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Diners lose ‘everything you can imagine’ in restaurants - even kids

Wallets, car keys, sunglasses and umbrellas are objects commonly left behind at America's restaurants. But some people have left behind designer coats, awards, gifts, and the occasional child. (Radovan Vujovic)
By Tom Sietsema Washington Post

The general manager of Rasika in Washington remembers the pre-pandemic Friday lunch as if it were yesterday: a 30-something couple eating an Indian spread with their two young sons and a baby in a stroller. On his first pass by their table, Santosh Bodke noticed the boys enjoying butter chicken. The second time the manager stopped by, everyone but the younger boy was gone.

“Hey, buddy, where’s your dad?” Bodke asked the solo customer, whom the manager guessed to be about 4 years old and looked as if he was expecting more dessert.

“I don’t know,” the unconcerned boy said.

The family’s server told his boss the group paid and left. It seems the mother went outside with the baby at the meal’s conclusion, while the father went to the restroom with his boys, the older of whom left with him. Bodke stepped outside to see the family racing back toward the Land of the Forgotten. He couldn’t hear their exact words, but the parents were arguing, no doubt about which one of them was to blame.

Life’s mundane objects – keys, glasses and credit cards – top many restaurants’ list of things diners leave behind, but “people forget everything you can imagine,” says Brian Johnson, the recently retired general manager of Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, one of the nation’s busiest restaurants.

Some items are sentimental, he says: “a child’s favorite toy or blankie.” Others are “truly treasures, like a woman’s wedding ring,” which he suspects slipped off one diner’s hand when she used a finger bowl for Joe’s signature stone crabs. Like Rasika, Joe’s has seen its youngest diners lost and found. “Did you leave anything up front?” Johnson had to ask a couple who got seated without the baby they left in a stroller near the host stand. “I think they were looking for a babysitter, to tell you the truth,” says the restaurateur.

The most unusual forgotten item ever, says Johnson, was a “man bag with a passport, $14,000 and a gun.” When the owner returned, Johnson introduced him to Joe’s off-duty cop, who had some questions. (Johnson says the security brings him “peace of mind. When people see that, they behave better.”) The customer, who had a concealed weapon permit and proper identification, was allowed to leave with his possessions.

It’s easy to understand diners leaving takeout bags, which might be forgotten under a table (or maybe unwanted in the first place); credit cards, small enough to blend in with their check holders; umbrellas, especially if the rain has paused; or even luggage, possibly stowed away in a restaurant closet.

But leaving kids in restaurants sometimes makes headlines, as when then-prime minister David Cameron and his wife left a pub outside London without their 8-year-old daughter in 2012, an oversight that coincided with the British government restarting a troubled families program.

“Home Alone” scenarios aren’t restricted to two-legged visitors. A handful of times a year, Brennan’s in New Orleans sees service animals left behind, “mostly dogs,” says general manager Christian Pendelton, “but one patron left his service bird, a parrot – twice.” The bird was trained to stay in place, which the staff discovered after trying to relocate it from the dining room. Feathers were ruffled and diners were entertained until the owner reclaimed his helper.

Famous for its (boozy) breakfast, Brennan’s routinely runs luggage to customers who have left for the airport sans suitcases. “We can make it in 15 to 20 minutes, unless it’s a football game” in town, says Pendleton, who says someone from his staff of 183 is usually able to break from their job for the task.

The restaurateur blames the city’s free-spirited nature for the majority of forgetfulness. “They’re really enjoying New Orleans and still enjoying New Orleans.” Bodke of Rasika in Washington thinks some possessions are left behind after diners find themselves in what he calls “a food coma.” Having dispatched a dreamy meal or 1,000 in my career, I can relate to that state, or the simple desire of wanting to quickly sign a check and push off from a table after several hours of eating.

Leaving things behind can cost restaurants a surprising amount of time and money. Brennan’s, for instance, spends about $2,000 a year sending belongings back to customers.

At the 400-seat Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, retainers rank high among the items customers forget – and the restaurant dreads. “They can take down an operation, because the staff has to go through linen bags and trash,” which might take 30 minutes, says general manager Jeremy Mancuso. He says the D.C. classic has “50/50 luck” locating retainers. For everything, there’s a giant lost-and-found box, and for items needing to be secured, multiple safes.

Carlo Lamagna, chef at the modern Filipino Magna Kusina in Portland, Ore., says he has “bad knees from cooking and jujitsu,” but nevertheless found himself crawling on the restaurant’s patio in search of an engagement ring. “The girl said it was too large and she talked with her hands a lot,” says Lamagna. He spent an hour searching and rescuing, ultimately retrieving it from beneath some wooden slats with the help of kitchen tweezers. “It was like playing the game Operation,” says Lamagna.

Restaurateurs say they’re often surprised by things no one claims, including cards and presents. “Didn’t they really want the gift?’ asks Donnette Hansen, the owner of the Rainbow Lodge in Houston, where cowboy hats, a gun holster (sans gun) and “sexy” high heels have been left behind. When she reached out the owner of the pumps, the woman told Hansen, “Honey, they were the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever had!” The restaurateur wondered, but didn’t ask, if the guest had a second pair of shoes that night or slipped out barefoot.

Lost effects say something about modern America (medical marijuana cards and EpiPens are fairly recent additions to the genre) and vary from market to market. Houston’s mislaid cowboy hats are Hollywood’s overlooked American Express black cards. When Steve Scott Springer, general manager at Wolfgang Puck’s glitzy Spago in Beverly Hills, looked into the restaurant’s safe recently, he found about 50 of the metal status symbols.

Left belongings are logged in detail, with a date, table number, server’s name and a description of the item, says Springer. “We get a fair amount of clothes.” Spago recently returned an orange leather Chloe trench coat that went unclaimed for about a month. The owner was so unconcerned about getting the finery back, Spago ended up delivering it.

Diners’ losses can be charities’ gains. The unclaimed cellphones collected by Old Ebbitt Grill get donated to Goodwill and women’s shelters, while the many glasses left at Joe’s are sent to eye banks. Restaurateurs say they typically destroy credit cards after a few weeks or so, given that most owners apply for replacements as soon as they notice their cards are missing. Old Ebbitt doesn’t bother saving umbrellas for long, either, preferring to hand them out to customers exiting in the rain – a positive parting impression.

Some finds are bittersweet. A notebook left at Magna Kusina and filled with names, numbers and passwords turned out to be a lifeline for a diner who told Lamagna he had dementia.

Most restaurateurs say they don’t expect a tip for reuniting personal property with their owners. “A smile is good enough for me,” says Johnson of Joe’s in Florida.

“The best thanks is to come back,” says Manusco of Old Ebbitt.

“I just hope someone would do the same for me,” says Lamagna, who in fact lost his wallet on a road trip five years ago and got it back in the mail with everything intact, “including the little cash I had in it.”

Karene A. Putney, founder and president of Etiquette Etiquette, based in National Harbor, Md., says customers who appreciate a returned item have multiple ways of expressing gratitude that don’t involve cash: writing a rave review online, sending management a thank-you note, “recommending the restaurant to friends, family and colleagues and returning to the establishment if you can.”

Should diners be inclined to tip, Putney says $50 to $100 is appropriate for valuables such as passports and engagement and wedding rings. For lesser items, a range of $5 to $15 is good, especially for workers who have gone out of their way to retrieve something.

Spago being Spago, the restaurant’s hosts might get between $20 and $100 in appreciation, reports their boss, who adds that shopping bags from nearby Rodeo Drive are left like crumbs in the restaurant, whose regulars include Bette Midler, John Legend and the Obamas.

Drinking plays a role in some forgotten belongings, but Springer says “people get lost in the moment” at restaurants, too. Consider the night, pre-pandemic, that a famous “British and knighted” actor left his lifetime achievement award under the table at Spago.

Springer says he kept the prize in his office for a month or so before the star could retrieve it. “I felt like I won it, too.”