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Roundup: Sea Bass Isn’t Tilapia!

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Tonight, my fiancée and I went down to the National Zoo in Washington DC in order to take in the sights and sounds of Zoo Lights, the annual celebration of lights and animals. It was a great time and it turned out to be pretty good weather considering it rained a little bit today. Anyway, afterwards we went to a restaurant near the Woodley Park Metro Stop and we were put to a decision. There was a French restaurant next to an Italian restaurant and, after reviewing the menus, we picked the Italian restaurant. Big mistake… I’ll explain in a minute, after I give you two quick tips about picking a restaurant when you have a choice between a few that you know nothing about.

1. Zagat rated vs. Not-Zagat rated: Go with Zagat rated because at the very least you know someone with a discerning palate thinks it’s pretty good. The French restaurant was Zagat rated, 2007 and 2008, whereas the Italian restaurant wasn’t.
2. Don’t go to an ethnic restaurant run by someone from another ethnicity: When we walked in, we were met by a few Pakistani/Indian/Southeast Asian (I have no idea, I didn’t ask) guys and that should’ve clued us in that we were in for a surprise.

After reviewing the menu, I chose a Sea Bass and Shrimp dish. What came out… was tilapia. Yep, they pulled a switcheroo and thought I wouldn’t notice except I did (if you’ve had either, you know that tilapia doesn’t taste anything like sea bass, absolutely nothing). So, did I call them out on it? Nope, what we did was just pay out bill, left a thirteen cent tip (it was a freaking $55 bill too), and left. Now, before say we ripped off the waiter, the restaurant was dead (we were the only people in there for most of our meal) and there was basically only one server and he looked like he was the owner. My take is that they had a dead night and were looking to squeeze a little extra profit out of your ticket… (the kitchen doesn’t swap out fish because they independently think they can earn a little extra more) either way I’m okay with the fact that I screwed them because they tried to screw us. (yes yes, very passive aggressive, but I’m okay with that).

That being said, how would you have handled it?

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17 Responses to “Roundup: Sea Bass Isn’t Tilapia!”

  1. Honest Dollar says:

    I got a Zagat guide for free as a new hire present at my old firm, and even though it’s a couple of years outdated now I still consult it often. There are a lot of good restaurants that aren’t Zagat-rated, but #2 (ethnic restaurant run by a different ethnicity) is a pretty good tip-off that you’re in for a ride.

    If the server had not seemed to be the owner, I might have tipped the standard 15%. I don’t believe in punishing waiters for bad chefs or crappy management. But in this case, I don’t fault you for doing what you did.

  2. Patrick says:

    I may have called them out on it if I was feeling froggy (technical term). Otherwise, I probably would have done something similar, but I would have tried to pay cash so they could attempt to stiff me on the credit card bill by padding the tip later. Be sure to check you statement if you paid with plastic, just in case!

  3. jim says:

    Hahaha, yeah we paid cash.

  4. Him says:

    Well, rule #1 is NEVER order fish on Sundays.

    Also, I’ve read that Zagat is the most UNRELIABLE source of restaurant reviews. I’m lazy right now, but I remember reading somewhere that anyone can become a Zagat reviewer.

    Good call on the “Don’t go to an ethnic restaurant run by someone from another ethnicity” tip. That’s just weird.

    I would have called them on it. Sea bass is pretty tasty compared to tilapia. Go write a poor review of them on Yelp or something.

    (sorry for the rambling, the future-in-laws are in town)

  5. Tim says:

    I hate Zagat, because just about every restaurant in DC area is “Zagat rated” somehow or another (albeit you found one of the very few not rated…lol) and they are very unreliable. I also find that if there is a Zagat rating, then the restaurant is more expensive than necessary.

    If you are looking for “ethnic food” in the DC Metro area, try Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide (free download and on his website and a new update, 23rd addition). We haven’t been disappointed in the restaurants off the list. I haven’t really looked at the updated list yet. i agree, too, that if going ethnic, go with the ethnicity; however, i’ve found that if you want large fish portions of sushi, then go to a Korean restaurant. may not be the top quality of fish, but it is fresh and still has good taste in general. for asian restaurants: for good, authentic chinese restaurant, you should look for a C or B cleanliness rating. for Japanese, nothing but an A cleanliness rating; for Korean either B or A, unless you go for sushi, then A. of course not all areas have restaurant cleanliness ratings.

    don’t know why you didn’t call them on the seasbass-tilapia switcharoo, especially if the sea bass was ill tempered with lasers on its forehead.

  6. jim says:

    I think that ethnicities that are geographically close are okay, but this was South Asia / Indian serving European Italian food… I don’t know. I only call it ethnic food because it’s not your typical burger in a bar type food.

    Thanks for the tips everyone, I know Zagat isn’t perfect and the bar is set low but at the very least you know the restaurant cleared that low bar right? :)

    It’s like how a high school diploma isn’t hard to get so it says something, which can be inaccurate, when someone doesn’t have one.

  7. jb says:

    Point (2.) sounds pretty racist, though I have heard many people say the same thing.

    I don’t think you would have brought up the ethnicity thing if it was a white American cooking Italian food, but that person would have been no closer to authentic Italian. You’re forming an opinion solely on the basis of someone’s skin color, and that is racism.

  8. Tim says:

    just because the ethnic food is run by same ethnic people, doesn’t mean good food, though. i’ve had plenty of crummy italian food at italian owned restaurants. i just mark this down to they just can’t cook category though. i remember an old saying, never go to a skinny butcher. alas, when we were in italy a few months ago, the porkiest butcher was the most generous in his cuts, not to mention all the free samples we were getting.

    you also have to take into consideration that ethnically corresponding food doesn’t necessary mean authentic or good. there are lots of chinese who operate americanized chinese food restaurants.

  9. Andrea says:

    Did you know that seabass is actually Patagonian toothfish? It’s a marketing thing. They couldn’t sell it with the original name. I learned that in the book Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. Good book, btw.

  10. guinness416 says:

    Often at Xmas it’s the south asian staff who get the shifts because the non-immigrants or white staff celebrate the holiday. Don’t know DC too well but I spent years working in various NYC restaurants on and off and pretty much all restaurants there are full of south asian staff – though more often than not in “back-waiter” rather than “waiter” positions it’s true – and the kitchens are full of hispanic staff; trust me, it’s no indication of the quality of the food, whether “American”, French, Italian or whatever.

  11. chris says:

    The one server “looked like he was the owner”? You obviously have never had to rely on tips to make a living. If you have a problem with the restaurant policy or food you should not punish the waitstaff; they are trying to make a living.

    Avowing to not go to an “ethnic” restaurant run by someone of another ethnicity is just a plain ignorant thing to say.

  12. raj says:

    I agree with you Jb & disagree with Jim. Instead of saying “Don’t go to an ethnic restaurant run by someone from another ethnicity” you could have said “don’t order your ethnic food from other ethnic restaurant”. There are so many Indian/Paki resturand which serves best asian food like briyani, gost etc. Simillarly there are so many chainese/thai resturant serves best asian food. If you are ordering Italian or American food from them then I think its your mistake.

  13. Tommy says:

    Rule 3: Don’t eat at an ethnic restaurant where people of that ethnicity are not patrons. If you walk into a “Chinese” restaurant with all white folks eating and only Chinese people servin’…time to walk out and find another place.

  14. jim says:

    raj: I’m a little confused at what you mean, it sounds like you’re agreeing with me when you say “If you are ordering Italian or American food from them then I think its your mistake” but you start off by disagreeing. By the way, I’m Chinese.

    As for jb’s comment of racism, we’re talking specifically about ethnic food. To say that it is racist is a little harsh, it’s not like I said they couldn’t cook because they were of a certain ethnicity. Either way, if that mantra makes me racist then fine but I think you’re diluting the meaning of the word by using it so freely.

    Chris: I actually have and the chefs in the back don’t unilaterally decide to swap out sea bass for tilapia, they cook what the ticket says. It takes someone higher in the hierarchy to make the swap and any waiter worth anything would know the difference between the two types of fish. Waiters aren’t morons at the mercy of diners, to think that is just stupid.

  15. Tim says:

    Andrea: you are correct if you are talking about Chilean sea bass; however, there are many different kinds of sea bass.

  16. katy says:

    I think you did great; they obviously tried to screw you. I would have, though, asked them what kind of fish it was, knowing full well it was tilapia. There is no comparison and they were banking on your ignorance. What a lousy way to do business.

    I had a similar experience in an Indian restaurant. They served us Uncle Ben’s (!) and tried to pass it off as basmati. I asked them if it was basmati and the server hesitatantly told me it was. We won’t go back there again and we tell everyone about their lie.

    Bravo to you. Screw them.

  17. Carl says:

    Point #2 should be more, “Don’t go to an ethnic restaurant if the cook is not familiar with that style of cooking.”

    Like other’s have mentioned,

    1. The cooks could have been Italian.
    2. The South Asian-looking cooks could have grown up in Italy or be trained in Italian cooking.


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