Sometimes I dine in fancy restaurants with starched white tablecloths, napkins and professional waiters; waiters who don’t ask me throughout the meal, “How is your food so far, sir?” To pestering waiters, I want to say, “If I am capable of ordering a meal, I am also capable of calling you to the table and telling you if the soup is cold, the fish is old, or the bread is stale.”
That is an occasional indulgence and reminds me of the time when, between journalistic gigs, I worked at a high-end restaurant in New York. It even featured a big band, Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
My wife and I frequently dine somewhere local, usually a pub-type eatery. After a while, you learn what they are good at and order accordingly. You are resigned to vinyl tablecloths and flimsy paper napkins.
And I resign myself to being asked at least three times some variant of “How is it so far?” The answer, which like other diners I never have the moral courage to voice, should be, “Go away! You are spoiling my dinner with an insincere inquiry about the comestibles. I am eating, aren’t I?”
Maybe these waiters should ask the chef how the food is for starters — it is too late by the time it gets to the table.
The other dinner-spoiling intrusion, if you don’t have a professional, is the young waiter who wants you to be their life coach. It begins something like this, “I am not really a waiter. I am studying sociology. Do you think I should switch my major to journalism?”
I am tempted to reply, “I don’t know anything about sociology and it is damn hard to make a living in journalism these days. But there is a huge shortage of plumbers. You might try an apprenticeship somewhere and give up college.”
Give up waiting tables, too, I hope.
Please don’t misunderstand; I love restaurants. It cheers me up to eat out. I rank towns with a vibrant restaurant culture as high on the quality-of-life scale.
I am writing this from Greece, where a cornucopia of restaurant choices beckons everywhere, from avgolemono soup to taramasalata. I am all in.
When your mouth is full, the awful business of asking you how the chef’s skills are that day doesn’t seem to be part of the continental culture. That, I find, is an egregious weakness of the English-speaking nations.
But the business of interrogating you about your breakfast, lunch or dinner isn’t confined to when you are at the table. If you make a reservation online, using one of the booking services, you will be pursued afterward, sometimes for days, by annoying questions about the restaurant’s food and ambiance, and the service.
The multiple-choice questions follow a formula like this, “On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your dining experience?” How do you explain that you loved the meal except for flies diving into your plate? Is that a one because of the flies, or a 10 because of the food? Splitting the difference with a five explains neither the failure nor the success.
A restaurant in Washington once specialized in delicious roast beef sandwiches. They were the creation of the man who owned the restaurant, and he had cuts of beef, a sauce, and rolls all made for the purpose.
But once I can remember, there was a distinct problem: A rat appeared next to a colleague when he was tucking into the sandwich.
How do you rate that dining experience when Yelp sends its questionnaire? Do you rate the food as a resounding 10 but the ambiance as one? How would the number-crunchers rate that in the overall dining experience?
Knowing how they like to seek averages, my suspicion is the roast beef eatery would have rated a five.
I read somewhere that during the Siege of Paris in 1870-71, an entrecote (a sirloin steak) was a slice of a rat. For years, I wondered about that place in Washington and its excellent roast beef sandwiches.
I would rather eat with an annoying server than a fraternizing rodent. Bon appetit!