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Candace Selby and her boyfriend were enjoying the sights and sounds of Ocean Drive in South Beach during a vacation in September when they decided to stop by the Carlyle Cafe for drinks.
They sat at a table outside the 1940 Art Deco hotel, enticed by a “two-for-one happy hour” special being advertised. But after two Bud Lites and a vodka martini — Selby declined the second cocktail in the “special” — they gawked at their bill, bewildered at the $56 they were being charged. That was before tax and tip.
“The menu said one price, and we were charged another,” Selby told the Miami Herald. “And no one could explain why.”
After demanding answers from a server and asking for a manager who never came to the table, Selby and her boyfriend paid up and left, vowing to avoid getting food or drinks on Ocean Drive in the future.
“I love the feel. I love the vibe. I love the atmosphere,” she said. “But I don’t want to eat or drink on Ocean Drive. I wouldn’t want to second guess what my tab is going to be.”
Selby’s story is echoed loudly by hundreds of disgruntled patrons on websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, where customers unload a flurry of anger and frustration on a slew of Ocean Drive restaurants, often posting pictures of menus with no prices and bills with exorbitant totals after they felt they were misled by deceptive servers.
The debate over what ails Ocean Drive has cooled to a simmer one month after a failed referendum to roll back hours of alcohol sales at several establishments from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. The Beach’s elected officials and business leaders agree that the tourists who feel ripped off are bad for business overall, tarnish the resort city’s reputation and add to a generally tacky, carnival-like atmosphere on Ocean Drive.
“It’s an epidemic on Ocean Drive. There are many restaurants that are, frankly, a blight on the city,” said City Commissioner Ricky Arriola. “They frequently scam and defraud our guests, many of whom are tourists who leave with a bad impression of Miami Beach.”
A typical complaint begins with the customer ordering a drink or plate as part of an advertised special or discount — often relayed in the form of a pushy host or hostess hawking on the sidewalk in front of the establishment. When the customer receives the drink, it’s much larger than they anticipated — think of an oversized margarita with two opened Corona bottles turned over in the glass.
When the bill comes back, the customer is surprised to see that drink cost $50 or more. In some cases, when you add food items with no advertised prices to the mix, the unexpected check can total hundreds.
One user on TripAdvisor criticized restaurant La Baguette on Dec. 1 when a buy-one-get-one cocktail was not clearly described by the server as a fishbowl-sized drink priced at $55. The reviewer renamed the establishment in the title of the post: “La Bag of Lies.”
“No prices on menus, $55 a drink and food resembles nothing like what you see on the food menu,” wrote user Nev P.
Of 1,352 reviews on the TripAdvisor, 87 percent rated La Baguette poor or terrible. The restaurant had a similar one-star rating on Yelp.
After 425 reviews, Il Giardino has a similar ranking, with 76 percent rating it poor or terrible. Sixty-nine percent of Columbus Restaurant’s 504 reviewers gave negative reviews.
The Carlyle Cafe fared a bit better after around 840 reviews on TripAdvisor, where 51 percent gave it a poor or terrible rating.
Negative reviews come with the territory when running a restaurant, especially through online services like Yelp and TripAdvisor. But a common theme throughout complaints against these Ocean Drive businesses is that customers felt duped by servers and menu-hawkers after ordering “specials” and getting expensive bills.
A manager at the Carlyle Cafe told the Herald on Friday he was not aware of situations like Selby’s.
“We have the prices on the menu,” said Carlos Gonzalez.
Indeed, Selby noted the prices of drinks on the menu — $14 for the martini and $10 for the beer — but the math didn’t add up when they got the $56 bill during the supposed happy hour special.
“We went to The Clevelander after and spent less than that,” she said.
Ocean Drive restaurants occasionally end up in the news after angry customers take their complaints to the media. In March, amid Spring Break, restaurant Amarillo was accused of price gouging after a customer was charged $619.40 for two food items and a drink. In that case, WSVN-Fox 7 reported the restaurant was cited by code enforcement for not listing prices on its menu.
The problem isn’t new. Back in 2013, WPLG-ABC 10 reported on a $330 bill two women received at La Baguette. The women said they saw most items on the menu cost about $20, so they took a server’s suggestion to order a special. It turned out the special alone was $210, and a drink was $50. The included tip was $47.
Police Chief Dan Oates said the department has a training module for street cops on how to handle bill disputes because they get so many calls. It’s enough of a problem that the department sometimes tries to catch restaurants in the act, but these operations don’t happen often due to the regular demands on the police.
“We do occasional stings, but it’s not as high a priority as protecting citizens and dealing with other quality-of-life issues,” he said.
Business leaders on Ocean Drive are just as miffed about deceptive practices because they damage Ocean Drive’s brand.
“We’re working with the city on ways to eliminate these type of operators,” said Mike Palma, executive vice president of hospitality for the company that owns The Clevelander and chairman of the Ocean Drive Association. “Of the 47 cafes on Ocean Drive, there are four or five that have this problem. The good operators are tired of the bad operators ruining the reputation of Ocean Drive.”
Arriola said he wants the city to revoke sidewalk cafe permits or business licenses for businesses that deceive customers.
“I’m hoping the city can shut down some of these businesses or get them to change their practices,” he said.
Ceci Velasco, executive director of the Ocean Drive Association, said part of the problem can be traced to servers who have been trained to say anything to get passersby to sit down.
“That’s why it’s necessary to have standards of service across the board,” she said.
Selby, an event planner who lives in St. Petersburg and wants to move to South Beach, was disappointed with her experience, but it didn’t cripple her vacation. She pointed out that for others, particularly tourists who come from abroad, an unexpectedly gigantic bill can rock their budget.
“What if you rented a car? What if you need gas?” she said. “How are you going to pay for your hotel?”