Is Restaurant Etiquette Dead?

A well-heeled guest recently beckoned me, her waiter, to the table to urgently ask what apparently she thought was a very important question. “Why is that woman over there wearing a hat?” she asked scornfully, nodding toward a young woman wearing a cream-colored winter cap festooned with a stringy pom pom on top.

Sensing that I was flummoxed, she stared deeply into my soul for an uncomfortable moment and disdainfully pulled back on her crown of braided blond hair. “Hmmpf,” she muttered quietly to herself, “I guess times have changed, but that isn’t very classy in an elegant restaurant like this.” She seemed a bit young to be such a faithful disciple of Emily Post.

I didn’t disagree that it seemed out of place for guests to wear hats in the dining room, but I also wasn’t about to walk over and pull the hat off this poor woman’s head either. Is that what she expected me to do? Whether the woman wearing the hat was, in fact, cold or just making a fashion statement, it seemed inappropriate for either of us to intervene for the sake of defending some antiquated social mores.

It’s true, times have certainly changed when it comes to restaurant etiquette. Perhaps that’s a good thing. After the fury of the moment subsided, the woman asked for the check. She and her companion had plans to see the ballet. I hoped for her sake that no one in the audience had the nerve to show up in jeans. The usher might get an earful.

After she left, I thought about how much time she’d spent at the table on her cellphone. She discharged it often throughout the course of her meal to take photographs and videos of the food and some of our table-side presentations. Of course, it’s commonplace these days for guests to film everything, but what’s more intrusive in the dining room of an upscale restaurant: the incandescent lights of a cellphone screen or someone’s harmless headgear?

restaurant-etiquette

I served another couple recently that was so consumed with the social media ramifications of their meal that they lowered every plate of food they’d ordered onto the banquette to meticulously photograph each one. They MacGyver-ed an iPhone swaddled in a linen napkin with its flash on as a makeshift studio light and snapped portraits of each dish using a second iPhone. The parties seated around them looked on incredulously, distracted by their odd behavior.

One evening, I witnessed two elderly guests sitting next to each other wearing identical eyeglasses that had dual spotlights attached to each hinge like they were about to inspect diamonds or descend into a coal mine. To onlookers in the dining room, it may have looked like the restaurant was being invaded by extra terrestrials.

Deploying digital technology this way has always clashed with the analog charms of a restaurant, but the two are inseparable now. Parents anesthetize their young children with makeshift home entertainment centers—propping up iPads on the bread basket and sealing their young ears with noise-cancelling headphones to quarantine them from any human interaction whatsoever.

Staffs of fine dining restaurants are resigned to being filmed without permission. Guests consider us part of the scenery. But imagine if the same people decided to film their doctor giving an exam or their lawyer taking a deposition. Having the nerve to do so would be outrageous. But why is a restaurant experience that much more of a spectacle than a trip to the dentist?

It’s partially our fault. The restaurant industry balked at the opportunity to take a stand in the early innings of the smartphone invasion. It should have treated them the way theaters do, insisting that attendees keep their phones in their pockets while they’re seated or at least implore them to use discretion. Instead guests act like boorish spectators at a rock concert.

Unfortunately, hospitality ideals make it difficult to enforce house rules without offending people. Suggesting that someone is dressed inappropriately, misusing their phone or being too loud can result in public shaming online or negative reviews on crowdsourcing apps like Yelp. Defending controversial policies can seem elitist and exclusionary. It puts restaurant management in a difficult predicament. Most restaurants these days have to choose their battles very carefully. No matter how much integrity there is behind our desire to set a standard for etiquette in the dining room, it’s a battle that we know we can’t win anymore.

Good Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

good food

I met a friend for dinner recently at a new Italian restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz. When we arrived for an early reservation, the bar was full and the decor was predictably minimalist and modern. It was the kind of restaurant that made you feel like you’ve been there before even though you hadn’t. The silhouettes in the bar area made it almost impossible to read the tiny font of the menu. Maybe it was the shadowy light, but the cocktail glasses looked sad and shrunken, struggling mightily to make a two-ounce pour look generous.

Delicate handmade pastas were flying out of the kitchen while we sipped on our Campari-less Negronis and waited for our meal to begin. We were surrounded on all sides by privileged millennials slugging back overpriced Rosé. As the parade of delicious pastas arrived to our table—Vongole, Ravioli, Rabbit Ragú—there was a sameness about the whole affair that didn’t feel as special as it did twenty years ago when nobody knew what the hell burrata was and everyone thought salumi was a misspelling. The food was good, but it felt like a meal I’d eaten a hundred times before.

Americans used to be ignorant about food. We’re still ignorant about many things—politics, climate change, soccer—but not about food anymore. Our newfound worldliness is a blessing and a curse. We expect more from restaurants but it takes more to satisfy us. Cooking comfort food has become too comfortable.

good food

This puts chefs in a difficult predicament. Delighting guests that are more food literate can cause restaurants to prioritize innovation over flavor. As they push harder for new discoveries, their kitchens become more experimental but they inevitably function more like sterile laboratories than as incubators for culinary creativity.

Satisfying more discerning guests also puts undue pressure on the front-of-the-house to entertain. Staying out of guests’ way used to be a feature of attentive service, now it may be perceived as negligence. Table-side shtick makes service feel more like busking, unapologetically drenching guests in manufactured charm lest anyone forget to leave cash in the guitar case on their way out.

I recently dined at a new restaurant reinforced these ideas. The food was quite good and the kitchen hit all its marks, but it felt uninspired somehow. The obligatory Sashimi style raw fish appetizer—stripped naked of its Asian roots—was Anglicized and safe. The compulsory pan-seared rhombus of farm-raised white fish sounded as fresh as a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in the early 90’s. A vegetarian dish, blatantly pandering, headlined the entrees but even vegetarians would probably swipe left on its predictable presentation.

Many articles have appeared lately about the “New Nostalgia” that has seen the resurrection of relics of America’s culinary past like the gaudy pomp and circumstance of Chrome trolleys carrying Prime Rib and Flinstonian slabs of Chateaubriand buttered up and sizzling on Mauviel copper pans. It would seem that once certain chefs run out of fertile new ideas or futuristic flavor combinations, nostalgic cooking becomes a convenient style to fallback on.

Perhaps some diners, too, long for the days when chefs didn’t exist to challenge our palates; they were there to simply feed us. There will always be a segment of the population that wishes we could “Make Restaurants Great Again.” But as with American politics in the Trump Era, yearning for yesteryear causes us to build more walls than bridges and too easily forget just how far we’ve come.

There’s No Such Thing as Medium Rare “Plus”

steak temperatures

Classic French cooking approaches steak temperatures with a simple elegance. There are four basic ways the French order steak. Bleu means very rare, quickly seared on each side. Saignant, literally meaning bloody, is a bit more cooked than bleu, but still quite rare. À Point implies “perfectly cooked” (the closest to our Medium Rare) and Bien Cuit, well done. The French don’t fuss with superfluous language around ordering meat; you like your steak one way or the other. The behavior is anchored in a tradition of respect for the chef’s expertise and deference to the talent in the kitchen.

Americans aren’t able to speak so abstractly about cooking meat and are more suspicious of the chef’s faculties. To make steak temperatures more scrutable, restaurants (with the blessing of the USDA) devised a vernacular to help diners better understand the different gradations of doneness. The approach is rather dogmatic with five concrete meat temperatures, now ubiquitous: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done. Restaurant chefs have adhered to this scale for generations but they are a constant source of headaches for hospitality professionals. No matter how streamlined these guidelines have become, there will always be differences in perception around how we should define them.

Today’s diners are becoming increasingly nuanced about how they like their meat cooked. As palates become more sophisticated, defining proper meat temperatures has evolved into a significantly more complicated conversation. It’s disturbingly common to hear guests request “plus” temperatures, meaning they want their meat cooked a shade in between two standard ones. “Medium Rare Plus” implies they like their steak cooked a little more than Medium Rare but not quite Medium. Unfortunately, most restaurant kitchens are too busy to handle this level of specificity.

steak temperatures

Trying to make guests happy who order their meat cooked outside of the standard spectrum can drive servers—and chefs—to madness. If we insist that guests adhere to the accepted scale, we increase the likelihood that they’ll send their food back. If they’re unhappy with the finished product, they’ll blame us for not making enough of an effort to understand their preferences. If we allow them to order fabricated steak temperatures that don’t exist, we must face the rage of an ornery chef who bristles at anything that strays outside of protocol. As with many hospitality conundrums, we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place. 

A restaurant kitchen isn’t an artist’s studio; it’s a factory. As a guest, you have a responsibility to understand that not every element of your dining experience is customizable. When you dine in a restaurant, you are enjoying plates or food that were engineered to be efficiently served simultaneously to a dining room full of hungry people. Expecting your initials monogrammed on every dish shows a lack of respect for the orderliness that is necessary for a cohesively functioning kitchen.

If waiters could somehow escort every guest who ordered “Medium Rare Plus” into the sweltering kitchen to explain to the grill cook how they like their steak, not a soul would ever ask for it that way again. The power that many guests feel when it comes to the peculiarities of cooking their food is in the luxury of not having to deal with the shame of facing the sweaty cook who’s making it. Good guests won’t abuse that power.