An Open Letter to Inside Park

As promised, here is my first restaurant review in quite a while. I don’t have any interest in derailing anyone’s career, particularly a chef so media-aggrandized as this one, but I’ve received not a peep by way of acknowledgement. Fine, don’t take me seriously.

July 21, 2010

Dear Mr. Werfelnann and Chef Weingarten,

I am writing you this letter to share my dinner dining experience on July 20, 2010. I came with my husband and his parents to celebrate our shared anniversary. We were looking for an intimate, elegant dining experience and what we encountered couldn’t be farther from our expectations.

Let me also say that both my husband and I are trained chefs. I work as a restaurant consultant, food writer and culinary educator and spent time on the line of one of New York City’s premier sustainable, locally-sourced restaurants. I maintain a website dedicated to food and cooking and we are very selective about where we eat and choose places that we feel will exceed the experience that we could create for ourselves and our guests in our own kitchen.

I want this letter to serve as a mystery shopper’s insight into your restaurant and hope that you will take my criticism seriously, as I am not taking the time to write this letter to be scathing or rude, but rather to illustrate why we may not ever return, and advise friends and colleagues not to waste their special night out based on the following:

I made a reservation for four people, in my husband’s name, for 6:00pm, on several weeks ago. When he was contacted to confirm the reservation, a voicemail confirmed a reservation for two, at 6:15. When he called back to correct the mistake, the person on the line said, “Oh, yeah, we have it right, they must have been rushing.” A very bad start.

  • My husband and I arrived a half hour early to have a cocktail at the bar before our guests arrived. We sat, unacknowledged for a full 15 minutes before I was able to get a bartender’s attention.
  • As we sat there, we noticed the speakers being set up for what we were informed was a “club promotion” and a guest DJ would be performing. We asked the hostess if we could be seated inside and were told yes, but that there were two private parties. When we were shown to our table, it was outside, and when we asked about sitting inside, nervous glances were exchanged between staff members and we were told again that there were two private parties, but if we still wanted to, we could sit inside. We chose to sit outside, rather than risk being neglected inside or worse, being seated with the private parties.
  • We sat for a full 15 minutes before I flagged down a passing host and asked for menus. We just sat there. No drinks, no menu, no acknowledgement, no service.
  • A highlight of the experience was our server when she made it over. She was gracious and cheerful and met each of our requests with a smile.
  • That said, we ordered cocktails and a cheese plate to start. The cheese plate was served before the cocktails. When the drinks did arrive, the jalepeno-spiked cocktail was so spicy, it was undrinkable. It wasn’t me who ordered the drink, and I get that “well, jalepenos are spicy.” This drink was not tasted by the bartender before being sent to our table. If it had been, it would have been obvious to anyone that the heat was excessive and that the quantities of ingredients were either not measured or not adjusted to compensate for fluctuating capsaicin levels of the peppers.
  • As I said, the cheese plate was delivered before our cocktails. The cheese plate came with just 3 slices of bread for a party of four. As I observed other tables, several, but not all, received bread baskets upon ordering. And, cheese plates came with a bountiful variety of bread options. Additionally, the cheeses weren’t identified for us so we came to our own conclusions about type. As a restaurant that markets itself as locally-driven, you invite a clientele that is interested in the details not only of goat versus cow versus sheep milk cheeses, but if those products came from Nettle Meadow, Consider Bardwell or Patches of Star farm.
  • Once our cocktails were finished, the glasses sat empty for another 15 minutes until I flagged down a passing busser and asked that our server be sent over so that we might order a bottle of wine.
  • Dinner arrived and it was delightful. My mother-in-law was particularly delighted by the summer squash cut to look like spaghetti. We are devout eaters of fine food and appreciated creativity and whimsy of Chef Weingarten’s preparations. I will say, however, that my husband, a former Garde Manger, had a pea shoot on his Surrayano Ham that was WAY past its prime. A mesclin mix of 100 leaves, with one leaf brown and mushy is forgivable. However, some person hand-placed two shoots on this plate and one of them was rotten. That is not acceptable from a kitchen that prides itself on the quality of its ingredients.
  • This food and location was at complete odds with the music. All kidding aside, the DJ was terrible. When I see “Guest DJ” in your marketing flyer, along with “Touch Tuesdays” and “Seashore Saturdays” I see a concept being muddled with attempts to draw in a particular crowd, to generate greater cash flow. There are several problems with this approach. Primarily, we were completely unable to talk or enjoy our food because of blaring, inappropriate music being played at 6pm. We saw this coming when we requested at the very beginning to be seated inside. We came looking for an intimate, sophisticated setting and that was privately booked. Fine. Have a script available for your reservationist to call guests and say “We received your reservation for Tuesday night. I’m calling to inform you that our indoor space is booked, but we’d be happy to accommodate you in the lounge where we have a Guest DJ that will be playing club music. Is that all right with you? No? Then let’s find you a table on another night.”
  • Finally, our desserts arrived, and we had to ask for silver with which to eat them.

I want to ask you to put yourself in my shoes, and use this documentation of my experience as one of a mystery shopper. I’m not taking the time to write this letter to be hurtful or unnecessarily scathing. However, given the volume of restaurants in Manhattan, with the same concept, with generally the same menu offerings, why on Earth would I ever return to Inside Park?

I am a chef, my husband is a chef and as I said earlier, we hate to squander the rare opportunity to dine out. To pay $250 for the points outlined above was insulting and frustrating.

You need to train your staff. I’m not sure if you have any service systems in place. If not, I suggest implementing them immediately. We were not the only table to experience this lack of attentiveness either tonight, or according to your reviews on Yelp! I suspect however, that I might be the only one to offer you this insight. Everyone else is telling everyone who will listen what a waste of money Inside Park is.

One final note about Restaurant Week. In a time when so many places, yours included I suspect, are clinging to life by a thread and a food cost percentage increase of one point will mean shutting the doors, use Restaurant Week to market the very best you have to offer. This is your chance to get new guests through the doors to audition your establishment and decide if its a place worth returning to for the full-priced menu. For the four of us, we were given one copy of the Restaurant Week menu. If you don’t want to do Restaurant Week, then don’t participate. I’ve worked in restaurants. I know its a pain and if it isn’t worth it to you, then opt out. If however, you opt in, then use the opportunity to showcase your talent, both front and back of house and be proud of your participation.

I expect that you will call me to rectify this situation. I’m happy to discuss any questions you have about my experience and please know that I am taking the time to tell you these things because I love restaurants and I want them to succeed, particularly with a mission and menu concept that I am so passionate about. I am telling you this not to hurt your feelings, but to help you provide a dining experience to your guests that they can rave about and to help create a place that I’d like to return to.

I wish you the very best.

  • Holly Danger

    Hey Emily, Just curious to know about any updates with this. Did you ever get any response from them at all? With such a well thought-out, and well-written letter from someone with your experience and critique, I would imagine a place of that caliber would certainly take the time to respond.. though maybe they were too embarrassed to. Either way, I was curious if they did.

    • Emily

      Hey Holly – I never heard a word. Thanks for the compliments though! I hope that they heard what I said, but its entirely possibly that my letter ended up in the hate mail file or the garbage can. I’ve warned you guys, and hopefully saved you some money so at least there’s that!

  • Angie

    That’s a great review! I have always wanted to leave a thoughtful review with constructive criticism like this. My husband and I both worked in restaurants for a while, even though we don’t have the formal training you and your husband do as chefs, we do posses plenty of common sense, and customer service skills. I could write for days about annoying servers, poorly prepared, and inconsistent food.

    • Emily

      Thanks for the feedback, Angie. Luckily the occasional bad experience makes that amazing ones that much more awesome. Thanks for commenting!

  • Linda R.

    Inside Park is very, very lucky to have someone like you send them such a thoughtful letter and NYC diners are also lucky to have access to such a detailed and insightful critique. I’m sorry your anniversary dinner was so disappointing. We remember your wedding fondly, where even at a carefree beach setting, the attention to detail was notable.
    Keep writing those reviews!

  • Carolyn Wilson

    This is something I’ve always wanted to do after a bad experience at a supposedly good restaurant. Way to go, Emily. It was thoughtfully and specifically written. I hope they respond.

    • Emily

      Thanks Carolyn! I’ll keep you posted on any response. I’m not holding my breath.