Janice Mosher says the highlights of a recent dinner with a friend at Ellington Park Bistro in Washington included steak tartare, crème brûlée and "the service - up until we were in an empty dining room," facing cleaned plates and drained glasses.
The bill? Nowhere in sight.
After what Mosher remembers as 15 minutes - "seeming eternity" - the former government employee and her dining companion put on their coats and headed through the new French restaurant in the St. Gregory Hotel to try to pay. En route, Mosher, who initially shared her complaint on my weekly online restaurant Q&A, joked to a staff member that she would be happy to settle up, if only she could get a check. The man simply responded with a smile. ("His mind was a million miles away," she says.) Maybe someone at the host stand near the entrance could help? Maybe not, since no one was posted there. Nor did anyone respond when the Alexandria retiree called out "Hello? Hello?"
So Mosher, 66, did something she's never done in all her years of eating out. She left without settling up.
"I tried to pay on the restaurant's terms," she says. "I decided to pay on my terms."
Mosher and her friend walked down the block, expecting someone to call out. "For the record, I've had restaurant staff chase me down because I left a customer copy instead of the merchant copy," she emailed. In this case, "not a peep!"
Mosher's online complaint left out a key detail. As soon as she got home, she emailed the restaurant, which took her payment a few days later. "I know leaving was bad form," the restaurant patron emailed me post-discussion, "but I dare say the restaurant got the message loud and clear." Typically, she says she tips between 20 and 25 percent. In this case, she left 15 percent.
Raise your hand if you've ever been tempted to pull a Mosher. (Mine is up.) For a lot of restaurant patrons, waiting for a check ranks right down there with unreliable websites, noisy dining rooms and tight tables.
Reader reaction to Mosher's rant was swift and sometimes sympathetic, even before she revealed the fact she paid for her meal.
"Why is it that the longest wait in the restaurant is the wait to get the bill?" one poster asked. "Servers say 'we don't want to hurry you,' but I think it's more likely that they mentally categorize your table as 'done' and don't have any remaining urgency towards it. This is always my least favorite part of eating out."
Another online reader said epic waits for bills eventually turn into "false imprisonment. If a restaurant served you and never brought you the bill, would you stay there overnight? A week? Month? The rest of your life?"
As Mosher wrote in her initial post, and a lot of us agree, "Do restaurants not understand that when you are done, YOU'RE DONE."
Reached for comment, Taha Ismail, Ellington Park Bistro's food and beverage director, apologized for Mosher's experience and suggested her bill was assumed to be that of a hotel guest, a variety of customer that typically lingers longer at night and sometimes charges meals to their rooms. (Ismail says Mosher's bill was dropped at 10:15 p.m., the time Mosher says she departed.)
A check with some restaurants in the District suggest that what's known as "dining and dashing" is a relatively uncommon occurrence. Among the situations that made headlines were the $500 dinner tab unpaid last December at Le Diplomate by Luann de Lesseps of "Real Housewives of New York" fame, who later returned to settle and called the vodka-and-seafood escape an "unfortunate misunderstanding." The reality star known as the Countess tipped 22 percent.
"We don't have any dine and dashers that do it on purpose," says Kevin Tien, chef at Moon Rabbit at the Wharf. After a shooting outside his Vietnamese-inspired restaurant in July, which sent patrons scattering for cover, "we comped a lot of meals," which, along with gratuities, were paid by the InterContinental Hotel that houses Moon Rabbit.
The owner of a large chain restaurant in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity says restaurants are responsible for paying for meals people may have skipped out on. "Legally, you cannot make the server pay. You can discipline the server if they didn't follow procedures that lead to the walk out."
Although it hasn't happened at his restaurant, "We would void the bill, but it's really a loss for everyone involved," Bin Lu, executive chef at Blue Rock in Washington, Va., said via email. "We have no way to recoup the cost of the food and/or beverages consumed, the server misses out on a tip that they spent the night working for, and we lose out on business that we could have had with other potential paying guests."
Want to split as soon as you've cleaned your plate? Diners can help restaurants by sharing their game plan at the start of a meal, says Lilly Jan, a lecturer of food and beverage management at the Hotel School of Cornell University. "'We have tickets to a show' or 'we want to make this quick' notify staff of any time limits," she says. Another tip: "Ask for the bill with dessert and coffee." One way I get around a long wait is to produce my credit card after plates have been cleared, which saves the server an extra trip to the table.
Especially this time of year, Jan counsels understanding. "Guests may not be aware of how many tables a server may be attending."
The lesson Mosher wants Ellington Park Bistro and other restaurants to learn: "Just because you've been given dessert, doesn't mean the evening is over." Don't let a delayed bill be a diner's last taste of a place.