When I read that New York restaurateur Keith McNally had banned “The Late Late Show” host James Corden from famed restaurant Balthazar for allegedly abusive behavior, I was shocked. Not at hearing accusations that a wealthy celebrity had been rude to people in the hospitality industry, but at something far less common: a restaurant owner’s criticizing and barring a client, in public no less.
“You can’t do your job! Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook the omelette myself!” Corden is alleged to have yelled at his server, identified by McNally under the initials M.K. in his Instagram post.
Personally, I wish it happened more often. Rather than apologize, explain and plead with nasty customers to remove one-star reviews online, genuflecting to the dogma that the customer is always right, more restaurateurs should feel confident telling troublesome diners that they aren’t welcome.
Yes, owners would like all of their Yelp and Google scores to be five stars. But the volume of vindictive people who leave bad reviews out of spite (blaming a small restaurant for the third-party delivery company that screwed up the order and a Montreal bagel shop for not making New York bagels, among other attacks I’ve documented in my Twitter feed) and the lack of accountability from those platforms makes it impossible to maintain a clean report card in any case.
While naming names opens restaurateurs up to defamation lawsuits, I am in complete support of telling nasty guests to leave and enforcing a discreet no-dine list, instead. In fact, when I started out as a food reporter 14 years ago, I used to frequently hear from owners of full-service restaurants that they kept informal lists of personae non gratae. They were never public. And rarely did they outright inform diners that they weren’t welcome — that’s an invitation for more conflict from people who crave it. When problem diners called for Friday tables, they were simply told that the soonest seating available was in two weeks on a Tuesday.
However, that was in the analogue era. As reservations have shifted to the digital sphere, it’s become nearly impossible to enforce a no-dine list. Unfortunately, online reservation systems have also magnified one of the reasons diners used to end up being shunned: the reservation no-show.
It’s now easier than ever to make multiple reservations for the same night, then choose a restaurant at the last minute and ghost the others. This isn’t just inconsiderate to fellow diners who covet those spots; it costs restaurants revenue. Chefs and general managers often use the number of reservations to place food orders and schedule staffing. Holding a table for one customer can mean passing up the opportunity to sell it to another.
There’s no point in explaining economics or empathy to the people who do this, however. They don’t care. They are incorrigible. And in the rare cases when they realize that their names no longer get them tables at their “favorite” spots, they can use friends’ names or create multiple accounts.
Generations of telling customers that they are always right have only helped breed these monsters. And restaurants are their most fertile stomping ground. Terrible people don’t get any nicer when they’re hungry or drunk.
Their cruelty is further magnified by the mechanics of tipping. Ask servers for their horror stories and you’ll hear about diners’ accusing them of fraud, criticizing their job performance, denigrating their profession and becoming sexually inappropriate, either physically or verbally. Few would dare to speak to podiatrists or electricians that way, but most restaurant servers tolerate it because they depend on tips — which can be upward of 70% of their earnings.
Such entitled diner behavior happens every day. What doesn’t is a restaurant owner’s publicly standing up for employees by telling bad customers that they have been banned.
As important as the example of an owner’s doing so is, however, McNally isn’t that owner. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking McNally is a defender of victims because he detailed the mistreatment his servers and managers allegedly endured during Corden’s visit while praising their professionalism for getting through their shifts.
Over the last couple of years, McNally has also used his Instagram account to argue for Ghislaine Maxwell’s right to a fair trial (several months before Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s companion, was convicted of sex trafficking charges involving minors), to promote the work of disgraced directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanksi and generally to rail against “cancel culture.” He seems quite comfortable with helping powerful people remain powerful.
Corden’s ban lasted less than a day. Following a phone call apology from Corden, McNally publicly declared, “All is forgiven.” That’s a fast reversal for someone he had called “the most abusive customer to my Balthazar servers since the restaurant opened 25 years ago.”
McNally had better options.
He could have empowered servers, by empowering managers, to say no. What if, instead of praising M.K. for soldiering through, “professional that she is,” McNally had created a workplace atmosphere where servers felt comfortable telling their manager they didn’t want to serve horrid customers? What if servers knew the manager would back them up and ask guests to leave?
If that were the environment in his restaurant, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to the point of McNally’s Instagram post. And if that were the environment in all restaurants, maybe diners would know from the start that the golden rule — to treat others as you would have them treat you — applies at brunch, too.