Village Vines Promises Fancy Feast Discounts, Fails to Deliver
The Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit is divided into two dining rooms. Tucked away near the entrance is their bistro where items can be ordered a la carte. A reservation in the dining room will sweep you past coat check and the lounge-y open bar straight out of a 1950s mansion. There you have only two real choices — the five- or three-course tasting menu — both of which will set you back at least a hundred dollars after the tip.
Aquavit was not designed for student budgets. After months of wishing, waiting, hoping to eat plates of lightly salted herring or pink Berkshire pork so soft that the prongs of a fork bowed down its surface, the thing that brought me there wasn’t a visiting relative or rich date. The siren that brought my bank account and myself to the restaurant was a website called Village Vines.
The service was launched in May 2010 by young, former Wall Street analysts. Prospective diners pay ten dollars to make a reservation to upscale restaurants like Aquavit, Delmonico’s steakhouse, or Le Cirque and get up to 30 percent off their entire meal. It’s a good deal for the restaurant while slightly dangerous for the diner since you save more when you spend more. Riding on the popularity of the discount wave created by Groupon and competitors, Village Vines has gone from their New York City beginnings to have participating restaurants in six cities.
While Groupon caters to businesses trying to build their customer base, Village Vines was made for already established restaurants (who would pay the reservation fee otherwise?) that want to stay full during lunches or for those 5 and 10 p.m. dinner times. Aquavit is one of the few Village Vines restaurants that allow you to make a reservation at any time. The caveat? You have to eat in their more expensive dining room.
Luckily every aspect of this restaurant seemed designed to make me feel that I was getting my money’s worth. I’ve been taken to nice restaurants before, but there the server’s uniform was simply black. At Aquavit, the busboys wear black slacks with white button-down shirts while the servers are marked by the addition of a suit jacket. The only woman on the floor was a manager — also in a suit jacket — who occasionally made a silent circle around the room. It’s very ritzy. During my meal, the servers and busboys lined up in separate groups against the opposite wall from where my date and I were seated. I don’t think I’m alone in not being used to having each course introduced by a server reciting the main ingredients in the dishes “Madam” and “Sir” have ordered.
One of the remarkable things about Scandinavian food is its ability to impress while tasting like a dish you could eat at home. Other cuisines could do this too but few people dine at expensive French restaurants hoping to have grandma’s cassoulet. Scandinavian restaurants aren’t popular enough to come with expectations other than perhaps seeing fish and potatoes somewhere on the menu. Pickled herring, one of the staples of Scandinavian cuisine can be eaten straight from a can or lightly salted, plated, and served with roe. It’s still just a dead fish that someone put in salt for a long time. That’s why it’s so good. Regardless of the expensive toppings, you can still taste the oily fat and brine that makes it seem as though the herring had just been brought dripping from the ocean.
I was feeling like Monty Python’s fat man being offered a wafer-thin mint after being served an amuse-bouche — less Europeanly known as an appetizer — two full courses, and another two small dishes in between. This was before dessert and a plate of petit fours afterward. The last few courses were almost painful. My inability to finish them brought on some strong emotions after the flight of aquavit I’d consumed — three shots of a traditional Scandinavian flavored vodka. I stared at a small glass of lemon custard and crumbled chocolate as though it were a large mountain that had appeared at the end of a long journey without any warning at all.
In the process of wishing the Roman version of overeating was still in vogue, it occurred to me that this was one of the only meals I’d had that was worth every cent of the check. Using my wages to rate an item’s quality has been a product of becoming a real college student — a taxi costing $35 isn’t worth the hour of my time it saves. By those standards it might be surprising for this three hour dinner to have lived up to its price tag.
For a straight food-to-finance date or a night out on a student’s budget you’re better off sticking with a daily deal from Groupon. Village Vines isn’t a program that was made for college students or bargain hunters. But it does make paying the bill slightly less painful at places you know you would have gone to eventually.
Village Vines has a business model that will do very well for the website’s creators. But it’s going to make my bank account shrink to the size of my waist before the fateful day I discovered it.