I can understand it happening had my blood alcohol level been over 2.7 and I’d been rude to the staff.
I can sort of see it happening had I disparaged an entire city, as GQ’s Alan Richman did to New Orleans post-Katrina (although getting a sazerac dumped in my face as retribution – as Richman did in an episode of Treme – would have actually been refreshing, considering how hot it was yesterday).
And the thought of being denied service wouldn’t seem so far-fetched, had I ripped the chef’s sandwich shop concept into more shreds than a Sargento Family Pack, as Time Out’s Julia Kramer did.
But I never expected to get thrown out of a restaurant for a tweet.
That wasn’t even directed at the restaurant I was dining in.
Nine months ago.
The strange thing about my job is that I’m recognized frequently when I dine out. That’s one of the reasons I don’t “review” restaurants or give them stars/forks, etc. I do, however, share my experienced opinions with my Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and this, it seems, is why Graham Elliot called his Manager yesterday during my lunch at g.e.b., instructing him to present my check and stop serving me.
“Are you Steve?” the young gentleman asked, awkwardly. “I’ve been instructed by Chef to present you with the check.”
I wasn’t sure what this meant. My friend and I had only tried the gazpacho (tasty), a light shrimp-avocado app and a fine little plate of risotto, topped with pea shoots and embedded with bits of guanciale. We were still waiting for the chicken and the sockeye salmon entrees. I asked to speak with our server to find out what was up. The nice young Manager returned to our table.
“I’m really sorry; it’s not personal,” he assured me. “I know who you are; I read your blog. I’m just doing what the boss orders, and I’ve been told to stop serving you…I’ll pick up your check. Again, I’m really sorry.”
And with that, we walked out into the 103 degree heat and attempted to salvage our lunch hour, but not before I tweeted this:
“Was just kicked out of g.e.b. after eating 3 dishes. Edict from GEB via phone. Weirdest thing ever. Classy.”
When I asked Mr. Elliot – via Twitter a few minutes later – why he had instructed his staff to stop serving me, he replied:
“sorry, i can’t serve anyone that tweets negative things about a restaurant while eating in that restaurant. #CharlieTrotters”
Interesting. Here we were, a full nine months after I had visited Trotter’s on September 27th of last year, and now Elliot was suddenly charged with defending the man who is about to shut his restaurant for good. I hadn’t heard a peep from the GEB camp back then, but here’s what happened: I was dining at Trotter’s a few weeks after he had received a glowing four star review from The Tribune’s Phil Vettel. My colleague from Toronto and I were struggling to find the same sort of inspiration, more than an hour into our meal.
“Fig cake w/mushrooms. Veg tasting course at Trotter’s. Yawn,” I tweeted from the men’s room.
“After 3 courses (1.5 hrs) at Trotter’s, waiting for something, anything to resonate, or even taste good. Not sure what Vettel saw. Bland..”
I’ll admit, since then, I’m more likely to tweet after a meal than during it (table manners), just as I no longer visit restaurants on the first day and tweet/blog about them; these sorts of social customs among food writers are evolving. My Trotter tweets were not simply random potshots, several days later I wrote a lengthy post about my experience, making the case that for $500, this is no longer “must dining” in Chicago. What I gather from Mr. Elliot’s treatment of his paying customers (no one knew that I was to dine at g.e.b. I made no reservation and gave no notice of my arrival. I was simply buying a friend lunch and was ready to pay, had the nice Manager not picked up the tab in embarrasment), is that he apparently doesn’t care for people who have informed opinions, and what is more troubling, that they share them.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even me, someone who connects – in real time – with fans/followers who choose to follow me because of my opinions. ABC 7 News pays me, afterall, to make editorial decisions on local food coverage based on the command of my beat. I’m sorry, but I missed the memo that said I’m never supposed to say anything critical, because it’s more important to be friends with everyone than to steer people away from mediocre dining experiences that some might see as a waste of hard-earned money.
Of course, when it comes to expressing opinions publicly, Mr. Elliot doesn’t hold himself up to the same standard. After a Chicago Magazine writer blogged two years ago about some of the dishes that were going to be served at Lollapalooza at a preview party, he tweeted this:
“Three words of the day: FUCK CHICAGO MAGAZINE
He continued his vitriol, over the course of several tweets:
“Aside from meddling with the parasitic formula that affords her a job in the first place – Cassie Walker has donned the garb of a fourth-rate Joan Rivers covering the Daytime Emmy’s…[it was a] reckless blog post fueled by a sick self-importance for insidious and prosaic journalism.”
I’ve never met Cassie Walker, but I doubt her intention, as a struggling blogger in the Tribune ecosystem, is about self-importance and insidious journalism. Everyone I know over there is just happy to have a job.
The other interesting thing here is that rather than deal directly with the customer (“hey, put Dolinsky on the phone, I’ve got 5 minutes here in the makeup chair and I want to give him a piece of my mind!”) Elliot chose instead to quickly call Eater. “When he ate at Charlie Trotter’s and live tweeted through the whole meal how shitty it was, to me that’s so egregiously over the line that I absolutely will not have someone like that at my establishment,” he told Eater.com. An exaggeration on his part, sure, but I’m also troubled by the fact – according to his conversation with Eater – that he was called by a manager “because the team had been instructed not to allow Dolinsky to eat there.” Wow. Welcome to the era of the ego-driven, message-controlling chef, who worries more about his publicity than minding the store. Danny Meyer would be ashamed.
We’ve seen politicians do this over the past few years – inviting only pre-selected guests to “town hall meetings,” screening out any potential dissenting voices so as to present a clear, unified (albeit skewed) vision. Message control. Restaurants all over Chicago that can afford publicists routinely invite bloggers and journalists to free dinners, thus instantly skewing coverage. But if you choose to dine in a restaurant, spend upwards of $500 and then want to share your dissatisfaction with friends or colleagues, you are branded. You are persona non grata.
This wasn’t my first experience with Mr. Elliot’s volatile behavior. I should have known this was coming, after last year’s Lollapallooza. Despite having made an appointment through Mr. Elliot’s NYC-based PR staff to interview him for ABC 7 and my website, we were stood up and told “chef has to do a private event right now; he doesn’t have time for this.” It wasn’t a big deal; there were other chefs to interview and I got the chance to hear some great music. I didn’t even Tweet about that one. I suppose if Mr. Elliot had his way, my media credentials for Lolla should be revoked and Greg Kot shouldn’t write any reviews of the shows.
I’ve never had a beef with Mr. Elliot. We’ve bantered tongue-in-cheek via Twitter, and I’ve never dissed anything he’s done beyond a curt comment about a chair or a noise level or a protein-to-bun ratio. But I wonder if customers really care if their chefs are bullies. By now, we don’t really expect to ever see them behind the stove, or even the pass – Flay, Puck, Lagasse and Ramsay have shown the next generation of cooks you can stamp your name on the menu and no one is going to penalize you for not showing up (although in Montreal, they’ll remove your name if you don’t bother coming back after the grand opening). But when they cross the line and start banning people for tweeting about someone else, yelling back at them online in an attempt to publicly humiliate them and telling them they can basically piss off, well, at what point do people say “enough”?