A Wino’s Torture: One More Lament About Restaurant Dining

Diane and I don’t dine much in restaurants any more, for a variety of reasons. They’re too noisy for conversation; by and large, they’re overpriced for what you get – at least if you know how to boil water; and the wine lists are usually an affront, with wines both too young and vastly overpriced. I hate to pay more in a restaurant for a three-year-old bottle than I paid for the now-almost-twenty-year-old bottle of the same estate that I have at home. Shameless markups of 200% and 300% (and often even more) are restaurateurs’ way of making winelovers subsidize everybody else’s dinner, and I hate it.

Stressfully Seeking an Affordable Wine

We and two good friends ate at a really fine Manhattan restaurant about a month ago. The food was wonderful – as flavorful and authentic Neapolitan cuisine as I can remember eating anywhere – but the noise level was abominable. Even without the usual “background” music, we couldn’t hear each other, and what should have been pleasant dinner conversation became a very forced shouting and hearing match: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “Did you say…?” “What?”

It reminded us all too painfully of our last sustained restaurant excursion. A few months back we spent a weekend in New Orleans visiting a dear friend. This of course necessitated dining out, which we had in fact looked forward to: This was New Orleans after all, where food and drink are a way of life. So we walked energetically all day so as to be able to dine generously each night: Compère Lapin, Cochon, and our old favorite, Galatoire’s – this should be pure pleasure. What could possibly hurt?

Cochon dining room

A lot, it turned out. Start with noise. If you think New York restaurants are noisy (I live there, so it’s my standard of comparison), New Orleans restaurants are off the charts. Loud background music – make that foreground music – and hordes of tourists, freed from the restrictions of their home turf, who shriek and bellow their entire evening’s conversation, as loudly in the dining room as on the street. We were six at table: If we wanted to talk to our companions, we all had to lean our faces in toward the center of the table and shout – and we still couldn’t reliably hear each other.

The food at both Compère Lapin and Cochon was good, but we’ll never go back. The noise level was intolerable. Even our beloved Galatoire’s was much more noisy than we remembered it: In that temple of New Orleans cuisine, many patrons seemed to feel compelled to talk over the ambient noise, not under it, and the room itself is very bright. In the past, conversations at Galatoire’s took place at a subdued pitch – but these days the backward-baseball-cap crowd has invaded even there.

galatoires

Since seafood is expensive everywhere, and Gulf fish and shellfish are New Orleans staples, the food prices didn’t seem excessive – though dining out every night quickly turns into a fairly costly proposition. But the wine prices were the cruelest part. As the appointed one-man Consorzio del Vino for our group, I had the task of finding wines that would (a) partner with four to six different dishes per course, and (b) not break anyone’s budget. Forget about anything under $100: There were very few of those on any list I saw, and the ones there were did not impress.

Galatoire’s was the greatest shocker. It has always had an extensive and very fine list, unsurprisingly strong in great French wines. But there has always in the past been a decent sprinkling of reasonably priced fine bottles interlaced with the expense-account budget-busters. Well, not so much anymore. Over half the bottles on Galatoire’s multipage wine list now have a comma in their price, and in over half of those, the number before the comma isn’t one. After assiduous study I did find a few items we could all drink with pleasure and without financial ruin, but I pity the non-wine-professional trying to navigate that list without taking out a second mortgage. Below is one page from the 27-page list. Prices removed to prevent apoplexy.

Galatoire wines

It just shouldn’t be that hard – or that financially painful – to drink a decent bottle of wine in a restaurant. But until restaurants dramatically change their pricing policy – and their noise levels – Diane and I will mostly continue to dine at home, thank you.

19 Responses to “A Wino’s Torture: One More Lament About Restaurant Dining”

  1. Dennis Mitchell Says:

    I am painfully aware of the 300% to 500% wine mark-ups in many restaurants these days, as this discourages the consumption of wine. You can order a pretty good beer for less than ten bucks and enjoy that throughout the meal instead of being burnt for poorly-selected and over-priced wines.

    But part of the problem is not the greedy restaurateur, but the landlord who views the location of their precious building as worth a huge rent. This causes the restaurants, of course, to elevate wine pricing to stratospheric levels.

    And many restaurant owners pay more attention to percentages than they to do dollars. You bank dollars. You don’t bank percentages.
    So while you make 500% or more on that $7 beer, this ends up being far less than you’d take in if you had a more reasonable margin on an attractively-priced bottle of wine.

    Good luck explaining that to the restaurateur, though. He/She can’t hear you anyway, as Tom points out. The damned dining room is too loud.

  2. colinwh Says:

    In many “highly rated” restaurants it is simply to be seen and show you can afford it more than knowing food and wine.
    The sommelier soon gets to know your wine standard (if any) and the maître d’ your food knowledge.
    Such pretentious people prove easy to pluck. As for noise level, I would simply leave if it was intrusive.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      In New York, if you walked out of every restaurant with an intrusive noise level, you would dine at home about 360 days a year — which is usually what we do.

  3. Philip Christensen Says:

    Wine lists are like escort services: selections are pricey and too young! My son Jon, who works at One Woman Wines and Vineyards, in Southold, tells us that many of the wines we buy from a local vendor will be good, in four or five years! . . .

    Recently, my wife Carol and I joined a friend for an early supper at a local restaurant featuring wines and tapas (including a fine cheese board with pata negra). During the first part of our meal, we were serenaded by the likes of Elton John, the Beach Boys, and the Stones. After 6:00, the music shifted to the old standards which were more to my liking. Nonetheless, even Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were intrusive. I understand that eating out is partially an experience to be share, but I think that the experience of sharing fine wine and good food should leave one speechless! A room full of conversation is noisy enough. Add music, and one must shout to be heard, and the dinner, itself, almost becomes another distraction.

  4. Kerin O'Keefe (@KerinOKeefe) Says:

    Another great article Tom – Bravo! I just got back from my annual summer vacation to the US, and besides the blaring acoustics, the wine lists are indeed getting more dreadful – and more expensive – every year.

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Another excellent read, and not just because I agree with you. Love the backward baseball cap crowd comment. My main complaint about restaurant dining is the noise, second is wine pricing.

  6. mbf44 Says:

    This should be sent to every restauranteur including Danny Meyer; the prices for wines at (the old)Union Square Cafe skyrocketed a few years ago and we limited ourselves to a cocktail or a drink at the bar. I fear the new version of USC will have even more shocking prices. As for noise, I thought dining out was supposed to be an occasion for relaxing and enjoyable conversation as well as dining. Like you, I prefer my own dining room these days.

  7. Gene B Says:

    Smack dab on the mark, Tom. I was there that night in New Orleans.
    As for the noise, it seems that restaurant customers look on dining rooms in much the same way they do football stadiums. I’ve noticed that some newspapers and websites classify restaurant dining as “entertainment.”
    And complaining is useless, since restaurateurs will never ask customers to tone down the conversation volume, knowing that any suggestion would be met with outrage.
    My single positive experience in this regard occurred about a year ago: I was the first to arrive at a restaurant for lunch with three friends. The hostess led me to a room and gave me a choice of several tables. She pointed out that one was next to a table for eight, and suggested one of the others. It was a sign that some restaurateurs recognize the problem but are at a loss to solve it.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks for the comments, Gene.

      For those who aren’t lucky enough to know you and may be reading these comments, let just point out that this esteemed gentleman was for many years the restaurant reviewer for New Orleans’ Times Picayune — so he knows whereof he speaks.

  8. Geoff Says:

    Thanks for another great read, Tom. I’m glad to see it’s not just me who doesn’t understand the ‘backward baseball cap’ crowd! A bizarre American invention that’s sadly made its way around the world. And I’m also pleased to read that the appalling noise levels in many American restaurants are not just something that bothers me, coming from Australia (a country of a people not normally known for their reticence) and living in France. I’ve always said that the noise levels in restaurants are an interesting cultural indicator. But I’m still trying to come to terms with the concept of a restaurant wine list with many wines over $1,000?? Did I read that wrong?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I only wish you had read it wrong. If I’m remembering anywhere near accurately, over half the wines on Galatoire’s 28-page list weighed in at more than $1000, and I think half of that half cost in excess of $2000. Given the levels of poverty and hunger in this country and around the world, I find that obscene.

  9. e Says:

    great column, Tom. I agree completely. you gave me a new way of talking about a certain group we all recognize: “the backward baseball cap crowd.” thanks for that.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Glad you liked the column and the phrase, Ed. I have to admit to a certain shamefully-discriminatory pleasure in writing it.

  10. Pat Says:

    This is our experience in DC, also. The result is, like you, we rarely eat out and instead save our pennies for trips abroad and the much nicer restaurant experiences in France, Italy, Spain…

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Right! It is amazing how many European restaurants have managed to preserve a level of civilization that the US seems to have given up on.

  11. Tablewine Says:

    Bravo! We too have cut back on restaurant dining for the same reasons–especially the noise level. Another complaint we have about contemporary wine lists is their failure to include recognizable producers in favor of esoteric “boutique” names known only among “somm” cult.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You are quite right, Roland — but I don’t want to get started on the subject of inexperienced, partially educated somms. I had one, some time back, who actually described Barolo to me as “a nice light wine.”

  12. myhomefoodthatsamore Says:

    You make so much sense, in all you write. The demise of certain standards of behaviour first and foremost is what seems particularlyy galling. Shame that greater spending power didn’t come accompanied by refinement.

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