$7 Snobs

I dined at a local restaurant today of which I’d heard mixed reviews but had high hopes. The chef and his modest family of outposts are local heros, and his empire slowly expands throughout the country as I type this. It should be noted that to a certain degree, I am a little cynical of rapid expansion when it comes to restaurants. There is (however unwarranted) suspected fraud about a chef who blankets television, kicks out a few cookbooks and opens a small arsenal of restaurants all within a relatively short amount of time (even if his or her initial joints went nationally unknown for the first five or eight years of their lives).

So if the chef and his or her partners have it together enough to divide and conquer, and (s)he becomes a media darling while maintaing quality and dignity in the kitchen, excellent. Truly, excellent. A win for the ongoing war in creating and propagating good food! What if, along with that win and the fame and the import and the elbow-rubbing, comes… well… snobbery? What if an inflated sense of self and mission greets diners the second they sit down? What does that seasoning taste like?

I entered, sat down at the bar, ordered a really lovely cider on tap and looked through the menu. I decided on a simple cheeseburger (their signature item) and a small house salad, “to start”, I uttered. My bartender let out a curt smile, asked my temperature preference and took my menu. As I waited for the food to arrive, I looked around at the space. Reminders of its chef were everywhere, the room was branded. My eyes eventually fell upon three laminated cards wedged into the top of the condiment holder (which held six house-brand sauces). One item was a cocktail menu, one was a happy hour list and the third was a set of instructions. Wait, instructions? Behavioral modifications for a casual restaurant? Are you serious? To wit: 

******

1.
 Welcome to [restaurant]! Help us help you!

2. No Whining! We will do our very best to make everyone happy. Just like line jumpers at an amusement park, whiners will be prosecuted & removed from the establishment. Life is short, have fun & enjoy the moment.
3. Due to the fact that we do not take reservations…. we need your cooperation and patience. We already assume that you know Michael, Liz, Doug, the Mayor, President Obama, etc… We will seat everyone in the order in which they arrive & only seat complete parties. We will do our very best to quote wait times correctly. Occasionally we may be a little off. Please refer to rule #2 if you are feeling any strange urges.
4. All food will come to the table together. This way we’ll keep everything running ship shape & keep waits to a minimum. If you’re interested in courses…ask your caddie.
5. We have a burger for every taste (even vegetarians)!! If there is something you do NOT want on your burger, let us know and we will take it off. Due to the many choices & thought put into their composition, we ask that you do not substitute or add items.
6. How our temperatures work…

RARE:

blood red, cold/cool in center

MID RARE:

reddish, cool in the center

MEDIUM:

reddish/pink, warm center

MID WELL:

barely pink, warm center

WELL:

no pink, very sad, hot center
7. If you’re reading these, making funny faces & squinching your nose…you’re too uptight! You should immediately consume bourbon, beer or your beverage of choice & relax a little!
******

Ok in full disclosure, I’ve worked for restaurants wherein we’d have LOVED to say these things to customers. Like every time someone tried to drop the name of an owner in hopes of a better or quicker table, all the instances customers unwittingly tried to change the structure of a well-composed dish by adding or removing one ingredient, the insistance that they be right whatever the cost, the person that orders their meat cooked well. We’d have loved to have gotten away with that kind of cheek.

But we knew that we couldn’t. Shouldn’t. Mustn’t. It’s bad form. It’s a bit classless and above all, it’s arrogant. There may be some leeway in a four star restaurant wherein you surrender to the chef and staff, you allow yourself to be whisked away and taken to another land. Where you enjoy not having to make decisions or do anything but simply be fed. The act of surrender, subservience, humility all in the name of being present for the pleasure of being in someone else’s home. So what of the restaurant that actually has the balls to say things like that? To tell you how to behave, what to do and what not to do and then ends it all with “but have a great time! Love, [chef]” Do you really believe that’s what they want for you? Exactly whose great time do they want you to have? Clearly not yours, you rube. How dare you screw up the pacing of the evening by requesting your salad come first!

I’ve said this before to anyone I dine with wherein the experience raises my eyebrows – perhaps I’ve spent way too much time in food service. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. But I can never go back, I can never unsee and unknow what I’ve learned by working behind the scenes. If I’d never dined out before and was greeted with this list of rules, I’d wonder what sort of evening I was in for. Sure, the staff is smiling and joking, wearing jeans and greeting diners with a casual coolness, but they just got done telling me that my preferences aren’t allowed or ok and my opinion probably doesn’t count for much when it’s all said and done.

If Per Se tells me red shoes are forbidden and I’m to have my hemline below the knee for the privilege of dining with them, I may roll my eyes and gripe to my friends but you better believe the shoes are staying in the closet and my pencil skirt is coming out because I know that what I’d get there, is perfection. I can’t do what they do, even if there IS a book telling me how. That dinner costs rent and I’d be in the presence of the masterclass. They can tell me how to hold my fork, if they want to. Because frankly in that environment, they do know better than I do.

But today’s establishment was a burger and beer joint. There was absolutely nothing fancy about it. Bologna was on the menu. My check came in under $15. I was wearing Vans and entered holding a Trader Joe’s shopping bag with a few wares I’d just picked up. My burger was smaller than my hand and came a la carte.  I couldn’t have been farther from Per Se if I and they tried. 


So what does it mean that in today’s dining establishments some restaurants deem it perfectly acceptable to wag a finger in your face and impress upon the diner a certain degree of unwelcome before even ordering? Isn’t this the hospitality industry?

It’s easy to be cynical in service work – it’s impossible not to be, actually. We see all sides of people and in every type of restaurant we see entitlement. Some diners forget their manners and are two seconds from snapping in the air every time they need something and after many years of it, it becomes natural to presume the worst of people from time to time. But much like a chef double-dipping a tasting spoon, the public isn’t supposed to see that. And frankly, for people who enjoy dining out but have never worked the other side of it, God bless you. You’ve been spared. But those that make a living, or at least did for a while, on the inside must remember our grace. We too have to have manners, what the public doesn’t know about the man behind the curtain is ok. Preferred, actually. To let them see the catty judgment that runs rampant when two industry workers get together is just…tacky. Especially in print.

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7 thoughts on “$7 Snobs

  1. the gourmet burger joint is not a new concept, but it IS new to cleveland. i can respect the effort and detail put into something as casual as a hamburger, and can say the one meal i had there was above average…

    for a hamburger.

    that said, this is their “quirky, fun, food with bad ass-itude” take on it. skull & crossbones, harley, tough guy aggro americana has played a part in the chef's persona all along. he appears genuine about it, and has a litany of accolades, awards, and loyalists at the ready to show that “hey, i must be doing something right!”.

    would the place have the same success if everything was the same, minus the famous name? probably not initially or locally, but the concept itself has been proven to be successful. i don't think the snippy “dining rules” are so much the problem, as is where they're coming from. the chef's accessibility and presence in his restaurants and community, as well as in the media is what's makes this hard to swallow. you're reading it in his voice, you can picture him saying it, and the fact that you can relate it to an actual person you may have even met is what makes it annoying. were these same rules posted in a smashburger or shake shack, you probably wouldn't give it a second thought.

    i felt the same way as you when i read them, but had to make the effort to put aside that even though i find someones personality absolutely grating, they are capable of producing decent hamburger.

    best hamburger ever? not in my book, but an above average with exceptional ingredients. didn't care for the cinnamon and some of the spices in the sauces/ketchup, but that's just personal my taste.

  2. I could picture him saying this, with that maniacal laugh, but ultimately I think if there was meant to be a sense of humor behind it, it's lost in translation.

    If Per Se, Alinea, French Laundry, Le Bernadin, and their ilk would have given me a list of to-do's/not-do's I'd humbly obey and have no problem doing so. A burger joint in my mind, has no business being so big for its breeches as this one seems to be. It reads too much in love with itself. I'd think that *anywhere*, not just Cleveland.

    My favorite burger joint in Chicago has a list of house rules next to the door too but their staff is a little less likely to smile and try to be your buddy so the rules are completely in context and they don't put up with any BS from the peanut gallery. I get the feeling this place was trying to puff its chest out perhaps, and because I wasn't terribly impressed the whole thing fell flat for me.

  3. i think it's mainly targeted at the legion that have come to know the chef & his establishments as “fine dining”. the juxtaposition in the service here is such that it needed to be addressed. i got a chuckle out of the “we already assume that you know michael, liz, doug, the mayor, president obama, etc…” bit, because i could totally see it happening.

    screw any sort of rules when it comes to being a service i'm paying for, regardless of the establishment or concept. i get dress codes, reservations, party size, fixed gratuities or whatever, but no way in hell am i adhering to some ridiculous whim of an establishment for the privilege of dining there.

    the way i see it, in print the list isn't that offensive, even for a high end burger joint. but, reading it in his voice, and picturing him saying it, takes it to 11. and that's not a knock on him, his accomplishments, or his talent as a chef, restauranteur, and celebrity…he does all of the above very well. just not the type of personality i want to sit and have a cocktail with.

    and that's where most clevelander's can't separate the two. there is a segment that don't care for his personality, or are jealous of his fame and success, and that equates in their mind as “his food sucks, is overrated, and overpriced.” the two can be separate, but most people can't get over themselves to honestly form an opinion about both. he uses the hype to his advantage, and why wouldn't you, it's free!

  4. Sometimes I think hype is absolutely the only reason people are so forgiving with this kind of schtick. One of the restaurants I worked at in Chicago had a no reservation policy and people name dropped all the time. We HAD to be snobs to a certain degree. They waited upwards of two hours or more sometimes (and frankly, I think the food was worth it). The room was small, the restaurant was notable, the people totally put up with it and I'm sure in part just so they could say they did it. As long as there are sycophants, there are lists like this one.

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