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 Lights 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.
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“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 unscrupulous restaurants that upset tourists 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.
Indeed, Selby noted the prices of drinks on the menu — $14 for the martini and $14 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.
On Saturday, after this article was published online, the owner of the Carlyle Cafe responded to Selby’s story. Antonio Rizzi contacted the Herald and Selby, produced Selby’s bill and found her server had not applied the two-for-one discount.
He apologized to Selby on the phone, who said she was “glad he was very nice and understood what was happening and how he wanted to stop it.”
Rizzi told the Herald his server had erred and he would be addressing that. He said he has labored to eliminate these problems at his Ocean Drive restaurants: the Carlyle, the Pelican and Il Bolognese. The latter two establishments have signficantly better reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp.
He denounced any deceptive business practices on Ocean Drive, and said the Carlyle should not be included with the other places with poor reviews and high prices that are named in the article.
“For me, it’s a big deal,” he said. “We’re trying to adjust and to make Ocean Drive better.”