Citizens! Serve Me My Waiter’s Head! Zagat Wreaks Havoc With Diners’ Bill of Rights

“You’ve got a tiger by the tail,” Richard Melman said with a small laugh. With more than 28 years in the restaurant industry and more than 70 restaurants under his belt, Mr. Melman is one of the restaurant industry’s most influential players. He was calling from the Chicago headquarters of his Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., where he is chairman and chief executive officer, to discuss a subject that has the New York restaurant world riled up.

On July 26, Tim and Nina Zagat, publishers of the ubiquitous maroon restaurant guides, will hold what they are modestly calling a “summit” of approximately 40 restaurateurs, industry professionals and select members of the press to discuss something they are calling the Diners’ Bill of Rights. As found on the Zagat Web site, this document is a list of service-oriented tenets designed to “correct the most serious problems we’ve found in 20 years of surveying.”

If an informal survey of local chefs and restaurateurs is any indication, the Diners’ Bill of Rights survey will be a test of just how strong the Zagats’ populist power is in the restaurant industry and whether they may have overstepped their bounds. The Zagats now publish guides in more than 40 cities, covering 30,000 restaurants.

Mr. Melman will be making the trip to New York for the Zagats’ daylong, invitation-only summit, which will be held at the French Culinary Institute on Broadway at Grand Street. So will New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, who owns and operates Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and Eleven Madison Park. Also attending, according to Mr. Zagat, are former National Restaurant Association president Ralph Brennan, GQ food writer Alan Richman and possibly chef-restaurateur Wolfgang Puck.

What is the Diners’ Bill of Rights? According to the Web site, they are “(1) The right to courteous, hospitable, informative service, starting with reservations handling. (2) The right to be seated within 10 minutes of reservation. (3) The right to clean, sanitary facilities and fresh, healthful food. (4) The right to make special dietary requests. (5) The right to send back any unsatisfactory food or beverage without charge. (6)The right to smoke-free and cellular phone-free seating. (7) The right to bring your own wine, subject to a reasonable corkage fee. (8) The right to complain to the manager. (9) The right not to tip if dissatisfied with the service.” The Web site also asks for respondents to write in any other rights they have in mind. Balthazar owner Keith McNally, who would not otherwise comment, said, “I would like the Bill of Rights to say that if you go to dinner with someone, then you have the right to go home and sleep with that person.”

Even though the lion’s share of the restaurant industry sources interviewed by The Transom said they agreed with the principles set forth by the bill of rights and actively sought to incorporate them into their day-to-day operation, they feared that putting them in writing will only transform New York diners–already a vocal and exacting bunch–into a kind of auxiliary restaurant police. Suddenly, everyone will be a critic, armed with a tear-out diploma from the Zagat school of fine dining.

When The Transom contacted Phil Suarez, co-owner of Jo-Jo, Vong, Jean-Georges and the Mercer Kitchen, he said that he was not aware of the Zagats’ summit, nor of the bill of rights, but that the idea sounded “absurd.” Mr. Suarez said, “Our first and primary concern is the customer. That’s our job.” He said he could see people walking into restaurants armed with the bill of rights saying, “You know what? You met nine out of the 10. I want compensation for the rest.”

Drew Nieporent, who owns or co-owns a number of restaurants in the city, including Nobu, Tribeca Grill and, his latest space, Berkeley Bar and Grill, said the Zagat guide “has been an invaluable tool to the restaurant industry. However, what we don’t need are people to come into our restaurants looking for problems. The experience should be one of relaxation and civility, not one of what’s wrong with this place? Those rights are implicit. They don’t need to be written down.”

Even Mr. Melman, who said that one of the reasons he’s coming is because “Tim has been very nice to me over the years,” conceded that the phrase Diners’ Bill of Rights “makes it sound like the diners are oppressed people” when “any smart restaurateur is bending over backwards to please his customers.” That said, Mr. Melman said he is approaching the summit as “an awareness thing.” The question is, he said, “Is Tim feeling this or are customers feeling this? I can tell you that the customers that I generally deal with are very outspoken about how they feel.”

Others note that the Diners’ Bill of Rights are suspiciously Giuliani-esque at a time when Mr. Zagat has been named by the city to a two-year term as the chairman of N.Y.C. & Company, the organization formerly known as the New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Are these rules for New Yorkers or rules for tourists?” wondered one industry professional, who noted that some of the aforementioned rights could “single-handedly close Peter Luger’s, the Palm and possibly ’21.’” The source noted that “People don’t come to New York just to be safe. They come to New York to be thrilled. Some like the rough and tumble, cranky service.”

While rights such as Nos. 1 and 3 are no-brainers, some restaurateurs see a potential for problems in, for instance, Right No. 5, “to send back any unsatisfactory food or beverage without charge.”

“I like the idea of demystifying the restaurant experience so that the customer isn’t intimidated into a crappy experience,” said chef Mario Batali, co-owner of Babbo and Pó. But Mr. Batali said that what worried him was that customers might interpret their right to send food back as an opportunity to “try dishes as they might try on shoes.” And citing Right No. 4, “to make special dietary requests,” one industry professional said: “Does that mean I can go to Le Bernardin and demand an entire roast suckling pig?”

The reservation issue–Right No. 2, “to be seated within 10 minutes of reservation”–is even thornier, given that later seatings are dependent upon customers showing up on time for the earlier seatings. “I wish I had a dollar for every time someone was late for a reservation,” said Mr. Melman.

“I was afraid you were going to mention that,” said Peter Hoffman, chef-owner of Savoy. “What’s the flipside of that? Is it O.K. if you show up 20 minutes late, for me to say, ‘I’m docking you’?” Mr. Hoffman spoke of “the extremely complex balancing act” that restaurateurs undertake every day to make their customers happy. “We keep working at it, but there are nights when life is conspiring against you,” he said. Regarding Right No. 2, Mr. Hoffman said he feared that people “will seize on it and get into an adversarial relationship with the restaurant or the person at the door.”

In the days leading up to the summit, Mr. Zagat said that his employees have been collecting responses to the Diners’ Bill of Rights from 175 restaurateurs and some 2,000 civilians. “The point is we’re trying to stimulate conversation,” he told The Transom. “If some of them get heated up on the thing, all the better.”

Mr. Zagat called the bill of rights a “draft” and a “catalyst for discussion.” “We’ve quantified that 62 percent of all complaints relate to service,” he said. “Roughly 20 percent relate to food and prices. The other 18 percent are noise, confusion, parking and smoking. All the different things that may detract from someone’s dining experience. What we’re trying to say is the front of the house is obviously the weak link. What can we do to improve it. I must get 30 letters a day, saying, ‘Your review is shit because you said it was good and let me tell you what happened to me.’”

“We’re trying to create a win-win situation”, Mr. Zagat said, adding that the purpose of the summit is to pose these issues to the gathered “and to see if somehow we can pass on the wisdom of a Danny Meyer or the wisdom of a Rich Melman.”

Mr. Meyer, who’s known as a bit of an activist on quality of dining issues, said he views the Diners’ Bill of Rights “optimistically”. He called them “a conversation piece that at its best could foster a better understanding of dining out and could promote dining out. I wouldn’t look at them as rules that are in effect, there’s no jurisdiction behind it”–unlike, say, unlike the taxi riders bill of rights which has the backing of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Mr. Zagat said that he and his wife have not yet determined what they will do with the outcome of the summit. He said he may pass the results “on to the National Restaurant Association.” At another point, he conceded, “We may never publish this thing. Maybe restaurateurs will say, look, this is not helpful at all.”

In either case, Mr. Zagat said, “If I wanted to announce a bill of rights and try to force it down anybody’s throats, … I’d just announce them and print them on the inside cover. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Yet there are those wonder, virtually all of them anonymously for fear of angering the Zagats, whether the Diners’ Bill of Rights is another attempt by the Zagats, who are said to be publicity gourmands, to use a “bully pulpit” as one put it, to drum up press. “There’s nothing better than empowering the common people,” said one New York-based restaurateur. “You’ll never get more people on your side than telling a complete idiot that his opinion counts.”

Said Mr. Zagat: “There’s always someone who’s going to say that kind of thing and that’s their privilege. Look, we are trying to get publicity for this. We’re trying to deal with a series of problems that need to be addressed.”

Some also wonder if Mr. Zagat has political ambitions, although Alan Stillman, who owns Cité and Smith & Wollensky, among other restaurants, seemed to be joking when he said: “Maybe he’s trying to run for mayor or something.” Mr. Zagat denied this.

Mr. Stillman–who prints his Zagat survey blurbs in the ads for his restaurant–said that the Diners’ Bill of Rights sounded “silly” and “illogical.” He added: “That’s getting into someone’s business and telling them how to run their business.…I don’t know what the hell Tim is up to, but I would like the right to make sure that all of his books come out with purple covers because that’s my

favorite color.”

“Whatever happened to the free market system?” said Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant and food consultant. “Remember when Union Square Cafe eliminated all smoking several years ago? A bunch of people decided not to go there and it’s still full.”

Gober Goes It Alone

When Robert Gober’s 1991 Untitled (Leg With Candle) , a sculpture of a candle atop a clothed and shod man’s leg, sold for $794,500 at Christie’s contemporary auction May 19, ordinarily it would have been a good day for the artist’s dealer. When an artwork that was created only eight years ago sells for almost twice the high end of its presale estimate, and sets a personal record for the artist, it tends to goose the values of the artist’s other work.

At the time of the Christie’s sale, however, Mr. Gober did not have a dealer. In a brief telephone interview dominated by laughter and the phrase “no comment,” Mr. Gober confirmed that he had left the Paula Cooper Gallery, which had represented him since 1982, in November. “I no longer have a gallery representing me,” Mr. Gober said. He declined to say why he had left.

Mr. Gober was perceived as one of the stars in Ms. Cooper’s stable of artists, which currently includes Donald Judd, Zoe Leonard, Carl Andre, Tony Smith and Yayoi Kusama, although since Ms. Cooper moved her gallery from SoHo to Chelsea in September 1996, Mr. Gober had shown only a small group of drawings and maquettes at her space. Still, art-world insiders told The Transom, the dealer cannot be happy that Mr. Gober has left at a time when his star seems to be shining so brightly.

Ms. Cooper sounded rather blasé about the whole matter. “I think we both knew it was time,” she said, although she also declined to say why Mr. Gober left. “He wants to do what he wants to do. That happens. We’ve had a lot of stars through the years. They mature and they become older. They go on and we work with other young artists.” She added that more-established artists, such as Mr. Gober, “have their own staffs in their studios” which enable them to take care of business much more efficiently than a struggling, cash-poor artist.

Mr. Gober has not been dormant since leaving the Paula Cooper Gallery. He curated a group show called The Names of the Artists , which is currently on display at the Chelsea branch of the Matthew Marks Gallery.

Asked how he would exhibit his future artworks, Mr. Gober said, “That’s an interesting question. I have ideas, but there’s nothing definite.” Finally, he concluded, “It’s no one’s business but my own.”

Lawrencio Says: Move to Aliquippa, Pretty First Lady!

If Hillary Clinton is in the market for a compassionate, possibly funny–and very tanned–campaign manager for her Senate run, she may want to look no further than the back pages of Movieline . A guy named Lawrencio awaits.

In the back of the July issue’s paid “announcements,” abutted by classifieds like “Russian ladies want to meet you!” and “Lolitas: topless beaches of French Riviera video,” ran a poem called “A Lady Named Hillary” accompanied by a photo of a pouty, thick-eyebrowed character with his arms crossed over his chest, seemingly caught by a photographer in midvogue.

The poem reads:

“In 1992 a beautiful lady came shining through with her hopes and dreams to better our country.

“Negative people have put her down from the start, overlooking her talent and kind heart saying hurtful things to tear her apart.

“Press had not always been kind, many times causing her stress but with her grace and style she will never turn her back on a cause worth while.

“You can see the sparkle in her eye when Chelsea is by her side. She has a smile when Bill is near but her compassion for others is what is so clear and dear.

“First ladies have come and gone but the lovely lady Hillary will always go on. Just like from the start she will always have a place in our hearts.”

Attached to the poem is a name–Lawrencio–as well as the cryptic inclusion of an address and phone number in Aliquippa, Pa., for “club appearance and booking,” suggesting that perhaps Lawrencio had some sort of Hillary Clinton-friendly escort service, or did Rodham-ite exotic dances.

Reached by telephone, Lawrencio–no last name, just Lawrencio–denied any funny business. “That’s for somebody who doesn’t have any talent. I don’t exploit myself,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities, of course …” He said that he was actually a “family comic” in the mold of early Jerry Seinfeld. Lawrencio refused to provide The Transom with any jokes, however, citing fear of being ripped off by other comics. Lawrencio also mentioned owning a tanning salon in the Philadelphia area whose location he wouldn’t disclose, because his customers know him only by “Larry.” They also don’t know anything about his career in show biz. “You get some flukey people …,” he explained.

Lawrencio, who is 30 years old, said the whole poem business started back during Monicagate. Mrs. Clinton’s situation reminded him of his own, since, when he was 12 years old, he was run over by a drunk driver. His leg got smashed up pretty bad and he limped for 10 years until he got an operation in 1992. Kids teased him about his gimpy leg just like they teased Mrs. Clinton about that sticky Gap dress.

Lawrencio was so distressed by the treatment the First Lady was receiving that he went home after a night out, picked up a pen and feverishly set down the poem, his first ever, and sent it off to the White House in hopes of alleviating Mrs. Clinton’s pain. “I felt really bad, from one person to another,” he said.

Then he sent a copy of a “A Lady Named Hillary”–and a check–to Movieline . “I was proud of my work and I wanted it to be seen,” he explained.

And for all that trouble? The White House sent him a note reading “Thank you very much for your gift. It was very gracious of you,” along with an autographed photograph. “It wasn’t personalized,” Lawrencio said, sounding wounded. The photo is hanging in his tanning salon, next to his autographed photograph of Madonna he scored after a concert in 1987, when he presented the Material Girl with a Grammy Award he’d sculpted out of clay. She personalized the photo.

–Andrew Goldman

To Live and Die in L.A.

The writer Bruce Wagner was calling from a Starbucks in Brentwood, Calif. “Everybody dies, but it still has a sunny quality,” he was saying. Mr. Wagner was not describing his environs, but rather the film adaptation of his 1996 novel, I’m Losing You , which he wrote and directed (his debut behind the camera). The movie will open here July 16 at the Quad Cinema.

On a weekend when most cinemagoers will be deciding whether they’d prefer to be creeped out by Bridget Fonda battling a giant crocodile ( Lake Placid ), the sight of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman making the beast with two backs ( Eyes Wide Shut ), or some fatty teen doing the vegetarian equivalent of the liver scene in Portnoy’s Complaint ( American Pie ), Mr. Wagner’s film offers an unsettling portrait of a group of people who live, but mostly die, in the capital of filmed entertainment, Los Angeles. Frank Langella plays a successful, terminally ill TV producer; Andrew McCarthy portrays Mr. Langella’s son, a washed-up actor who buys AIDS patients life insurance policies at a discount; Gina Gershon is his drug addict ex-wife; and Elizabeth Perkins is the “H.I.V.I.P.”–a V.I.P. who is H.I.V. positive–with whom Mr. McCarthy has an affair.

“My novels obviously depict people in extremis ,” said Mr. Wagner, who also wrote a nifty tale of a screenwriter-chauffeur’s mental disintegration called Force Majeure . But for his directorial debut, he explained he wanted to “make a film that was more elegiac than pornographic.” Nonetheless, Mr. Wagner said that the film version of I’m Losing You “is still extreme in a Sirkian context,” as in the master of melodrama, director Douglas Sirk ( Imitation of Life ), whose work is currently being shown at the Film Forum. For Wagner die-hards, the director said, “I still have dead little girls being washed ritualistically. And a sex scene where part of the sex talk is McCarthy asking Perkins to give him the virus.”

Yes, but The Transom asked, does anyone screw a pie?

Mr. Wagner let it be known that his film had higher ambitions. “No,” he said, “but we reshot a scene so that one of the characters fucks something from a patisserie.”