Young and Hungry

The Indignant Diner Who Went Too Far: A Web Campaign to Smear the Mussel Bar

mussel bar_opt

I want to talk about restaurant reviews for a minute — your reviews.  Diners have power, and you've had it for as long as anyone has cared about Zagat ratings. But with the proliferation of sites as far-ranging (and far-reaching) as Yelp and Urbanspoon, not to mention personal blogs, your ability to make noise has increased significantly. I'm not always convinced that your sense of fairness has kept pace.

I say this after reading what happened recently at the Mussel Bar, chef Robert Wiedmaier's new gastropub and "rock 'n' roll bar" in Bethesda. A diner who goes by the handle, "Anna" (or sometimes "Anu") has been strafing the landscape with essentially the same comment. She has posted it on Zagat, Urbanspoon, CultureMob, Metrocurean, Yelp (where it's been filtered), and even our little blog. Here's the gist of it:

The food is ok..overpriced yes but ok. The reason for low rating is the service we received from none other than restaurant manager and owner. We went and my husband didn’t have his ID with him. We are a couple in our late late thirties and look it. Since I had ID, I ordered the drink and my husband sipped from it. The owner and the manager started to yell at us as if we were teenage kids trying to get drunk in the middle of our meal. Threatening to throw us out if my husband drank another sip. I understood his policy but come on …yelling at us…really?

I was beyond mortified and embarrassed. More for him than for us. I plan on telling everyone about how little he thinks of his patrons. I am also a writer so you can bet this is what’s on my mind and where my writing energies will go.

Wiedmaier has his own take on the incident, and he was only too happy to share it yesterday when we launched into a conversation about public reviews. He told me that when the ID-less husband first took a sip of the drink, a manager approached the table and informed the couple that the gentleman wasn't allowed to consume alcohol.

Later, Wiedmaier said, the husband took another sip of the drink. This is when he decided a visit from the owner was necessary to drive the point home. Wiedmaier said he "very nicely" explained why the husband could not drink without an ID; he said he even apologized to the couple for having to make a fuss. The owner said the husband and wife were smiling on their way out the door.

Then the wife's online reviews started to hit. She highly discouraged people from going to the Mussel Bar because of Wiedmaier's alleged treatment. She even called for an outright ban of the restaurant for "anyone who feel[s] this is uncalled for."

Wiedmaier was not, to say the least, happy about the smear campaign. "I should have just asked them to leave," he says in retrospect. "They were breaking the law, and I could have gotten in trouble."

I'm not here to judge whose version of the story is correct. I'm here to suggest that diners, when they turn into public reviewers, have to put their bad experiences into perspective. This couple obviously felt slighted. They felt slighted because they decided the punishment — Wiedmaier's alleged outburst — didn't fit the crime of taking sips in violation of, well, nothing to their minds. So what did they do?

The wife did the exact same thing to the owner that he allegedly did to them: She meted out a swift and harsh punishment for his behavior. She called for a ban and then broadcast it as far and wide as possible, to the potential detriment of the business. She doesn't appear to consider the position that she and her had husband put the Mussel Bar in, and what tension that might create with servers, managers, and the owner, who have something to lose in this situation.

I contacted Kathie Durbin, chief of licensure, regulation, and education for the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control, and she said that it's technically not illegal to serve someone without an ID. But, she added, each restaurant and each bar develops its own policy on when to serve customers. They do so to protect themselves from underage drinkers.

And potentially large fines. Durbin says the county has a "compliance check program" in which it sends an 18-year-old adult into every bar and restaurant to see if the underage drinker can order a cocktail or beer without presenting identification. The fine to a licensee for serving such a person is large — $1,000 for a first offense. Plus, there is the potential for a hearing in which the Board of License Commissioners can levy addition punishment.

As a result, licensed bars and restaurants in Montgomery County often create their own carding policies to protect themselves from such ugly  consequences.  Wiedmaier told me that they card everyone who looks 35 or younger, which of course is a judgment call. This couple clearly ran headlong into Mussel Bar's policy, which they decided to flaunt. Maybe it annoyed Wiedmaier, maybe it didn't. Maybe he got angry, maybe he didn't.

The fact is, the Mussel Bar has a right to set its own policy. The couple, in turn, can decide to ignore it. But there are consequences, like separate visits from the manager and owner.

The couple was clearly indignant about these forward approaches to their table, and with the power of social media at their fingertips, they were going to let as many people know as possible. But here's a maxim that this couple and every other online commentator should consider: with greater power comes greater responsibility.

  • EatMore DrinkMore

    Anna posted the same comment on our Mussel Bar review as well. I trashed the comment. It really is amazing the how comfortable people feel attempting to get 'revenge' online.

    I had another commenter (comment also trashed), that bashed a new restaurant we reviewed and vowed to never give them a dime of her money because....wait for it...their website did not support Internet Explorer 6! Are you kidding me?

    If you have not checked out the exchange on the Mussel Bar Facebook page where Anna posted her criticism, the response from Mussel Bar fans is hilarious.

  • Eric

    Although this article is basically right on, what the author glosses over is that despite the Mussel Bar's claims that serving the man was illegal, it was perfectly legal for the bar to serve him (as evidenced by the legal reference in the article). The owner's claim that the couple were "breaking the law" is just not true. They were breaking the Mussel Bar's policy, not the law. And although the Bar certainly has the right (and perhaps even obligation) to have a policy, the enforcement of that policy must follow reasonable guidelines and take into account that a restaurant is there to serve.

  • Tim Carman


    I have been searching in vain for that thread on Mussel Bar's facebook page. Can you direct me there?


  • Stephanie

    I'm sorry, but this woman's claims are ridiculous. I completely support Wiedmaier in his actions regardless of how it went down. My uncle owns a liquor store and was nabbed by an 18 year old who came into the shop undercover, the 18 year old had a full beard and looked well above age. It's a selfish vendetta from someone who got caught doing something they were asked not to do.

  • K

    As a bartender in DC I car everyone. If I get caught serving someone under age i get ticketed and potentially lose my job. I am sorry, but noone....not Anna....not anyone is worth me paying a huge fine and losing my job. I am sorry but it isn't. If people want to break store policy that is fine....but they shouldn't expect to have the right to risk someone's job.

  • Kimberly

    The woman is certainly overreacting with her comment spam about the incident, and it seems that Mussel Bar overreacted as well. If the couple were truly and obviously of age (and that point does not seem to be in dispute), it was not necessary for the manager himself to admonish a patron over two sips of a beverage. The nicest word I can think of to describe both sets of reactions is silly.

  • EatMore DrinkMore

    Sadly, either Mussel Bar or Anna deleted the thread on Facebook. Basically it was a back and forth between people that sided with Mussel Bar and Anna. If anyone took a screen print of it or still has access to it, please post it here.

  • Bethesda Resident

    Unfortunately, Anna's behavior is all too common for Bethesda residents (Bethesdans?). Having lived here for the past 20 years, it constantly shocks me to see so many well-to-do people treating (usually young) people in the service and retail industries like garbage, as if the entire world is supposed to cater to their needs.

    It's just the hazard of doing business in Bethesda, I guess. Shame on us.

  • Karl

    Aren't we missing a crucial point here? If there are, in fact, 18 year olds who look like they're in their late 30s, isn't it ridiculous to fine a restaurant or waiter for serving them? It just doesn't make sense that a late 30s couple should need IDs to drink.

  • greg

    So a guy in his thirties gets yelled at for drinking legally and you're defending the douchbag owner? I'd tell the owner to FGY also.

  • topvar

    People old enough to enjoy eating mussels are old enough to discern for themselves whether reviews are legitimate or over the top. What's the big, story-worthy deal here?

  • DC Boozer

    disagree with greg. it's only legal to drink in a public place if you can prove it. To me, Weidmaier comes off as overly stringent, but that doesn't qualify as douchebag...

  • Mark

    The laws in DC, Maryland and Virginia say it is illegal to serve anyone who can not produce ID. They say nothing about an ID-less patron sharing a drink. Here's Montgomery County's law:
    Here's DC's law:

  • Tim Carman


    I reviewed this exact document before writing the above post. I also talked to Durbin. There is nothing in the document that supports your notion that it is "illegal to serve anyone who can not produce ID." At least not in MoCo.


  • wiedmaier

    Sorry folks, we deleted the post. The public weighed-in and it was very clear how the public felt about "Anna's" behavior....she made her point (& everywhere) so we felt there was no need to keep it on our page too. To all appearances, she must be very embarrassed at this point; she did it to herself but we don't feel the need to keep fueling her fire.

  • GoonieGooGoo

    The restaurant / owner were completely within their rights to enforce the law as they have the most to lose.

    No ID - No Drinks.....its a simple rule. If you are an adult...act like it.

    If they didn't like the treatment...they could have just left the restaurant or complained at the end of their dinner. Instead an attempt to discredit a business...Talk about passive-agressive.

    This Anna/Anu character seems like yet another overprivileged individual who thinks the law or rules do not apply to them.

    " husband can't go one meal without having alcohol....waaah"

    Given the amount of effort it took her to attempt to defame a restaurant for such an issue.....if this woman is anything like that in her real life....NO WONDER THE HUSBAND NEEDED A DRINK SO BADLY!!


  • RED

    Truly the point of the matter here is it may not be illegal have an idea to serve alcohol, but it is definitely illegal for a 21 year old or younger to DRINK ALCOHOL. If by chance a policeman comes in and decides to check on the age of people at the bar or in the dining room and that person is in fact underage, then the restaurant is fined and at risk to lose their permit. I am 47 years old and look young for my age. I do not get upset if I am carded at a bar or music hall when entering that establishment. It is my own fault if I am not prepared with that form of identification. You are turned away and that is that! So as it seems a policy of Mussel Bar, I applaud this policy as Chef Wiedmaier is taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of his diners. Others should follow suit. Red

  • tomaj

    A bit of a sideways argument: Part of the problem is the U.S's anal approach to alcohol. In most of the world, if you look old enough to be of age or enough to handle a drink, you can buy a drink. If not, no. One reason I enjoy international travel is that I don't have to worry about whether I can drink, say, on a patio or on the beach. Part of our criticism of the sipper is that he was endangering the restaurant (for fines, laws); we need to realize that he wasn't, and perhaps he knew this quite well.

    Second, more directly related to restaurants, should we always adopt the "if you the customer don't like it, you can leave" mentality? If a restaurant has a policy/behavior I don't like, should I simply leave and hope my non-patronage will make them and others change their ways? That seems to be the attitude of some posters. Remember, the issue here is not the law, that was not in violation; the issue is the restaurant’s policy. It can go too far of course, but a customer has a right to campaign for a change of policy.

  • nkh

    nasty reviews aside, I would hope there'd be more pressing things to deal with than a 30-something looking guy sipping wine from his wife's glass... he and the manager seem needlessly rigid - petty even - and Anna's passive aggressive response strikes me as something most normal people might consider... she just went through with it.

  • Nda

    Critical - okay, nasty - reviews are not only useful; but also necessary. They can in some cases help sharpen the focus of criticism; and reasonable readers can decide for themselves whether the subject of that criticism holds merit.

    In this particular case, you note that Mussel Bar has a 'right' to set their own, albeit somewhat arbitrary, policy for complying with minimum age regulations. So isn't it only "fair" then that the diner also be able to comment, however stridently, on the prudence of that policy? In other words, the policy is a "judgment call" - your words - of the restauranteur, so I fail to see why a critique of that judgment is considered out of bounds.

  • Andrew

    I think that IF what this woman says actually happened and she was treated badly, then she has every right to post this negative comment. This is a simple case of he said she said. I understand the policy 100%, however I've experienced rude staff in this establishment myself, so I have my doubts that this incident was handled properly.

  • Michael

    So actually it is untrue that the couple were "breaking the law" as the owner stated. They were breaking his restaurant's policy which he certainly had leeway in enforcing or not. That's called customer service. Perhaps if the owner were as versed on "the law" as he pretends to be. Maybe he could take a class.