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Taking the Ten Finger Discount: A Little Restaurant Kleptomania

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Fri, Jul 24, 2009 at 3:46 PM

Every day in Los Angeles, upstanding citizens--ordinary people who would never pinch a friend's gas money or even infringe on a copyright--steal from restaurants. Beyond pocketing pats of butter and little jelly jars from the bread basket, there is a surprising number of restaurant patrons who, after paying for a good meal, leave with whole place settings, pieces from crystal chandeliers, wine bottles and electronics tucked into their bag or under their jacket.

click to enlarge Things people steal from LA restaurants and bars - BROOKE BURTON
  • Brooke Burton
  • Things people steal from LA restaurants and bars

click to enlarge Pinching pitchers? - BROOKE BURTON
  • Brooke Burton
  • Pinching pitchers?
It's not uncommon to mistakenly palm a pen (much to the chagrin of the servers who are required to buy their own office supplies), but what is remarkable is what goes missing from restaurants and why. Some restaurant robbers cite the if-they-put-it-on-the-table-it's-mine motto, while others take a more entitled route.

Ann Kirk, pastry chef for Little Dom's in Los Feliz, admits she has a friend that enjoys thieving from restaurants--even when she's across the table. "My friend takes knives, forks, spoons. Everything. She used to walk out of restaurants with a full glass of wine under her coat," a mortified Kirk explains. "When I'd ask her why she was taking it she'd say 'Because I can.'"

At Luna Park on La Brea artwork, place settings and pieces of antique chandeliers have been snatched by restaurant guests. "People would never brag that they took a CD from their friend's house, but they wouldn't hesitate to tell you they stole that cute little tip tray from Luna Park," says AJ Gilbert, owner of Luna Park and newly opened Henry's Hat.

Some restaurant and bar owners accept the cost of amateur pillaging with a what-can-you-do attitude while others take a more aggressive stance. At Bar Lubitsch in Hollywood, bar manager Stone isn't above sprinting several blocks to retrieve poached items. "I have chased more than two people for blocks for that red phone," Stone says, pointing to the bar's red rotary phone. "One girl had it in her purse and [once] a guy had it in his jacket. When people get drunk and they will try to take anything. "

The price of restaurant ransacking isn't small. At Bar Lubitsch so many miniature cocktail shakers and martini glasses go missing, the bar orders a case a week to replace them. In tight financial times, the more than three thousand dollar cost to cover drunken guests' whims is high. The fact that Lubitsch's shakers are served without the enclosing top only proves the frivolity of hijacking the incomplete item. At Luna Park in Los Angeles and San Francisco hundreds, if not thousands of dollars have been lost to amateur restaurant art thieves. "We've had every piece of artwork stolen off the wall. Numbered prints. Tons of framed postcards. Anything that's not bolted down is game."

Give a customer a cocktail or a couple glasses of wine and suddenly the shame of stealing evaporates and the cost to restaurant owners seems nominal. Karen (not her real name), a food lover and textile designer, admits that her co-workers like to permanently appropriate entire place settings from Barney's Beanery. "Plates, bowls, glasses, silverware. They take all of it. They put the stuff in their purses and walk out." When asked why, she shrugs. "It's what they do. They think it's funny."

Bar Lubitsch's manager shakes his head. "See those bottles up there?" He waves toward back-lit bottles of Russian vodka that have been hand painted by the distiller. "People like to take those, too. They never even ask if they can have 'em." What would Stone do if the customer did ask? "If you ask nicely," he says, "you get things in life."

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