Gift Card With a Vengeance Do servers loathe gift certificates? Also: Belgium in Adams Morgan; Gillian Clark's parking woes.

Card Board: Presenting your gift certificate early could lead to some apathetic service.

A friend recently e-mailed with a simple question: Do you present a gift certificate to your server at the end of the meal or right at the beginning? “I always feel that with the latter,” writes Lou , “that the staff goes ‘Ugh, one of these types,’ and you get fucked on everything.”

But like with many simple questions, the answer is complicated, at least if you judge by the response Lou’s inquiry set off online, particularly on SeriousEats.com, which linked to my original blog item about the proper etiquette. My advice was to hold that certificate till the bitter end: “It’s like announcing, right from the start, ‘I’m cheap, and I could never afford your place without this gift certificate,’” I wrote to Lou. But I also said that I’d check with restaurateurs on the matter. Ashok Bajaj (the Oval Room, Rasika, and others) and Ellen Kassoff-Gray (Equinox) both agreed there’s no need to present a certificate when you first arrive.

A gift certificate is just another form of payment, they say, like cash or a credit card. The server does not have to perform some top-secret, three-key, nuclear-missile-code transaction at the register to accept it. They just punch a different button. It’s no big deal.

One Serious Eater, a waitstaffer apparently, begged to differ. “At some restaurants I’ve worked at, it definitely is akin to getting the codes for the nuclear football to process a GC. One large, corporate chain [in] particular, a server cannot even do a void, let alone separate checks, gift certificates, or ANY other out of the ordinary transactions without a manager coming over and doing a bunch of things in the computer first,” wrote “rockandroller.”

Besides, the same commenter added, “There are a lot of restrictions on GCs that most customers don’t bother to read, so presenting it up front to make sure you can use it avoids the server having to open the book and say ‘I’m sorry, we can’t accept this on holidays…’”

Fair enough, but for those of you not dining where the managers treat servers like they have the skill set of flan, you can still sit on your damn certificate. Really, the more interesting question, I think, is this: If you do present a gift certificate at the start of a meal, does it automatically label you a Ruby Tuesday rube trying to dine beyond your class?

The answer is a definite maybe. “Look,” says Kassoff-Gray, “everyone gets judged by a server, like it or not.” A server, in other words, may look down on you for presenting a gift certificate if that particular waiter or waitress has had a bad experience with such diners in the past. One example: a customer with a $50 gift certificate who tips only on the $75 he actually pays on his $125 dinner.

“There’s a possibility that you could get some attitude” from a server, Kassoff-Gray says. “Waiters have a memory like

an elephant’s.”

But at good restaurants where the staff is well-trained, such judgments shouldn’t translate into sub-par service at the table, the GM says. “We don’t give [gift certificates] a second thought,” Kassoff-Gray says. “My first thought is, ‘Mmm, [they have] good taste.’”

Both Bajaj and Kassoff-Gray, however, emphasize that people who dine with gift certificates need to be aware of their responsibility, namely tipping on the entire amount of the bill. It’s good for the server, and it’s good for the next diner who has a GC burning a hole in his wallet.

Package Deal

Following his surprising departure from Brasserie Beck in January, Bill Catron has already found a new home. The former beer “sommelier” has taken a position at De Vinos (2001 18th St. NW, 202-986-5002) in Adams Morgan, where he will do for the beer/wine store what he did for his former boss, Robert Wiedmaier : He’ll turn De Vinos into a Belgian beer destination.

“I want to make it the biggest off-premise Belgian beer selection in the city,” Catron says via phone.

It sounds like a smart move. Between the ban on single-beer sales in many neighborhoods (but not Adams Morgan) and the emphasis on American microbrews at other package stores, it makes sense for De Vinos to focus on those 750 ml bottles of Belgian beer. Catron already has about 230 Belgians in store, but he hopes to bump that up to about 300 different brands. Catron will also keep some American microbrews in stock for those loyal De Vinos customers who just can’t make the switch to Belgian beers.

De Vinos owner George Aguilar contacted Catron about the full-time position shortly after the beer man left Beck. The two men have known each other for years. Aguilar and his wife used to be regular patrons at Beck. “He was always telling me, ‘If you ever leave this place, let me know,’” Catron says.

The Parking Stall

For nearly a month, the General Store in Silver Spring ( 6 Post Office Road, 301-562-8787) operated as a takeout joint only, which forced every customer to lug chef Gillian Clark’s hearty fried chicken and chili off premise. It didn’t exactly make for a great dining experience, particularly when you had nowhere else to eat but your car. Montgomery County apparently wanted Clark and her partner, Robin Smith , to have more dedicated parking spaces before issuing them a certificate of occupancy.

The matter dragged on for weeks, Smith says. She’d call the bureaucrat in charge of commercial properties, who’d say he couldn’t issue a certificate of occupancy without a parking waiver. Then Smith would call the desk jockey in charge of parking waivers, who’d say he couldn’t issue a waiver without a certificate of occupancy. This Kafkaesque scenario ended only when a lawyer representing Clark and Smith made a call.

“Magically, it all came together” after that, Smith says.

General Store, a renovated 19th-century building with seating for about 30 to 35 diners, has been operating as a sit-down restaurant since Tuesday, Feb. 24, Smith says. Parking for the restaurant can be found in two locations—behind the store, where there are seven spots, and across the street, where there are about 15 more spaces. So far, parking hasn’t been a problem, although competition for those spaces could increase once Clark and Smith open Post Office Tavern, the small pub located downstairs from the General Store. It’ll likely serve late-night pub food such as individual pizzas and wagyu hot dogs (though Clark is still building the menu).

So when will the Tavern open?

During a phone interview, Clark says she thinks it’ll open this week. Then she turns to Smith, whom Clark suggests has a more conservative take on the opening date. In the background, I can hear Smith yell, “Two months!”

Clark laughs uproariously. “Let’s say five weeks,” she says as a compromise. “Maybe less, but we’ll see.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

My wife and I are enthusiastic users of gift certificiates/coupons from the Entertainment Guide and from restaurant.com. We use these at least half the time we eat out.

We always prefer to hand it to the server at the end, for fear we are unfairly labeled as cheapskates--which we are not. (We always tip on the full amount-- duh.) At the same time, we try to get it to the server before they run the bill, so they won't have to do it twice.

I detest the few GCs from restaurant.com that require you to present it to the server first. (Ted's Montana Grill, are you reading this?!) They're a good deal (a $25 GC for an online price of $3), but it just seems humiliating to have to do this--so much so that I'd almost rather not use the coupon and not eat there at all.
In these economic times (admittedly, not as bad in DC as some places, but still), a restaurant should be happy to have customers at all, regardless of how they're paying the bill. When I waited tables at a resort, I always enjoyed the couples that had purchased the package deal, which provided them with coupons for their meals. (Admittedly, there was already a tip attached to the coupon)...but, they were also more generous than those who were plunking down for something that passed for "fine dining" in a rural area. If I actually paid $3 for my meal and 3/4 of my friends' meals, I'm much more likely to get generous for the tip (what the hell, if I tip 30% on a $25 bill, that's $7.50, or a grand total of $10.50 for a $25 meal, not to mention that my friends will also be throwing in for the portion of the rest of the bill THEY paid, so the server might well end up with 40%).

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