Jesse Matsuoka, who co-owns 28-year-old Mecca Sen sushi in Sag Harbor, was thrilled when several longtime customers invited him to their dinner party in the Hamptons. After mingling in the courtyard, he popped into the kitchen to chat with the hostess — but when someone opened one of the cupboards, Matsuoka’s jaw dropped.
“Over the years we have carefully purchased beautiful handcrafted sake cups from Japan, and they are unique,” he explains. “When the cabinet opened, I saw several styles over the years. Our entire collection is on the shelf!”
Matsuoka is just one of many New York restaurant owners whose items have been stolen by customers. From plates and cutlery to works of art, diners with sticky fingers boldly claim off-menu items as their own.
“People are very interested in picking up things with logos because they become collectibles,” says John McDonald, who owns several downtown hot spots including Bowery Meat, Lure Fishbar and the new Smyth Tavern. “Our steak knives which have Bowery Meat on the handle cost $50 each, so we put them up for sale. Still, people just took it. Now, we’re making it without a logo.”
Pens bearing restaurant names are constantly being picked up and are generally associated with marketing costs. But Jin Ahn, owner/partner of East Village Hawaiian restaurant Noreetuh, was surprised to find his personal Montblanc pen — engraved with his name — missing after offering it to a table of three to sign their check.
“I explained that it was a personal pen I had received as a gift, and at first they pretended not to see it,” he recalls. “You want to give customers a chance to save face, but I wasn’t going to let them go with my pen, so I said I might drop it on their table. Finally, a woman took it out of her bag and apologized, saying she thought it was hers because she had a few glasses of wine.”
It has gotten so bad that restaurant owners are taking steps to protect themselves from loss.
Mathias Van Leyden, owner of Loulou Chelsea, says the bird-shaped glass his bistro uses for cocktails has to be changed weekly – so he’s raised the price of the drink a bit.
“Sometimes, customers come out with drinks and glasses,” he said. “People will see them at someone’s house and know it’s a glass from Loulou. This is the cost of running a business, and it happens so often that now we charge an extra $2 per drink.”
Cute little jars of hot honey at Zazzy’s Pizza’s three locations in Manhattan disappeared so quickly that owner Richie Romero turned to a big boat he was less likely to take away. “We replaced them with refillable bottles that were too clunky and ugly to steal,” he said.
Most owners don’t want to confront or embarrass their customers for a few dollars. So when a waiter at T-Bar in Southampton reported that someone was pocketing a salt and pepper glass bought from Crate and Barrel, owner Tony May asked him not to mention it to guests.
“I told the staff to just close their eyes,” said May. “It’s not worth the confrontation and whenever they use it they will think of us.”
However, he decided to attach the soap dispenser to the bathroom wall, as the previously used small bottles disappeared quickly.
Liz Pavlou isn’t so bored with the salt jug at Water Mill’s chic place, Bistro té. After the customer put one of the large carved teak wood holders in his pocket, he was furious.
“Something small and cute, people took it, but I wouldn’t believe someone had stolen it until I saw it on our camera,” he said. “We had him in the video, so I just added $60 to his credit card.”
And although Loulou had accounted for the theft of the bird’s glasses, when a woman put three of them in her bag, Van Leyden’s owner said enough was enough. “We confronted him and the man who was hosting the table, and he quickly offered to pay them,” the restaurant owner said.
In a recent New York Times story about the $149 Pina Pro lamp — a trendy outdoor dining accessory today, thanks to its warm glow and unobtrusive silhouette — a staff member at celebrity-loved Soho restaurant Altro Paradiso noted how the light has a tendency to mysteriously disappear.
If it’s hard to imagine how someone would put a light in their bag, it’s nothing compared to what happened at the now-closed MercBar. McDonald, which also owns the Soho venue, recalled how customers lifted expensive cowhide cushions from sofas and the oil painting hanging on the back wall.
Years later, it still stings. “It was very unique; if I ever see it anywhere, I’ll take it!” he says.
At Chelsea Laurent Tourondel’s place, The Vine, a piece of framed underwear by artist Zoë Buckman was stolen. “I’m not sure how they got out the door with that,” the chef admitted.
The iconic September 1995 premiere of JFK Jr magazine. George — featuring Cindy Crawford dressed as George Washington — used to hang on the bathroom wall at the American Bar. But a few months ago, two women decided to get away with it, and were so embarrassed that they later posted their catch on Instagram.
“The bartenders knew who they were, so we called them and told them that if they weren’t returned by the next day, we would engage the police,” said Carolina Santos Neves, the restaurant’s executive chef consultant. “The next day, it came back, but now it’s gone again and we don’t know who took it.”
Evil-eye statues from Kyma’s bars in New York and Calissa’s at the Water Mill are also bagged—when the manager at Calissa confronted the woman who had let her off the bar, she claimed the bartender sold them to her, which the employee emphatically did. rejected.
And Olmsted chef Greg Baxtrom is fed up with diners lined up with charcoal and citronella candles from the bathrooms at Brooklyn’s Michelin-rated Prospect Heights restaurant.
“Surprisingly, they are flaming, hot and dangerous, but [customers] sneak out and sometimes make a mess of throwing hot wax in the sink,” he said. “They think food is expensive now and it’s a Robin Hood version.”
Someone even took a picture of a framed quail made by one of his employees. And Baxtrom was eager to find out who it was.
“I hope I catch someone! If you take something of mine, I won’t hesitate to deal with it,” Baxtrom swore. “The customer isn’t always right anymore.”