The first time we visited La Bergerie in Old Town Alexandria, we were charmed. Located in a beautiful brownstone on North Lee Street, this classic French restaurant has a loyal following. The service, while at times officious, was overall professional. We had a nice table where we could admire the kitschy decor (it’s French, after all). My Dover sole was prepared table side and so expertly filleted that I didn’t find one bone. We were very pleased with the suggested wines and tipped an extra $40 on our way out. A perfectly delightful evening.
So delightful, in fact, that we couldn’t wait to go back. We should have quit while we were ahead. Our second visit was a disaster. We ended up leaving frustrated, angry, and hungry. We reconvened in Overwood, located on the first floor of the brownstone, and over burgers tried to figure out what went wrong. How could a restaurant be so good on one visit and so awful the next time?
Perhaps we were reeling from our experience the preceding week when we encountered a less than stellar performance at D.C.‘s Bibiana. We had been to Bibiana before (read my review), and loved the food. On our second visit, however, disaster struck. Although the maitre d’ and the staff were extremely apologetic (an attitude that was totally missing at La Bergerie), we left hungry and disappointed.
Dining out should be an enjoyable experience. (For guidance on how the perfect dining out experience should unfold, see my earlier story). With the cost of eating out increasing, patrons should expect food and service that is worth the price. When the effort falls short, someone needs to take responsibility. The staff at Bibiana was quick to apologize, take our main courses off the bill, and treat us to dessert. The waiter, maitre d’ and manager all came over to apologize. We will certainly return.
Our experience at La Bergerie had a less satisfactory ending. After being shown to a table, the waiter quickly produced menus and our water glasses were filled. (One of my pet peeves is being handed a menu before I have had a chance to relax and order a drink. And I would have preferred sparkling water, thank you very much). My request that we order drinks was delivered to the waiter’s back as he made a hasty retreat. He reappeared five minutes later, pad in hand to take our order. When I said again that we wanted to order drinks, he seemed less than pleased. He took our drink order and left.
We started with a dozen oysters which arrived on time. Then we hit a snag. We sat for a full hour waiting for our main courses—Dover sole and a beef filet. We asked several times what had happened to our food with no response. Finally, the waiter told us there had been a snag in the kitchen, poured us more wine (which we didn’t want), and left again. When another fifteen minutes went by, we stood up, told the owner we were upset, wanted to pay for what we have consumed, and leave. He told us there would be no charge but still refrained from apologizing or offering to reseat us and bring us our main courses.
La Bergerie was crowded and certainly didn’t seem to be suffering. Yet there are no guarantees in the restaurant business, even ones that have loyal, local followings. It takes a lot to survive in a competitive environment. Consistency, making sure each visit lives up to a high standard, is necessary to keep people coming back. And these days, with the internet, one bad experience goes viral and suddenly people stay away in droves. Getting those customers back will prove an arduous task. Wouldn’t it be better not to lose them in the first place?