I place some of the blame on the writers and producers. The whole scenario of giving the chefs: 1/2 hour to plan, 1/2 hour to talk to a decorator, only $500 for food and $500 to shop for dishes and cutlery, and one day to accomplish this miracle led them down the path to cooking disaster. Yes, Season 1 chefs had the same criteria and had better results, but their space was different. It was smaller and cozier, and furnished with nicer tables and chairs. The decorators this year put a wrinkle on things - they seemed a hindrance more than help, arriving late and not doing much more than mere surface decorating.
As for the wine, who could buy red AND white wine on such a low budget? Should Sam's team have served boxed wine? I think last season, even Stephen had to compromise on the quality of wine they were serving.
I challenge anyone to cook anything brilliant given such poor resources and short amount of time to do the work. (I wasn't much impressed with last year's dishes either, though those teams performed better as a unit.)
If the purpose of these later episodes is to find out what stuff the chefs are made of, then have them concentrate on excellent cooking. If the chefs have to work on every aspect of the kitchen, including overseeing the designer, a helper, and the front room, why not give them more time and a larger budget, and see what stuff they're really made of!
The space they were given completely lacked charm. It would have affected my dining experience, no matter how good the food was. In fact, my dorm room in college looked better.
To make matters worse, the wrong person was auf'd! Though Mikey was the least talented of the bunch, his performance was not the worst. (Think Cliff.)
I suggest you go back to the drawing room, Bravo, and think of more creative, worthwhile challenges towards the end of the competition so that the chefs can shine in cooking, leadership ability, and service to their customers. The viewers would benefit from such an experience too.
Note: I have read Harold's blog and his take on things. He seems to think the challenge as written is worthwhile. I agree with him, except for the time limitations and the miserly budget. Why subject 48 customers to a mediocre dining experience because Bravo is stinting on the budget? I feel sorriest for them, frankly. Imagine eating bad food in such an awful setting. What a waste.