Orlando/Del Frisco's Complaint - Del Frisco's - Business as usual
ORLANDO, FLORIDA -- Del Frisco's
Tourist beware. Things have changed and not for the better. It seems Orlando has again taken that sharp left turn that all tourist areas eventually take, when profits have grown slimmer, margins become tighter and an economy that has turned sour showers it with its gifts of despair. Over the past twenty years that I and my family have made our annual, and for the past ten years, our quarterly pilgrimages to the Orlando area, the changes we have seen and taken note of can now no longer be missed even by the blindest of guests. Continuously increasing price points on everything from food and drink to theme park tickets have also led to decreasing overall value, a cheapening if you will, of everything from the quality and portions of food to the deluge of cheap generic merchandise from the sweatshops of China that have replaced the unique shopping experience that this tourist area once was.
While the Orlando area in general, retail, food and services alike, struggles to ignore the storm and cheerlead the status quo, when you hear vendors privately express the general disappointment and hopelessness of the current business environment, the hype becomes self evident. Hope springs eternal, and we all want to believe everything will be ok but the hype cannot hide the huge number of small businesses that have closed here. Food venues are among the most susceptible. Hype only goes so far. Eventually the tourists wizen up to the hype and it is "game over.” Not the much hyped perception but the actual, true value, delivery of goods and services will eventually prevail.
Over the years we have seen the results of many, many bad management decisions that were based more on immediate profit and cost reduction with no concern or for that matter an awareness of the negative effect to the guest experience. Many were no doubt made by mid-level managers who are no longer in those positions and are not here to fully witness the final effect and appreciate the impact. In food for instance, portion size may be reduced but price is maintained if not raised. We continue to struggle in the search of worthwhile places to visit and enjoy.
Personally we are very fortunate. About 10 years ago we made a good friend here in Orlando. Joe has helped make our visits much more memorable and enjoyable. With him, we have been exploring some of the additional finer dining experiences that this area has to offer besides just the theme park venues. It is usually a new and unique place on each visit. As a result, we have been to a wide range of places. We have relied on Joe to select venues he felt were among the best in the area. Sometimes, even he was surprised at the experiences we endured.
For example, the Orlando experience can give you the $5 shrimp cocktail for a price as high as $14 to $20, an oversized piece of lettuce not always included. It depends where you go. Disney may have set the initial high bar on outrageous pricing, but that lesson has not been lost on others in the area. A bottle of wine that locally retails for $8 to $10 can be had for $26 to $55 or more in a restaurant. A standard sized, machine dispensed, syrup and carbonated water mix soda can go to $4. The pre filled full glass of ice is almost mandatory. Again, it all depends on where you go and how willing you are to part with your money.
Mixed alcoholic drinks are entirely a different ball game. With them it is truly open season on tourists. Everything from downsized glassware to low grade well alcohol to extra ice on larger glasses, and of course the old-faithful, the under poured shot. Watered down alcoholic drinks have been around forever and are not unique to tourist areas. This is not news. However, combine such practices with outrageous over pricing, we call it "gouging" up North, and add to that an elitist arrogance, you have a perfect storm for local financial disasters in the future. Not to mention the seriously upset guests jetting home to parts unknown to tell and retell their tale of abuse at the hands of the locals. So when the so called "upscale" restaurants also make such practices a part of their guest experience, then the bottom has truly been hit. Which leads me to my story...
Our dinner reservation was made for 8:30 on a Monday evening. Christmas and New Years with the usual overcrowding were behind us. We were expecting a casual dinner at what we were told was a really good restaurant. The working definition for this is: good food, good service, a pleasant relaxing environment, and some form of reality on the pricing. This particular restaurant however advertises itself as an outstanding food venue with excellent service and with extra attention to experience and, of course, catering to "upscale" clients. Please take note that the last part translates to "expensive,” for those of us only conversing in the vulgar tongue.
We arrived separately at the restaurant. Located in what now appears a less than desirable area, surrounded by pawn shops, laundromats, out-of-business locations and the like, they provided "free" valet parking. Yellow cones blocked a direct passage to the parking area on the side and back of the building. With no one in sight at the front entrance we circled the building only to come upon the nearly empty parking lot at the rear that was guarded by an on duty police cruiser sitting facing the entry alleyway. With his running lights on, we were being watched as we parked and made our way down the dimly lit alleyway to the front entrance.
Commenting about the police cruiser, one of the many lingering service staff at the surprisingly completely empty bar area inside said, they were there to prevent "hooligans" from damaging the vehicles of clients. Being a thousand miles from home, it made me want to go out and check on my vehicle, several times, an urge I repeatedly tried to suppress to not appear alarmed. I kept thinking, what if the police officer gets a call an needs to leave.
Inside the double entry way, we found soft brown and tan lighting with dark wood panels and sedate carpeting. The look and smell was meant to project expensive. It was oddly quiet except for lingering piano music coming from the piano bar, somewhere in a back room past the main bar. The place had a definite '60s feel to it. I commented later, as we were working on our first drinks, that I expected Frank Sinatra to stroll by any second. We appeared to be the only guests. My wife and I waited for Joe who arrived ten minutes later, the service staff now apparently only outnumbering us 10 to 3, not counting the unseen kitchen area. Sinatra of course never did come by. Joe reminded me that he was dead. I thought maybe he had run into those "hooligans" outside.
The bar was completely empty of other guests. The wait staff was still lingering with nothing to do, sometimes talking to and commenting to us directly. It was in a way uncomfortably comical, as though somehow we were not privy to some running inside joke. We apparently had been quietly appraised and judged less than worthy, but hey, there were no other customers so we would have to do. Money is money. It immediately reminded us of just one of the many examples of the condescending treatment we received, this one the last time we ate, notice I did not say "dined,” at Cinderella's Royal Table, inside the castle in Magic Kingdom. Surveying all the empty chairs around the bar and hearing a lack of that ambient chatter a full restaurant carries, Joe commented that they may have laughed at him on the phone when he called earlier that day to make reservations for three. It was a sign of sorts of things to come. We actually talked about it but then, sometimes, we never learn. A total of 3drinks, a Dewars and soda and two Belvedere martinis, with tip ran $50.
The restaurant menu was an oversized preprinted threefold cardboard affair with the stiff feel of permanence. Black on the outside, with gold embossing expounding the short history of the place. It also had the year 2008 prominently placed on the back side. They must have spent considerable money on the printing of this menu and apparently 2009 may not have been as good a year since the menus were not changed.
This menu was only descriptive with several missives about the special care and type of food they serve but the inside had only two or three worded food selections followed by pricing. For example: apparently their beef came from cows that were gently put to sleep to the sounds of angels singing as opposed to most common beef that was killed with a rusty claw hammer to the head. At least that was the impression the black and gold embossed menu led you to believe. Their beef, according to printed lore, was even better than the best grade. Trucked in every two days from the Midwest, before the hammer even hits the ground. But of course, the meat was "aged.” Hmmmm.... We were thinking of ordering some beef.
The missives on the menu even covered the treatment of the bread, which you were advised to rip or tear but never cut with a knife. We were being impressed. It became apparent later, by the wrong things.
Only the inside three pages listed the food selections. Here, everything was a la carte. For instance: a 8oz filet mignon was $31.95, a 12 oz filet was $37.95. And, to go with your large empty plate securely holding that beef, a baked potato was only a mere $6, butter or sour cream optional. Apparently those beef loving angels were also singing their little hearts out when the potatoes were ripped . . . I am sorry. . . gently birthed, out of the ground.
And now we get to the lobster. It is listed on the menu by the ounce. I commented on how the Maine Lobster fishermen, because of the bad economy, where suffering due to the prices of lobster having fallen to less than $4 a pound because of lack of demand. This was reported on national network broadcast news. A single day of lobster fishing now cost more in boat fuel and labor than what the normal lobster catch would fetch at market, causing even more depressed prices when the fishermen tried to sell out of desperation. This is causing some current members of generations of lobster fishermen to lose their livelihood. Our waiter just smiled and confidently reminded us that their lobsters came from Australia. Del Frisco’s apparently charges $4.50 for an ounce of lobster. I was thinking that sometimes, being up on current events seems to serve no purpose.
The wine menu was a separate thick leather bound book with multiple plastic page protectors. It was an extensive and expensive list, more than 800 according to the main menu. The wines had numbers. A quick glance at the back pages revealed prices in excess of $1,200 for a bottle of champagne. Interestingly, they did not have an in-house sommelier. Go figure. We ordered a light Italian red wine, reasonably priced at $41 but it, as Joe commented, was served in Chardonnay glasses.
While ordering, we had to ask about how the steaks are cooked since this was not covered in the menu. We ordered fillets and a porterhouse, all mid-rare. They are cooked to order we were told and only lightly seasoned, as per our server. We added the lobster, since the meal seemed to sound not so filling. Three shrimp cocktails would have to round out as salads.
The shrimp were medium sized, five of them fanned on the largest piece of lettuce you could imagine. And we thought there was no salad. The fillets and steak came, dwarfed by the large white oval plates. It is noticeable that "upscale" restaurants seem to favor the presentation of their entrees on oversized plates, making nearly all portions appear petite. Not that they usually aren’t to begin with. The server insisted that we cut into them to check how they were cooked. Obligingly we each dealt the required death blow, a cut to the center. Yes, there was a warm red center. However, the dark brown crust on the outside was another story. My steak turned out to be saturated with salt and ground pepper. The first bite burned the tongue and needed a generous gulp of wine just to clear. Scraping off the top of the meat yielded a thick brown crusty grizzle mixture soaked in pepper and salt and . . . well, I was not sure what else. I tried two more bites before losing my appetite. Good thing I had eaten some of that lettuce. Our meal went downhill from there. The outrageous check for nearly $400 was the bitter icing on this "upscale" torte. It became a disaster of the kind where you just want to leave and put it behind you to be forgotten as soon as possible.
On the way to our car, the police cruiser was noticeably absent. It was a fitting end. With drinks, food and tip, we dropped nearly $500 for three adults only to come away with an unbridled desire never to come back to Del Frisco’s again.
So what lessons are there to be learned here? What should we take away from this experience? First and foremost, outrageous prices do not dictate a quality dining experience. Secondly, restaurants that espouse "upscale" or similar uniqueness tend to want to appeal to the more snobbish, upper crust clientele. The outrageous pricing simply underlines that fact. This also insures that guests will not be seated near the fast food crown, who most likely won’t even come in the door, seedy neighborhood locations not withstanding. Thirdly, there actually are moneyed clientele that will patronize such restaurants and assume they are receiving premium quality. And finally, sadly, there are all too many of such places in Orlando. New tourists seem to rotate in and out of the area weekly and these places are not overly worried about repeat business.
Good reputations are hard to build and even harder to maintain. Servers who throw down your plates on the table, fail to pay simple attention, carry an arrogant condescending tone, bring bad food or miss items completely, and similar failures can make you remember a bad dining experience. They are benchmarks which specifically define the event and the place. All these things can actually be changed for the better. It requires placing the highest value on the guest and not on the maximum pricing threshold you can get away with. Since many of these places can't seem to get their act together on their own, you at least have one good reason to be grateful we are in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our jobless recovery will eventually put more of these places out of business.
Currently, it seems my lesson learned is this again: Don’t try to dine out in Orlando unless you are prepared to take a good sucker punch to the wallet.