Restaurant, patron in imbroglio over $7


June 29, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG

The swanky night Hank Larsen planned for his wife's 49th birthday dinner started off perfectly.

Dressed to the nines, the Larsens headed to their favorite Hunt Valley restaurant, where jackets are required after 5 p.m. and a bottle of wine can run $100 easy. It's a tradition the Hampstead couple have been keeping for about eight years now since they've been married, but one they might not continue after the way their dinner ended.

"As this is a very expensive restaurant, we can only afford to go there once a year," said Larsen, a 56-year-old business manager for a contracting firm. "But I assure you, we look forward to our visit there each year."

There were a few hiccups in service that evening at the Oregon Grille on May 31, Larsen said. The waiter forgot some specials, and some items they ordered didn't make it out to the table. But despite those little stumbles, the Larsens said their dinner of grilled shrimp cocktail and pan fried lobster corn cake appetizers, followed by the veal chop and steak au poivre entrees was, as usual, enjoyable and lovely - until they ordered dessert.

Looking to cap the meal off with their traditional glass of Grand Marnier, Larsen ordered the Cuv?e du Centenaire, a rare blend of cognacs that retails for $145 to $200 a bottle. A glass at the Oregon Grille was priced at $28, according to the menu.

When the waiter returned, however, he did not bring the digestif.

Instead, Larsen was informed that the menu price was incorrect. The drink would cost him $35.

"I told him that wasn't right and that under Maryland law, they have to honor the listed price," Larsen said. "He told me he would have to ask the manager. Then he came back and told me the price was $35 and that he couldn't change it. I asked for the manager.

"When he appeared and I told him that they had to honor the listed price under Maryland law, the manager laughed at me," Larsen said. "There was a full dining room that night and it humiliated me. I was embarrassed."

There are two issues we'll address in Larsen's complaint.

First, it is true that the Consumer Protection Act prohibits misrepresentations, as well as the advertisement or offer, of consumer goods or services without the intent to sell them as advertised or offered. The act applies to restaurants as well as retailers, says Steven Sakamoto-Wengel, the attorney general's consumer protection counsel for regulation, legislation and policy.

But, and here's the technical part, Maryland does not have a law expressly stating that a business must sell goods at the price listed, Sakamoto-Wengel said.

A bit confusing and murky, yes.

To explain, merchants cannot mislead you about pricing. But merchants also do not have a contractual obligation to sell you an item at the price listed on ads, menus and signs. They can change the price at the register. It's up to you whether or not you choose to buy it at the altered price.

Legally speaking, that means merchants don't have to abide by the price listed. But if they don't, they may be violating the consumer protection laws.

"The menu, or an ad, is not a contract," says Eric S. Friedman, director of the consumer protection office in Montgomery County. "They're considered an offer to enter into a contract. If a newspaper runs an ad that says a plasma TV is $1.00 because they put the decimal point in the wrong place, consumers can't run into the store and demand they honor that price.

"By the same token, the menu or ad has to be accurate," Friedman said. If it's not, "You can also file a complaint or sue them for misrepresentation."

Owner's view

In Larsen's case, the Oregon Grille checked all the menus and removed the insert in Larsen's menu, which may have been an old version, said owner Ted Bauer, who was not present at the restaurant that night.

No other patrons received menus with the incorrect price on them, and the restaurant did not mislead Larsen intentionally, Bauer said. Right, but it was only through Larsen's persistence that the Oregon Grille relented and gave him the original $28 list price.

"It was an unfortunate misunderstanding and it was amended right then and there," Bauer said. "We would not want to destroy the reputation of the restaurant."

Larsen did, however, write a letter on June 10 to the restaurant to complain, but he did not hear back. Bauer said he was not aware of the problem until he returned from vacation last week.

"This is not a matter of price anymore," Larsen said. "They may have given me the drink for the list price, but they treated me badly before they did. I left the restaurant feeling angry, used and humiliated."

The second issue

And that brings us to the second issue in Larsen's complaint.

"My manager said he never laughed at the individual," Bauer said. "That would not be tolerated."

Since neither Bauer nor I witnessed the exchange, we can't say who is telling the truth.

"I believe this was an honest mistake," Bauer said. I agree.

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