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Rude, Thoughtless Patrons And Poor Management Response Made Tocqueville Near Union Square An Upsetting Experience

June 27, 2011

Trouble within...

Tocqueville is a place I’d been looking forward to trying for some time. It is located near Union Square, which is a handy hub, and therefore knowing of a swanky restaurant that could offer delicious food near there (other than the Union Square Cafe, say) could only be of use. Zagat loves it, giving it a 25 for food, which is better than most places.

I know there are a ton of places to eat near Union Square which range in quality. Generally the good ones are so well known and mobbed that they don’t feel particularly special. I had the impression that Tocqueville had been making an effort to separate itself from the crowd in the way Gramercy Tavern, Dovetail, Ouest, DBGB and Daniel do: by aiming for that rarefied atmosphere of Tier 1 food and service. I am sad to say instead we had an upsetting experience.

Tocqueville is not to blame for all of it, but the front of house needs to get its ship in order so that all of the patrons can enjoy themselves, as opposed to allowing some of the patrons to trample on the experience of others.

On a Friday night my wife and I thought it would be nice to kick off the weekend with an elegant dinner: you know, just a little something special to start off the weekend. How can it be that I now feel we’d’ve been better off at home in front of the TV with some take-in?

Either way, we settled on Tocqueville, which I was excited about for all of the reasons listed above, and of course the opportunity to try some (what I hoped would be) delicious food.

Well rendered. Nice little bar.

The evening started off promisingly enough. The bartender employed an interesting technique when prepping the martini: he poured a splash of vermouth into the glass, swirled it around, and then dumped it out. Then he poured the chilled vodka in. A clever technique. Dressed with a twist, it was delicious.

Tocqueville itself consists of the front of house, where you are greeted, a small bar area (six chairs or so?) and then a square, box-like room with high ceilings. In the rear of the room is the entrance to the kitchen, where the uniformed, bevested waiters hustle in and out, carrying silver trays(!) with delectable concoctions on them. I noticed that a number of dishes (anything served in a bowl, primarily) were carried to the table under lids, preserving the heat of the dish as well as creating a moment of flourish during presentation.

As I mentioned, a good start.

Low lit, but the mirror picks up sound... .

The challenges of a restaurant in a square room became apparent quickly. It’s a bit louder than most upscale joints. There were some cushions and drapes to help absorb the sound, but there’s also a tall mirror that dominates the western wall of the room, which is certainly bouncing sound around. My wife and I both noticed the volume level, and she mentioned that she was aware that some online reviews had mentioned it can be loud. Ah well, what can you do? Perhaps it would make the evening more festive. Below the gurgle and guffaw of the room, some cool Brazilian jazz was playing. The lights were still low, and in fact the lighting system was quite clever. The center of each table is more illuminated than the seats around it, presumably via a carefully aimed and muzzled spotlight. As a food blogger, this excited me, as it would make snapping a picture discreetly much more doable – but more on that later.

It became apparent, however, that it wasn’t just the acoustics of the room that was driving the volume up from the usual low thrum punctuated by the clink of silverware on plates and ting of toasting glasses. No, a short distance away, near to the center of the room, there was a table for ten, well into their cups.

It took a while longer than expected for my wife to get her first drink (a blackberry martini which appealed to her), and we ordered our meal. For her: chilled summer pea soup with a confection-like gel in the center, for me a terrine of Hudson Valley foie gras which sounded delicious. I should point out that part of what made me interested in Tocqueville is the chef’s apparent interest in locally-sourced ingredients. In addition to the a la carte menu, we were presented with a prix-fixe menu driven by fresh ingredients from the Union Square greenmarket. Clever and exciting. The braised lamb ravioli sounded promising… .

Admit it, it looks pretty, no?

The pea soup was lovely. As at Dovetail (and a number of other fancy restaurants) it is served in two steps. First, the bowl is presented, with its geometric and elegant display of the solid ingredients arranged like a diorama of a small village. In this case, this village had a cone of a panna cotta-like substance in its center, like a mountain. The mountain was reduced to an island when the lime green chilled pea soup was poured in. The taste matched the presentation. Very fresh, faint cream note, strong sweet pea – tasty.

Unfortunately, you can't see the toast that came with this... .

The foie gras was served in a round, with some riesling gels(!), a roasted fig and rhubarb. How decadent can you get? The four home-made toast points – I’m not sure if you can call them that – were sensational. First of all, they were well sized for the portion, allowing plenty of room to eat the dish. Second, they were light, rich and fluffy, almost like toasted challah. I was a bit struck by a very present salt note in the foie gras, and my wife noticed it in her soup as well, but apart from this distraction we were both enjoying our food. Off to a roaring start.

Until the table of 10 next to us descended into a photo shoot.

Nowadays, cell phones and manners seem to be at odds, but as a society we seem to have come to terms with some intrusion from cell phones as a trade-off for their convenience. My wife has to cope with my scribbling furious notes when we eat, which I admit is rude to her. Cameras on phones can make matters worse, with their flashes and whatnot. People are generally understanding if, say, a flash or two goes off in an otherwise crowded, low-lit room. It may rake the other patrons a bit, but they generally understand. That’s why, when taking pictures for this blog, I use a tiny pen light instead of a flash if any additional light is required. It is far, far less distracting. That’s also why I was so pleased with Tocqueville’s lighting design: I wouldn’t need it (notice the darkness of the photos). That’s also why my phone is set to silent, so there’s no camera click sound if I snap a shot. Indeed, I do my utmost to make sure any photography is invisible to the other patrons and staff.

That is not what happened here.

The table in question.

The 10-top appeared to be the following: three New York businessmen romancing seven foreign clients – or six foreign clients and their local fixer. Well, surprise surprise, the businessmen had evidently hired a professional photographer, who started snapping away, wedding-style, with his bulky, serious DSLR camera with upward-pointed, detachable flash.

Flash. Flash flash flash.

What’s going on there?

Flash flash. This group – you three: flash. Flash flash.

Each flash was a pinprick into our enjoyment of the meal.

Flash flash flash. Flash flash flash.

What the hell is this, a photo shoot?

Flash flash flash. Now you two: flash.

Well this is just plain rude.

It kept on going… and going.

Long enough for us to ask our server if he wouldn’t mind asking them to stop, as it was disruptive and upsetting. He said he had heard as much from other customers as well. After saying that, we watched him go over to the other table, but as he landed, the photographer put down his camera. No words were exchanged.

Well, that was a bit ridiculous, but at least they’ve finally stopped. Perhaps now, I can enjoy my lamb three ways, and my wife her can enjoy her tuna tartare.

The tuna tartare is plated like modern art.

Let’s see, it certainly looks deliflash. Flash flash.

We both rolled our eyes and spoke to the person pouring our water.

Excuse me, we said to the busboy, would you mind asking them to stop? They’re being rude.

The busboy turned and went over to the other table like a shot. We saw him speak to the photographer, who stopped. This was followed by a chorus of guffaws from the table, who immediately started joking loudly about how rude they were being.

Flash flash flash. Flash flash. The large mirror on the opposite wall only served to further the strobe effect.

By now my wife and I had gone from irked to pissed. Can we speak to the manager? I know you’re sorry. We’d like to speak to the manager.

What is this? We’re trying to enjoy our meal. We are paying customers. Why is nothing being done? We didn’t expect a photo shoot. It’s rude and they should stop. There are other customers here as well. Why has no one other than the busboy told them to stop? This is plain old disrespectful.

The gentleman did go over to the other table and the photographer finally put down his camera, but by now my wife and I were fully upset – and it is hard to taste your food through gritted teeth. It didn’t help that the fixer promptly pulled out his cellphone and started snapping away just to be a jerk. However that flash was merely irritating compared to the industrial strength, upward pointed, clear white plastic-topped flexible flash of the DSLR.

When the busboy who actually did speak to them on our behalf returned to refill our glasses, I palmed him some dough and said “Thanks.”

The lamb...

It’s a pity – the lamb was tasty – especially the braised medallion, but by now my wife and I simply wanted to leave.

The manager returned and offered us a cordial. We declined, our eyes set on the door.

However the 10-top then got up to leave. The fat one at the head of the table surprised me with a snarky “Good night,” which landed like a slap in the face. Whatever upset had been tamped down by the gratis arrival of the pecorino cheese with honeycomb and ice creams delivered by our server immediately welled up into a red ball of rage. However he was out the door before I could gather my wits. We’ll take the check, thanks.

The 10-top left behind a table loaded with half-drunk glasses.

Until two of the businessmen and the fixer returned to drain them.

I paid our bill and left a note on the check: full marks for the food but unfortunately the experience was upsetting.

We stood up to leave. My wife took three steps in front of me, far enough so that she was in the bar area when I heard someone behind me – I believe it was the fixer – say loudly “Bye!” That stopped me in my tracks.

Do I want to get into a fight at Tocqueville?

None of them met my glare.

I took three more steps toward the door and stopped. I should do something. I should say something. I should make them eat that fucking camera. I should jab their faces with the stems of their wine glasses. I should trash them and – whoa.

Whoa whoa whoa.

Better just to leave.

But first, another word to the manager.

The front of house greeter, a pleasant, well-dressed fellow, was extremely apologetic. I heard what happened, he said. They were very rude and I am very sorry.

Look, I get it – it’s a big table and they’re buying a lot of booze. I get it. But there are other customers here too, you know? And everybody understands if you take a picture or two, ok, we can live with that. But when a photo shoot breaks out, that isn’t right. That’s just rude. I know you’re not responsible for them, what can you do with people like that, but something should’ve been done. You know?

I’m very sorry, you’re right, etc.

This morning I woke up and I was still upset. What a waste. I don’t fault Tocqueville for having jerk customers, who simply didn’t care about their fellow patrons, but I do fault them for their ineffective response. Maybe I’ve seen too many Gordon Ramsay shows but I can’t help but think he’d have thrown the bums out or done something – anything – to right the situation.


1 East 15th Street
New York, NY 10003
10 Comments leave one →
  1. Hugh permalink
    June 27, 2011 10:50 am

    I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I read this piece. Truly – an outrageous event, and it shows that this restaurant does not belong in the highest echelon of New York restaurants.

    Nobody should have an issue with a few pictures being taken at a table. That’s ok. But there are limits. And after a complaint or two from other diners the house manager should have recognized that the table – or a person at it – was acting disruptively. Period. Full stop.

    Under those circumstances, as in the case of any disruptive table or customer, the senior person on the floor should have very politely asked the table (or the offender) to stop or correct the offending behavior. If the table (or the offender) didn’t comply the table’s booze should have been shut off, a bill rendered, and the table/offenders asked to leave.

    What was lacking here was oversight and care from the restaurant’s management, turning what I presume was a $125-$150 per person experience for you into a restaurant patron’s nightmare. If I knew that after having to deal with that awfulness, I would have to shell out that sort of money, I would have choked on the food as I attempted to eat it – no matter how expertly it was prepared.

    The restaurant manager – or whomever was in charge that night – seemed to suffer from temporary blindness/deafness (I wonder why?) as to what was going on in the restaurant, and should be fired. This sort of thing would NEVER be permitted happen at a serious restaurant, like a Jean Georges, Shun Lee or Peter Luger (and as a long-time regular at each, I’ve never seen experienced anything like that). The owners of those places have their crews wired way too tight to permit disruptive patrons to long interfere with the room’s general dining experience.

    If a table gets rowdy, the house in a well run restaurant makes an appearance. That failed to really happen here, leaving you to fend for yourself. So, you were left in a no win situation to stew in the same cesspool as offensive people, due to the ‘who cares about the customer’ management approach.


    • June 28, 2011 9:21 am

      That is very much part of what was so upsetting about it. You don’t go to a swanky restaurant to get into a confrontation. And while dealing with jerks is a possibility anywhere, the management’s MIA status to this disruption (and I hasten to point out it was not merely my wife and I that were disrupted, this was upsetting to the entire room) – it leaves me wondering what the heck Tocqueville’s managers were thinking.

  2. Steve Z. permalink
    June 28, 2011 9:14 am

    Having grown up in the restaurant business I know full well that handling unruly customers is tricky business for management. But the bottom line is, people are there for good food, good service and atmosphere; and it’s a mistake to let the rude behavior of one party ruin the experience for those surrounding them. I just returned from Rome, and I have to say, it was a real treat to dine night after night in restaurants where people spoke in subdued voices, and flash photographs were a no-no. Atmosphere and service will often times trump good food in my book!

    • June 28, 2011 9:28 am

      I am willing to put up with a lot for the sake of good food. You can get good food in a dumpy place. But if you go to a ritzy place – and are asked to pay ritzy place prices – you shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of nonsense. It’s not just a matter of taking a shot or two, which I think anybody understands. When they keep going and going with a professional photographer, when the complaints keep rolling in and nothing is done… that is baffling. And yes, a good atmosphere can only add to the enjoyment of a meal. It turns out absent management can diminish that enjoyment as well.

  3. Hugh permalink
    June 28, 2011 11:34 am

    In thinking about it, the simple math of it makes no sense. A number of foreign business people at a big table may have left happy (maybe). How many locals/potential repeat customers left upset and alienated?


  4. cory d permalink
    June 28, 2011 11:40 am

    The restaurant clearly lost the forest for the trees here.

    In their misguided attempt to coddle a big-spending table of tourists (a one-hit-wonder who of course will never return) they failed to consider their other patrons–the deep-pocketed local foodies who might have become regulars but who will now avoid the joint like a cheap, poly-blend suit and warn off their friends to boot.

    Tocqueville, you have chosen unwisely.


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