Ridiculous demands, unchecked entitlement, racist slurs and temper tantrums—these are just a few of the war stories Wine Spectator heard when we asked leading wine professionals to recall their most difficult restaurant customers.
In American hospitality culture, where “the customer is always right,” diners have been taught that they deserve to be granted every wish. Unfortunately, many feel emboldened to push boundaries in ways that range from the bizarre to inexcusable harassment.
Luckily, according to the sommeliers we spoke with, these experiences are rare, but they certainly leave a memorable impression.
Wine Spectator: What’s the worst restaurant guest experience you have had?
Shelley Lindgren, co-owner and wine director, A16, Best of Award of Excellence winner in San Francisco
One holiday season, a group was celebrating at A16 and said they were wine collectors. Since they were splurging on extras for food, they inquired if we could work with them on our corkage policy, which limits the number of outside bottles we permit guests to bring into our restaurant. I caved. After all, it was the holidays.
They arrived with two full cases of inexpensive wines that were not carefully selected for the dinner nor wines we would ever have selected to pair with our food. It was so much work for our staff to open all the bottles, provide stemware and serve the wine. It was a reminder of why we as restaurateurs have these policies in the first place!
Arthur Hon, beverage director, The Modern, Grand Award winner in New York City
Early on in my hospitality career, three gentlemen came in for dinner to the restaurant where I was working. They were not very responsive with the initial greet, so I had decided to let them be for a bit. All of the sudden, they yelled across the dining room to get my attention by referring to me as “Indonesian boy.” I was shocked but made the decision to pretend I didn’t hear them. I told my manager I didn’t want to handle their table any longer. Tolerance for this type of behavior is much lower today than it was in the past. At The Modern, the emotional and physical safety of my staff is paramount, and we put a stop to disrespectful behavior from guests right away.
Michael Keene, cellar master, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vt.
During my senior year in high school, there was a staff shortage at the University Club, a private dining club in Lincoln, Neb., so I became the de facto wine steward. When I served my very first bottle, I presented the cork to the gentleman who had ordered it. He popped the cork into his mouth, swished it around, spit it back out and solemnly offered it back to me saying: “That will be fine.” What could I do? I took the wet cork, placed it in my pocket and poured his tasting.
Robin Wright, beverage director, Ci Siamo, New York City
Many times I’ve encountered the average bad-mannered guest who talks down to you or even yells at you. We as hospitality professionals often turn these guests into avid regulars by finding a way to meet them in the middle and make them feel heard. This can be a very toxic cycle and sometimes it feels like I'm just contributing to the problem rather than addressing their harmful behavior.
But the worst guest I ever served was an “important regular” at a restaurant where I previously worked. He is the type of high-roller that restaurant professionals refer to as a “wine whale,” someone who spends a lot of money and believes that rules don’t apply to him. He often harassed the female employees with inappropriate comments and very prolonged, incredibly creepy staring. He was never confronted about his bad behavior for fear of losing his patronage. Sadly, this is what happens when restaurant professionals give someone a pass for “having a bad day” when they are actually harassing staff.
Francis Schott, co-owner, Stage Left Steak, Best of Award of Excellence winner in New Brunswick, N.J.
Stage Left is located in the local theater district. Over two decades ago, the director of one nearby theater showed up for his four-person reservation with seven people. We scrambled to accommodate him, but when we went to seat him, his group had grown to 12 people. This continued for 30 minutes until his party finally sat down with 18 people. Yet more people kept joining his group until nearly the entire restaurant was filled with his group of 42 guests.
At that point, the ingenue showed up, and he demanded that we seat her. We explained that we had no more chairs. The only way to seat her was to have someone give up their chair. He threw a fit and demanded his entire party stand up and leave. We were left with a nearly empty dining room for the last seating of the evening. Years later, he was very publicly fired in disgrace, and our entire staff had Champagne to celebrate.
Brian Casey, beverage manager / sommelier, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, Sonoma, Calif.
One thing that really annoys me is when large parties order one bottle of 10 different wines, as if they are at a tasting. They expect new glassware for each new wine. The amount of work involved in pouring two ounces of each wine into a dozen or more glasses, knowing that the staff will have to wash and buff every glass at the end of the shift is frustrating. Just pick a good white and red, order multiple bottles of each, and enjoy them!
Hugo Bensimon, beverage director, Grill 23 & Bar, Grand Award winner in Boston
I think there are two camps of wine drinkers: people who drink fine wine for personal enjoyment and people who drink it to show off to others. A few years ago, I served a guest who was drinking very nice wine—and wanted everyone to know about it. When I approached his table to help him select another bottle, he immediately asked me my age, implying I was too young to know anything about wine. He was exceedingly rude to me and the entire staff serving him all evening, and seemed to feel that the amount of money he was spending on wine entitled him to behave this way. Pretentious behavior ruins the world of wine!