Fine Dining — Not!

Or how not to serve wine in a restaurant.

My husband and I tried a new local restaurant last night. We’d asked a few friends who had tried it and they gave me the impression it was worth a shot. One of them said, “Well, the food is good.” That should have warned me.

The place is in a brand new building that’s quite attractive, although not quite the right fit for the Sonoran desert. It features big wood beams overhead and a stone fireplace. The kind of place that would work really well in Northern Arizona, in the mountains surrounded by tall pine trees. Or in Colorado. Not quite right when the biggest thing outside is a cactus. Still, open and very pleasant and quite a nice change from the usual places around town.

But it was a disappointment.

The biggest disappointment was with the wine. The restaurant, which is very new, has a small, unimaginative wine list. There were about a dozen offerings on the list and one of them was Sutter Home White Zinfandel. While I’m sure some people like that — my mother appears to be one of them — I can’t remember the last time I actually saw it on a wine list. A real wine list — one that’s in its own little hardcovered folder, like it has something of value in it.

The menu was kind of disappointing, too. A lot of beef, a single chicken dish, and two fish dishes. Some salads for the dieting or veggie crowd. The special was halibut, although how it was prepared was not something we were made privy to. Actually, very few items on the menu included a description of how they were prepared. The menu was a simple list of entrees; you picked two accompaniments to go with your meal.

So that’s the setup.

When we were seated, the waiter asked us almost immediately if we wanted to order a bottle of wine. Not having had a chance to look at the wine list or the menu, we told him we needed a few minutes. We then took our time with both small lists. About three minutes had passed when he returned. “Chardonay is good with halibut,” he said.

Okay, I though to myself.

Now keep in mind that the last two restaurants Mike and I had dined in where we ordered a bottle of wine had wine stewards. These are guys who know wine. Their entire job is to make recommendations on wine, take orders on wine, and serve wine. A statement like, “Chardonay is good with halibut,” would be ridiculous to one of these guys. They would be recommending a specific chardonay or other wine. And maybe it wouldn’t even be a white wine. But it would be a perfect match for the halibut, based on how the halibut was prepared, what it was served with, and what wines were available.

And, by the way, neither Mike and I had shown any interest in halibut.

Mike sent him away again. This time he stayed away. We had to flag him over when we were ready to order. Not a problem. Mike ordered steak and I ordered prime rib.

“And we’d like a bottle of wine,” Mike added. He looked at me.

“The Clos du Bois cabernet,” I said, reading it off the wine list.

The wine list offered wines by the glass, but the only red wines were the house wines, which I’d never heard of. So we’d stuck with a familiar mid-priced label that I knew would be fine with our meal.

Keep in mind that I am not a wine connoisseur. I love restaurants with wine stewards because I can learn from them. They always recommend something truly spectacular. But when you’re faced with limited options and no one to give good advice, it’s sometimes best to go with what you know. And I do like to drink wine — especially red wines.

He went away with our order. A few moments later, we were treated to the worst wine service I have ever witnessed in my life.

Now I don’t want to get our waiter in trouble because he’s a nice guy and I’m sure he was doing he best he could. The only problem is, it’s quite obvious that he was never trained to do his job. And I don’t think he’s had enough meals in nice restaurants to catch on to what’s expected.

Our waiter returned with a tray that had two glasses and our bottle of wine. He put the tray on one of those tray stands that he’d set up behind Mike’s seat. He then took a corkscrew — you know, the kind with the wings that anyone can use — and inserted the pointy part through the foil at the top of the bottle and into the cork. He struggled for a few minutes to twist the corkscrew in, then used the wings to lift the cork out, right through the torn foil. He put a glass in front of Mike, poured a small amount of wine through the foil, and waited for Mike to drink. While he waited, he used his fingers to tear all the foil off the top of the bottle. Mike tasted and told him it was fine. The waiter put the cork back in the bottle and put the bottle on the table, then put my glass in front of me and departed, leaving Mike to pour the wine for both of us.


Call me a snob, but I could serve wine better than that — and I’ve never worked in a restaurant!

For those of you who don’t know what he did wrong, he’s a summary of how the wine should have been served.

  1. The waiter brings glasses to the table. He sets the glasses out in front of each person.
  2. The waiter brings the bottle to the table. (He could do this with step 1 to save time.) He shows the bottle’s label to the person who ordered the wine or asks, “Who would like to taste the wine?” The idea is for someone to make sure he’s brought the right wine.
  3. The waiter uses a knife or foil cutter to neatly cut and remove the foil from the top of the bottle, leaving the rest of the foil on the bottle’s neck.
  4. The waiter inserts the cork screw or other cork removal device into the bottle while holding it (not leaning it on the table), then removes the cork.
  5. The waiter places the cork in front of the designated wine taster. (The wine taster may want to check it to make sure it is wet; a dry cork indicates a bottle that has been stored standing up and air may have gotten in.)
  6. The waiter pours a small amount of wine into the designated taster’s glass.
  7. When the taster has confirmed that the wine is satisfactory, the waiter pours for the rest of the table, finishing up with the designated taster.
  8. The waiter leaves the bottle on the table (for unchilled wines — usually reds) or in an ice bucket within reach (for chilled wines — usually whites).

I also like when the waiter ties a rolled-up napkin (cloth, of course) around the bottle’s neck to catch drips when the wine is poured.

Does this sound like a ritual? It is. And it’s one that I personally enjoy, perhaps because it’s an indication that wine is an important part of the meal, one that deserves its own special ritual.

Now I really can’t blame the waiter. But I certainly can blame the manager of the restaurant. It’s obvious that he or she doesn’t care (or know) about what good service is.

Dinner last night, with tip, cost over $100 — and we didn’t have appetizers, coffee, or desert. The food was average — although I admit I really liked my sweet potato fries. My prime rib, which was supposed to be medium, was medium well on one half and medium rare on the other. (I’m still trying to figure out how they did that.) The horseradish sauce was just right. The bread was from Sysco — the big food purveyor company — the same stuff they use for sandwiches at one of the local coffee shops, but cut into quarters so each piece goes a little further.

To say we were disappointed is an understatement. A new restaurant in town, a nice looking, brand new building. We had our hopes up. But they were dashed by mediocre food, unprofessional service, and prices that are too high for what you’re getting.

But the place is new. We’ll give it a chance to learn some things. In a few months, we’ll try again.

And if my wine is served the same way, I’m going to get up and show him how to do it right.

What do you think?