Ronald J. Palagi is a regular at Bistro 121, a west Omaha restaurant whose owner he has known for two decades.
Palagi, a longtime personal injury attorney, was at the restaurant on three consecutive nights earlier this month, often sitting before legal documents he had fanned across his table. He arrived on a Friday night for dinner and a martini.
“He fixes a nice salmon,” Palagi said of the owner, Walter R. Hecht, 73.
That was the extent of the pleasantries the men offered about each other in interviews. Their encounter April 12 could result in criminal charges and a civil lawsuit. It has certainly led to a strained relationship.
Palagi believes that Hecht should not have added a corkage fee to his bill. A corkage fee is a charge that restaurants sometimes tack on when they serve wine that a patron has brought in.
Hecht said his fee is $20 per bottle. He said Palagi brought three or four bottles of red wine into the restaurant. A corkage fee, he said, is standard in Omaha restaurants.
Palagi said neither he nor the other patrons intended to order from what he termed an inferior wine list.
“I said, 'Walter, nobody drinks your wine.'”
After receiving a bill that included the fee, Hecht said in an interview, Palagi crumpled it in his hand.
He then chased Hecht around the restaurant, wielding a full bottle of wine he pulled from a rack, the owner told police.
“He came after me,” said Hecht, who told police, “He blew up.''
Palagi allegedly pushed Hecht to the floor, according to a police report. He threw a cellphone that the owner had grabbed against a wall, breaking it into pieces, Hecht said.
Two waitresses held back Palagi, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs about 200 pounds, by his coat, the report said. He left the restaurant near 120th Street and West Center Road without paying a bill that Hecht said was $193.81.
Hecht has owned Bistro 121 for 13 years and previously ran other restaurants in the city, including the Old Vienna Cafe in South Omaha, for 20 years.
The raucous end to the evening unfolded when Palagi offered to share two bottles of red wine shipped to him from California with three other people in the restaurant.
Then Palagi got the bill (the amount, like many things in this tale, is in dispute). Palagi said he and Hecht had a long-standing arrangement that he would never pay a corkage fee.
Palagi acknowledged that he became angry and that he raised his voice. Hecht recalled unending screaming.
Hecht said Palagi was intoxicated; Palagi denied that he was drunk. Hecht said Palagi yelled, “Sue me! Sue me!”
Palagi said Hecht's account of the incident was ridiculous and inaccurate.
“I 'beat him' to the extent that he didn't even go to the hospital,” he said.
Hecht said his dissatisfied customer left after a half-hour.
The Omaha city prosecutor will review the case. No charges have been filed, though when police took the report, an officer listed three possible misdemeanor violations: destruction of property, assault and theft of services.
Restaurants with a liquor license like the one at Bistro 121 may allow patrons to consume wine that they bring to the restaurant, but the staff must watch for overconsumption, said Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. “It's up to the licensee,” he said.
Hecht said he is concerned about intoxication when he is not directly serving alcohol. He said he added the corkage charge so he would not violate liquor commission rules.
The bill remains unpaid.
Palagi said an intermediary telephoned Hecht within 20 minutes of his departure from the restaurant to offer to pay the bill, without the corkage fee. Hecht said Palagi did not return a call on the Monday after the encounter.
At least one person in the restaurant got paid that night: Palagi said he tipped a waitress $20.
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