What's a practice dinner and how much should it cost?
January 27, 2012 6:51 PM   Subscribe

What the heck's a practice dinner and was I really supposed to pay for it?

Restaurant people, I need to understand what kind of dinner I had tonight.

Last week, I received an email invitation inviting me and a guest to a "practice dinner" at a new restaurant owned by a celebrity chef. A few days later, I received a second email from a friend of mine who owns a PR firm explaining that her firm was doing local PR for the restaurant and she had put me on the practice dinner list. I accepted by sending an email to the general manager and went to dinner tonight. (The restaurant's official opening was last night.)

I supposed I should have asked ahead of time, but I kind of assumed that a personal invitation meant the meal would be comped. Instead, I was presented with a bill at the end of the meal: $90, no small amount of change for us these days. I had prepared for that possibility and paid the bill, because I wasn't exactly sure how to broach the subject with the waiter, but - was that right?

Since I paid, what exactly was I invited to? What's the point of a practice dinner if the restaurant is already open? Why didn't she just send me an email encouraging me to eat there? Or, could there have been a miscommunication between the reservation desk and the server? And, if that's the case, is there any tactful way I can get a refund?
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a data point, my wife went recently to a practice dinner (that wasn't what they called it, but I can't recall the exact phrase used.) It was at a new restaurant in upstate New York and she was invited by a friend doing PR for the opening. The food was comped but they charged for the wine.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 6:56 PM on January 27, 2012

It's called a "soft open", it's an evening where the restaurant's not officially open, where the cooks and front-of-house staff can make sure everything's set up right, that everyone knows the restaurant's processes, that kind of thing. Usually friends of the restaurant (which you seem to be) are invited, and maybe folks in the neighborhood.

Sounds like a big misunderstanding, but no, you should not be looking for a refund.
posted by downing street memo at 7:00 PM on January 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I too think it was exceedingly weird that you were charged. Is there any way you can ask your PR friend?
posted by thatone at 7:09 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only time I ever went to a soft opening, we were charged half-price on entrees. It still ended up being a lot of money, but we certainly couldn't have afforded to pay double when the place actually opened. Not sure what the arrangement was for your event, but it sounds like your PR friend either forgot to mention or was unaware of anything related to cost.
posted by Gilbert at 7:17 PM on January 27, 2012

Every soft open I've been involved with has either been comped or was half-price. The details were always given to the participants ahead of time.

But you say that the restaurant officially opened last night and you went to dinner tonight. Soft opens are supposed to occur before the restaurant officially opens. Perhaps you misunderstood?
posted by cooker girl at 7:24 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, that seems so scammy that you'd have to pay full price for the honor of being a food beta tester at this place without being told in advance what the deal was. I think that's kind of a breach of friendship with your friend doing PR, to use you like that. However, I've only been to one of these type things for a friend's restaurant in Back Bay (Boston), and it was before the place officially opened so they were turning away people who curiously wandered in. We weren't explicitly told it would be comped, but we figured it would be, or at least heavily discounted.
posted by kpht at 7:38 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmm. That is a stumper. If I were you, I'd ask the PR friend if you, in fact, were invited to what was a soft open because your understanding of those is that soft open meals are generally comped in some way for the participants. And then see where that goes.
posted by cooker girl at 7:44 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Doesn't the same sort of thing go on with theater opens, where they will do a show or to up front for reduced ticket prices, just to work out the bugs, before the actual opening night?
posted by timsteil at 7:45 PM on January 27, 2012

I would talk to the PR friend without being confrontational and in future just don't go to another event like this if it's hosted by that person.

You were basically doing a favor for the PR friend which usually means some sort of discount - and she should have been upfront about the terms. Especially since she went ahead and put you on the list! Agreed with others who have said it seems sort of shady.
posted by fromageball at 7:54 PM on January 27, 2012

Soft openings can be held for several nights, so I don't think it is very significant that the restaurant opened the previous night.
I've been to many of these, and have also had a few in my own businesses. Traditionally you do not pay for food, and often you don't pay for drinks either, but it is considered good form to tip the server what they would have been tipped had you been charged fully.
In the soft openings that I've had, I've had the servers announce when they gave out the menus what the paying policy would be, they would then go through the entire meal and present the check at the end of the meal as if the customer were paying, the only difference being at the bottom of the check, beneath the amount that the meal would have cost, was handwritten the word "complimentary". This was done so that the staff would have the experience of going through the entire process more or less, but also so that if a customer chose to tip on a credit card they had the information needed.
It's unusual to be charged full price for a soft opening, so I think clarification with your friend might be in order. If I were the restaurant owner I would not be happy that that error was made, and I would want the opportunity to rectify it.
posted by newpotato at 7:59 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Was $90 the reduced price?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:19 PM on January 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Talk to your friend. I think the server made a mistake.

The restaurant should at least offer you a gift certificate, or better, a refund.

You could also approach the GM. But I'd go through my friend.
posted by jbenben at 8:22 PM on January 27, 2012

Last week, I received an email invitation inviting me and a guest to a "practice dinner" at a new restaurant owned by a celebrity chef

Since I paid, what exactly was I invited to? What's the point of a practice dinner if the restaurant is already open?

I think you were just invited to the opening of a new restaurant. Which means you were to pay. Your friend should have made that clear.
posted by mleigh at 9:28 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done "friends and family" night/soft-open night at a couple of restaurants and it's always been comped. I've taken care of the server, naturally, but YOU'RE doing the RESTAURANT a service.
posted by disillusioned at 11:18 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had prepared for that possibility and paid the bill, because I wasn't exactly sure how to broach the subject with the waiter

I dunno. Not to fight your premise, but for $90 I would have found a way to broach the subject. Remember, this isn't an awkward social situation; the waiter is a professional. For the night, they're your employee, more or less. Really, upon being seated, you should be able to ask a forthright, "This is a practice dinner, right? Could you explain the pricing?"
posted by dhartung at 12:58 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the restaurant.

There are closed soft-launches, which are usually comped, as the restaurant is not open to the public and it's more of a beta test.

There are open soft-launches, which often are not comped, as the restaurant is technically open and fully-operational, but they're not advertising it publicly, nor inviting critics or mainstream media.

I would chat informally with your friend and discuss your concern -- perhaps not to expect a refund (blood, turnip, all that) -- but rather to have clarity for next time.
posted by nickrussell at 2:57 AM on January 28, 2012

Nthing that I've been invited to "friends and family" soft opening and been comped (though we weren't sure that we would be, and would've ordered more had we been certain...). The invitation came directly from the owners, though, and specifically used the phrase "compliments of...". In hindsight, it should have been obvious.
posted by supercres at 5:37 AM on January 28, 2012

Please let your PR friend know that it's bad PR to send an invite without being specific about what things cost.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:47 AM on January 28, 2012 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I'd tell your friend that it didn't seem all that much like a practise dinner (the restaurant was already in business and already charging full price), and so part of you feels a bit used for changing your plans under the impression that the invitation wasn't just some restaurant advertisement.

Let your friend know that whatever was going on with the restaurant PR, the result left you with a bad taste in your mouth, unsure if you misunderstood or if there was a miscommunication.

Say it so they're aware there is no bitterness or anything, you're just thought they should know.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:16 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

[This is a followup from the asker.]
I took the advice of many, and followed up with my PR friend by email in a direct but casual way. I got an immediate (and embarrassed) response back that yes, dinner was supposed to be comped and she would follow up with the restaurant to make it right. So hooray for MeFi - I appreciate the help!
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:09 PM on February 7, 2012

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