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