Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurant

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Coopers dining room

Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant would love to sell you some wine-related gewgaws. Visitors enter and exit through a gift shop where they can buy corkscrews, coasters, and candles that look like glasses of wine. They'd also like to have you buy some tastes of the wines the company produces at its Arlington Heights, Illinois, winery; there's a tasting-room feature in the gift shop, as well.

But I'm not convinced they're all that serious about being a restaurant and providing a positive guest experience. On my recent visit I was subjected to one fail after another, and although a manager finally stepped up and did the right thing, enough ill will had been created by that point to prevent me from returning.

Here's how my evening went down.

I arrived at Cooper's Hawk, which opened last month in Waterford Lakes Town Center, and wound my way through the gift shop to the host stand, where four staff members were standing. A young man in the group who was standing at the front immediately turned his back on me to continue a conversation with one of the young women, leaving someone else to greet me. (Here's a tip from Guest Relations 101: When guests enter the restaurant it's everyone's duty to greet and welcome them.) Another of the young women grabbed a menu and bade me follow her.

Instead of taking me to the dining room, she led me to the bar and asked if I'd like to sit at a hightop. I said I would not. So she took me to a booth near the window. But the table had not been wiped down, so she asked me to stand and wait while she fetched a rag.

Once seated I looked over the menu, and since it took several minutes for my server to greet me, I was ready with my selections by the time she arrived (and she apologized for the delay, which was appropriate). I requested a glass of the Cooper's Hawk red, a cup of the crab and lobster bisque (a house favorite) and for my entree the short rib risotto.

She immediately brought some pretzel bread, a small, round loaf with a dark brown crust that resembled a pretzel but a taste like plain bread. But 13 minutes passed before I received my glass of wine, and only then after she came by and noticed I was wineless and muttered, "What is going on here?" as she headed to the bar. (I started to notice how sticky the floor was beneath my feet — maybe I should have taken one of the hightops.)

I had plenty of time to sip the wine, which, at $6.75 a glass was certainly a bargain and had a pleasant enough taste. My soup did not arrive until 22 minutes after I had placed the order. It, at $5.99 for a small cup, was overpriced. There was too little of either shellfish to warrant star billing and too little flavor to name it anything else.

It was at this point that I realized things had gotten quite dark. And I don't mean figuratively. The pendant light over my table was not working, and twilight had turned to night and I could not see what I was eating. I asked the server if the light could be turned on (three of the five tables had working lights over them) but she said it could not — there was something wrong with the wiring, or perhaps it was because some guests unscrew the bulbs; she said there was nothing she could do.

A food runner brought my entree at the half-hour mark, and I again said it was disconcerting not being able to see what I was eating. This young woman just giggled and said something to the effect of "Yeah, I know." My server overheard and left, returning a couple of minutes later with another candle for the table. "This is the best that I can do," she said. But by then I had sawn through the not tender short rib and had taken a bite of the stone-cold meat.

That was it. I told her my food was cold and I was done. I'd like my check, please, so that I could leave.

But several minutes passed yet again. This time a manager came to the table and asked me if I could tell him about my experience. I didn't go through the litany — I felt the cold food that I could not see in front of me was enough. He offered to have another risotto dish prepared and to bring me some more candles (!). Check, please, I repeated.

And then I pointed out that when I made the first complaint of the table being too dark there was another booth, bathed in amber light, available a few tables away. I wonder, I said to him, why no one offered to reseat me there. He said that it was probably because all of the tables in the bar area were on a first come basis. "But the hostess sat me here!" I replied.

"Maybe it's because this was the only table available to them," he surmised. I said that maybe they didn't feel that a single diner was worth any more effort. He said that wasn't the case; I remained unconvinced.

Then he said, "What can I do for you?" This you'll find in Chapter 5 of Guest Relations 101: Don't put the guest in the position of solving the problem for you — just solve it.

I told him he could bring me my check.

Several more minutes went by before he returned with the risotto boxed up and told me that he had taken care of the check. He also gave me his card, asked me to call him the next time I wanted to come in, and gave me a card good for a complimentary dinner and glass of wine. (Perhaps he had made a quick review of Chapter 5 while he was gone because that was the appropriate thing to do in the first place.)

At this point, I'm not sure I'll make use of the gift card. I was anxious for East Orlando to have an alternative to the family chains, even if the alternative was another chain. Cooper's Hawk has a unique concept that could do well there (and at the International Drive location it expects to open later this year). But it needs to do a better job both with guest relations and the execution of its food — the risotto reheated at home tasted predominantly of truffle oil. Unless there are signs that improvement in these areas have improved, I'll have to withhold any recommendation.

Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant is at 529 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando, in the Waterford Lakes Town Center next to Pier One. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-374-2464.

(Note: The photo of the dining room at Cooper's Hawk at top was taken on a previous visit.)