Since time immemorial, silverware has found a way to walk out of dining rooms. But the golden age of modern restaurant theft occurred in the early 2000s.
That’s when, as chefs became celebrities and dining out became high theater, well-designed restaurants turned regular customers into cunning thieves. In a story on the subject in 2002, the New York Times highlighted several items that had been stolen from notable restaurants: a $1,200 silver Champagne bucket from Locke-Ober in Boston and a $1,000 fish-shaped bamboo lamp from Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, among others. At New York’s Eleven Madison Park, someone managed to remove one of the two dozen framed vintage photographs, sourced by then-owner Danny Meyer, from the dining room wall out in the open; its value was about $1,500.
These days we’re deep in the Brooklyn aesthetic, so there aren’t many silver Champagne buckets lying around, and diners have found more unconventional items to covet. We’re not just talking about that one charming teaspoon or mini vase, or the mismatched coupe — not to mention toilet paper — that often finds its way into someone’s pocket on a larcenous whim. Here, we’ve gathered tales of significant items that have been taken from restaurants, from the seemingly worthless to the unwieldy.
The celebrity hangout gastropub The Spotted Pig has more things stolen from it than any other restaurant, claims co-owner Ken Friedman. “Because the Pig is a bar, and people get drunk, and drunk people steal things,” he explains. People abscond with the pillows from the banquettes and the flower paintings from the bathroom, but the most popular items are the countless pig knickknacks that decorate the three-story space; more than 25 percent have been stolen since the place opened, Friedman estimates. (They are gifted almost as many, he adds, both from the thieves who feel guilty and friends of the restaurant who come across knickknacks.) But the Spotted Pig’s most important stolen pig is still missing. One night in 2014, the restaurant’s namesake, a 60-cm-long ceramic antique from England, which was chained to the front, was stolen. The restaurant even started a #findthepig Twitter campaign.
The country Italian restaurant Coltivare in Houston is known for its locavore pizzas and a 279-square-meter garden, the source for dishes like the Backyard Lettuce and Herb Salad. That guests have walked in and grabbed vegetables and fruit off the vine doesn’t put it in the hall of fame of stolen-from restaurants; what really earned it legend status was when guests started stealing actual fruit trees. Three have gone missing, including a 1.8-meter-tall kumquat tree worth about $175. Says chef Ryan Pera: “I was stunned and hurt, but more awed by the fact that it was obviously planned. I mean, someone had to come prepared with proper garden tools, a truck, and the knowhow on how to steal a tree.”
At the reopened Japanese restaurant Megu, meanwhile, the signature plates are disappearing. Manufactured in Hiroshima, the hand-painted plates with the Megu name stamped on the bottom were introduced for the restaurant’s original incarnation, and they’re worth about $500 each. It’s proved relatively easy for someone to slip the plates — used for dishes like Yellowtail Kanzuri and the Matcha Crepe Cake — into a large handbag: The restaurant estimates that about twice a week someone takes one. Since it reopened last October, Megu has lost about 65 plates, or $32,500 worth of tableware; they only have 60 left. (As a result, the restaurant has asked the staff to be extra diligent when they see the plates on the table and to whisk them away as soon as the food is gone.)
Under the category of things that are technically useless outside the restaurant, here’s something interesting: At Underbelly, which celebrates the wildly diverse Houston food scene, the wine list is styled like a comic book with corresponding art and graffitied blurbs. The plain, unassuming leather covers get taken on a regular basis, along with the engaging list. The covers are made for Underbelly by a local craftsman, and they cost $30 each — more than most such items, but not terribly valuable. Says partner Kevin Floyd: “I don’t think people use them for anything. I just think people steal them for fun, and the universe will punish them someday.”
At the Cal-Italian restaurant Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, the vibrantly colored Americana tin salt and pepper shaker cans that hold the checks are routinely taken. In fact, you can’t find them at the restaurant any longer. “They disappeared so often that we stopped using them,” says chef Michael Fiorelli. “We were constantly driving across the city just to keep them in stock. It was almost like we were offering a take-away for dining with us.” The mismatched cocktail glasses have also proved popular. And, says Fiorelli, “We may as well give those Moscow mule mugs away.” The copper-styled cups are a preferred target among restaurant thieves everywhere.
When Robert Bohr, of Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones, worked at the exceptional wine-oriented restaurant Cru a dozen years ago, people routinely stole the Christofle silver. “It was like $85 a fork, and dozens of pieces would get taken,” he says. Now the piece of tableware most likely to get stolen in his life are Pasquale Jones’ handsome red-handled Perceval 9.47 steak knives, which go for about $50 each. But what gets Bohr most worked up is the theft of much more mundane items at the fresh-flavored Mediterranean spot Charlie Bird. “We had a Mason jar of dental floss picks; people would take 500 of them,” he says. “Our ‘Employees Must Wash Hands’ sign, done by a graphic artist, people took that. And then we started using Jo Malone candles to make the bathroom at Pasquale smell nice. They cost like $75, and one night someone stole a lit candle. They took a candle, full of smelly liquid wax, and put it in their bag. Now I check the bathroom more frequently.”
Finally, near the entrance to Tribeca restaurant Batard sits a formidable antique duck press. A good vintage one starts at a couple thousand dollars and can go as high as $45,000. One night in the winter of 2015, after a Domaine Lafarge Burgundy wine dinner, co-owner John Winterman found that a guest had walked out with it. “It was hailing, and he was stumbling a little bit—a duck press weighs about 40 pounds—so it was easy to catch him. I said, ‘I’ll be taking that back now.’ A lot of wine had been consumed that night. The guy said, ‘OK’ and kept walking.”