Sure, you can go straight to what you want, but you cannot appreciate the scope and creepiness of eBay until you browse around a bit, click here and there and see what pops up. How else to find the 1958 Mack B-21 Fire Truck ($5,000 opening bid)? Millions of items sell for one cent, plus shipping and handling, including beer bongs, 100,000 volt stun guns, inkjet printers, a Satanic Altar Ceramic Human Skull Decantor (sic), 25 glow-in-the-dark bunny ears or a tragically popular $2,001 bill commemorating the 9/11 attack on the WTC. I doubt I would ever have searched for "one bottled Peruvian FART" (25-cent opening bid), or evidence of a UFO caught on camcorder ($25,000 opening bid).
It was browsing this way, a few weeks ago, that I stumbled upon thousands of restaurant gift certificates on eBay. I placed two impulsive bids on two auctions ending that morning. Later that afternoon, two congratulatory e-mails in my inbox pointed me toward the Restaurant.com payment page. I had to pay for each certificate separately, by credit card only. Two more minutes, two more e-mails, two more links leading me to two online certificates that could be printed and carried to the specified restaurants.
Except one thing: being rather sparsely financed, I do not own a printer. So I disconnected from the Internet, and carried my laptop to Kinko's. On my screen, I had nice, official-looking certificates, but what I got from the Kinko's LaserJet were nearly empty sheets of paper crisscrossed by a series of empty boxes and Xs. Since I tried printing twice, the certificates ended up costing a total of about $8 each: a $5 opening bid, a $1 Restaurant.com service charge and $2 for printing. But assuming that I could convince the restaurants that my rather paltry print-outs were, in fact, $25 gift certificates, I would still reap a net savings of $17. Maybe.
A quick word on the participating restaurants: there are upwards of 5,000 places to eat in San Diego, and only 37 participate in the Restaurant.com program. Obviously, you can't be too choosy. But while they might not have been the dining rooms of the moment, the participating restaurants were not duds, either. I found two solid, long-established restaurants that I'd wanted to try: India Palace, which recently opened a second location down the street, and Busalacchi's Ristorante, the Italian standby on Fifth Avenue.
My now-ravenous dining companion and I walked up the block toward India Palace. There, I quietly explained my printing problems; the maitre d' scrunched up his face and deferred to his manager.
"That is only good at the La Jolla location," the manager told me.
"Aren't you the same restaurant?" I whined.
"Yes," he explained. "But they are run by a different partnership."
No problem. We walked a couple blocks to plan B: Busalacchi's. Once again blushing sheepishly, I handed over the mostly blank sheet of paper, and explained my printing problems.
"This is supposed to be for parties of four or more," he said, pointing to the disclaimer. "But you're here. I'm not going to turn you away."
Obviously, I needed to pay a little more attention to the fine print. Most certificates are good for only one location, and for parties of four or more, or more specifically, for parties who order four or more entrees.
Swami's Café of Encinitas specifies on their certificate, "Valid Mon-Thurs; Excludes dinner/beverages; Valid for food only; not valid w/any other specials." OK, then.
We had a nice dinner on Busalacchi's covered patio and, emboldened by our imminent discount, spent more than we ever should have. (Second lesson: slow down, turbo.) And one final clarification I hope no one needs: always base your gratuities on the total (pre-discounted) bill.
Restaurant.com also sells certificates through their own website (www.restaurant.com), for twice the price they charge on eBay, or $10 for a $25 certificate. Then again, you get the certificate immediately, and without the possibility of being out-bid. There are one or two other nominal competitors to Restaurant.com in the certificate game, Chowbaby.com being the biggest. But Chowbaby has almost no certificates for restaurants in San Diego County. Even worse, most of Chowbaby's eBay auctions do not include the name of the restaurant in the auction title, making their offerings nearly impossible to peruse.
Sort of like eBay itself. Still, I dug around a little more, and found someone who might have what it takes to become my successor: an eBay user offered his opinion, in the form of a researched and typed page, on any topic, for a whopping 25 cents. That's the low, low price of one bottled Peruvian fart¢.
Place your bids for next week's column at firstname.lastname@example.org.