions of the server appear to be highly unethical. I sold Le Pin to a diner who asked for the most expensive bottle on the list only after that diner understood very clearly the price. I also sold Petrus to a diner who took my recommendation and followed my finger as it slid across the page from the name of the wine to the vintage to the region to the very clearly marked price. All parties bear some responsibility, but the majority falls on the server.

Bob Silver said...

This happened in Atlantic City, so obviously Nucky Thompson had something to do with it.

Bella Vino said...

I'll go one further Kiley....The minute the guest asked the server for a recommendation, she should have turned it over to the Somm. For a Server to make a wine recommendation, based on a rather vague set of parameters, when there is a Somm on the floor is not only above her pay grade, it doesn't follow protocol. That is exactly what the Somm is there for!

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

I'm curious Blake about the point on tipping. Do you think it is reasonable to tip the same percentage on this expensive a bottle? There is no more effort involved in opening and pouring a $2200 SE than say a $100 bottle of anything else... I would never put 10% on top of that! And I am a pretty decent tipper.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mark: It's a good question but it's probably academic because a party of 10 may have had a tip already added to the bill.

Would I personally tip 20% on one bottle of wine this expensive? No. But I'm not the kind of person who orders a wine quite this expensive. I have gone over $500 less than a handful of times, and did not tip 20% on those wines.

One can argue that a person who can afford to order Screaming Eagle can afford to take care of the server.