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!
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.