When I read that New York restaurateur Keith McNally had banned “The Late Late Show” host James Corden from the famous Balthazar restaurant for allegedly abusive behavior, I was shocked. Not on hearing accusations that a wealthy celebrity had been rude to people in the hospitality industry, but on something far less common: a restaurant owner criticizing and excluding a customer, no less in public.
‘You can’t do your job! Maybe I should go to the kitchen and make the omelette myself!” Corden allegedly yelled at his server, identified by McNally under the initials MK in his Instagram post.
Personally, I wish it happened more often. Instead of apologizing, explaining and begging annoying customers to remove one-star reviews online, bowing to the dogma that the customer is always right, more restaurateurs should be sure to tell fussy eaters that they are not welcome.
Yes, owners want all their Yelp and Google scores to be five stars. But the number of vengeful people who leave bad reviews out of spite (blaming a small restaurant for the third-party delivery company that messed 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 keep a clean report in any case.
While naming restaurateurs opens up to defamation lawsuits, I fully support telling annoying diners to leave and enforce a discreet no-dine list instead. In fact, when I started out as a food reporter 14 years ago, I often heard from owners of full-service restaurants that they kept casual lists of personae non gratae. They were never public. And rarely did they tell diners outright that they weren’t welcome—that’s an invitation to more conflict from those who crave it. When problem diners asked for Friday tables, they were simply told that the fastest available seats within two weeks were on a Tuesday.
Terrible people don’t get nicer when they’re hungry or drunk.
However, that was in the analog era. As reservations have shifted to the digital sphere, it has become nearly impossible to enforce a no-dine list. Unfortunately, online reservation systems have also magnified one of the reasons diners were shunned: the no-show reservation.
It’s now easier than ever to make multiple reservations for the same night, pick a restaurant at the last minute, and ghost the others. This isn’t just inconsiderate to fellow diners craving those spots; it costs restaurants revenue. Chefs and general managers often use the number of reservations to place food orders and schedule staff. Holding a table for one customer can mean missing out on the opportunity to sell it to another customer.
However, there is no point in explaining economics or empathy to the people who do this. They don’t care. They are incorrigible. And on the rare occasions when they realize that their names are no longer getting tables in their “favorite” spots, they can use friends’ names or create multiple accounts.
Generations of telling customers they are always right have only helped breed these monsters. And restaurants are their most fertile ground. Terrible people don’t get nicer when they’re hungry or drunk.
Their cruelty is compounded by the mechanics of tipping. Ask servers for their horror stories and you’ll hear diners accusing them of fraud, criticizing their job performance, denigrating their profession, and being sexually inappropriate, both physically and verbally. Few would dare to talk to podiatrists or electricians that way, but most restaurant servers tolerate it because they rely on tips – that can be up to 70% of their income.
Such eating behavior occurs every day. What is not is that a restaurant owner is publicly standing up for employees by telling bad customers that they have been banned.
As important as an owner’s example is, however, McNally is not that owner. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that McNally is a victim advocate because he detailed the abuse his servers and managers reportedly endured during Corden’s visit, while praising their professionalism in getting their services through.
In recent years, McNally has also used his Instagram account to advocate for Ghislaine Maxwellright 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 drivers Woody Allen and Roman Poland and in general to protest against ‘cancel culture’. He seems to be quite comfortable with helping powerful people stay powerful.
Corden’s ban lasted less than a day. After an apology phone call from Corden, McNally stated publicly:All is forgiven.That’s a quick turnaround for someone he’d called “the most abusive customer of 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 MK for perseverance, McNally created a “professional that she is” 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 up and ask guests to leave?
If that was the setting in his restaurant, maybe it wouldn’t have become the point of McNally’s Instagram post. And if that were the environment in all restaurants, diners might know from the get-go that the golden rule — to treat others the way you’d want them to treat you — also applies at brunch.