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The Flip Side of Restaurant Wine Service in NYC

Posted: Nov 1, 2007 11:37am ET

A couple of days after the BLT Steak wine debacle, I went to Sunday lunch with some friends at Union Square Café in New York City. I used to go there all the time in the early 1990s, but I had not been back in years. I heard that they had a good Italian wine list, doing special verticals of different producers, so I wanted to check it out.

I had a really good lunch. The food, service and wine list was just what I wanted. The food was clean, well-prepared and delicious. I had a main of big, juicy pan-seared scallops in a brown butter sauce with glazed onions, carrots and cauliflower that was to die for. (I miss good scallops in Tuscany!)

I had ordered a bottle of 2002 red Burgundy (honestly, I don't remember the name) and the waitress came back after about five minutes and said they ran out. "I spoke to the manager, and we would like to offer you a 2003 Domaine Lignier-Michelot Burgundy for the same price," she said with a smile. I think it was about $50 more than my selection. I don¹t know if they were doing it because of me, but that was really cool. And I hope that they would do the same for other people.

I didn¹t take them up on their offer. I am not a great fan of 2003 red Burgundies. I ordered a bottle of 2002 Dubreuil-Fontaine Pére & Fils Corton Clos du Roi, and it was fabulous. It was perfumed and sexy on the nose, with subtle spice, strawberry and cherry aromas, yet it was firm, masculine and racy, as a Corton should be. It was drinkable now, but will improve for years to come. 91 points, non-blind.

We finished the bottle and the waitress went to whisk it away from the table. I asked her if she could leave it on the table, because I like to look at the bottle, even empty. "Let me soak off the label for you," she said.

I was impressed. That's another cool thing to do. I can't remember the last time someone offered to do that for me at a restaurant. Love it!

I told my buddy, Wine Spectator executive editor Tom Matthews, about this, and he told me a funny story. Apparently, years ago, a friend of his was just starting out as a waitress and a customer asked her if she would soak off the label for him. She said, "Of course, sir!" and swiftly took the bottle back to the kitchen, soaked it and wire-brushed the label off the bottle. She returned to the table with a big smile and a perfectly clean bottle, "sans etiquette."

Tom said she didn't get a tip from that table. Poor thing.

Anyway, Union Square Café is definitely worth going to if you're in New York City. It's a warm and friendly place for a leisurely weekend lunch with good wine, good food and good friends.

Frank L Hugus
Danville, California —  November 1, 2007 7:02pm ET
Soaking would take forever and the quality of the label would suffer. Try the laminated adhesive paper available in most wine shops. Piece of cake and only takes minutes in most cases.
Nick Larsen
Richmond, B.C. —  November 1, 2007 7:46pm ET
Is that a Heinz Ketchup bottle on the table?? :)
James Suckling
 —  November 1, 2007 7:51pm ET
Yes. My Italian friend across the way likes ketchup with her fries!
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  November 2, 2007 12:17am ET
Excuse me James but are you suggesting that they recognized you as a wine big wig and decided to up the ante for the cult of personality given that your choice was not avaiable?? Seriously??
Nick Larsen
Richmond, B.C. —  November 2, 2007 5:14am ET
Ah the universal language of ketchup! Love the video blogs, James. It serves as further reinforcement to the fact that you have the coolest job! Your latest report on Tuscany was killer.
Markus Jelitto
Geneva, Switzerland —  November 2, 2007 5:36am ET
James, sorry to come in with something unrelated here. I was in the Barolo area last weekend and talked to some winemakers about the upcoming vintages. Ferrucio Grimaldi was very upbeat about the 04-06 vintages (btw, his 03 Barolo Coste is very good indeed), and Giuliano Corino agreed. Giuliano also doubnted the common wisdom that the 03's would be short-lived, pointing to the 97s which many critics also designated for early drinking, only to discover now that they had better waited...I remember you had a barrel tasting of some 04's last year, and liked them a lot, but have you had some 04 bottle samples? What about the 05? Where would these two years fit in with the 96-01 years?
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  November 2, 2007 11:35am ET

My wife and I have been big fans of USC for years. Service is always top notch without being fussy. Their focus on good ingredients really appeals to us as well. As for wine, the list has numerous interesting selections and they have guided us well on several occassions. Most notably, they had a stash of Produttori di Barbaresco Riserva (I believe 1997) that they offered at fair prices.

We took our girls (14 & 11) there twice recently as well and they've loved it. The second meal (lunch) was specifically to get the heirloom tomato salad.

Peter A Siddiqui
Chicago —  November 2, 2007 2:12pm ET
The restaurant MK in Chicago gratuitously peeled off the label and gave it to me. Very nice indeed. I agree with others; the videos are great. Thanks for making the effort to do that. Question: Say you order $150 in food and a $200 bottle of wine at dinner, how much do you normally tip, assuming good service?
Ashley Potter
LA, —  November 2, 2007 3:56pm ET
To "Tim from Santa Monica:"You make it sound as if James' suggestion that he may have received preferential service b/c he was recognized as a "wine big-wig" is an incredulous one; it certainly is not! If I was the owner and/or manager of a restaurant, and we were out of a bottle ordered by a customer known to be Mr. Suckling, I would/should be fired for not offerring to more-than-fix the problem. As evidenced by this very blog entry, USC ran the very real risk of receiving bad press as a result of handling this situation poorly. As it turned out, USC received positive press for dealing with the problem as they did. (Yes, blog entries can be counted as "press," as an internet search will turn-up blog entries and comments thereto). It would be nice to believe that an "average" customer, such as myself, would receive equal treatment if I ordered a bottle no longer in the restaurant's cellar, but the truth of the matter is that I am not a member of the press, I am not a food or wine critic (let alone a critic who's recognized across the world!), and my opinion, no matter how good or bad, has very little chance of influencing USC's business. On the other hand, Mr. Suckling's opinion, as I'm sure he is keenly aware after years of reviewing wines and commenting on restaurants, does have the power to influence business.James shouldn't be derided for his laudable grip on reality. I'm sure he receives overt preferential treatment from wineries, vintners, restauranteurs, etc... all the time. -Brian Grafstrom
James Suckling
 —  November 2, 2007 10:03pm ET
Markus. I think we are on to some more awesome Barolos in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Not sure which is best yet, but they appear to be all outstanding, particularly from top producers!
James Suckling
 —  November 2, 2007 10:04pm ET
Peter. I always tip 15 percent of the total of the bill, regardless of how expensive the wine was.
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  November 3, 2007 12:48am ET
For readers coming to NYC from elsewhere, USC books up for lunch a few weeks in advance and for dinner a month in advance. Well worth a visit, but call ahead and book.
Travis G Snyder
Salt Lake City —  November 3, 2007 12:53am ET
I miss New York, I think I will go to Union Square Caf¿ext time I'm in town and judge for myself. I can't wait, it'll be great either way.
Steven Balavender
Tampa, Fl —  November 3, 2007 8:50am ET
They do that same label thing here at Berns in Tampa....it's very cool.....and comes in handy.
Paul Mccourt
November 3, 2007 9:19pm ET
There is a reason that Danny Meyer's restaurants (USC, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Eleven Madison Park, etc) are consistently the most popular in NYC: Service.I have eaten in his places many, many times, and not once could I complain about how I was treated.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  November 5, 2007 4:04pm ET
Getting back to the previous BLT subject. I think everyone is being to hard on the sommelier. He just made a bad recommendation. It happens. We try to learn from the misses. Also, as for obscure labels: many of my guests always ask 'what's new' as if the Classics just won't do. I (& probably other somms try to have a little of both). Can't speak for others but I never try to sell according to profit margin or incentive. People have dinner daily. I want the repeat business and I want them to ask for my recommendation every time in. Like Sally Fields, I want them to really like me. (ha ha)
Peter Levy
Brooklyn —  November 6, 2007 7:39pm ET
The wine offer at USC was not due to James' notoriety, the same has happened to me, and I'm almost nobody. As noted above, Danny Meyers' restaurants all set the bar for service. At USC a few years back, the waiter suggested their to-die-for garlic potato chips while we look over the menu. The chips arrived in 5 minutes with an apology for their "lateness." So, we weren't charged for them. When I bring a wine of my own ($20 corkage fee) they decant it and act as if I have ordered their best bottle.

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