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.

Stop Storyboarding Your Restaurant Meals

“May I offer any recommendations on the menu?” the waiter asks cheerfully. “No,” the guest answers, ”We already knew what we wanted before we sat down.” That’s strange, the waiter thought, I haven’t even told them about the specials and they’ve already decided?

Without skipping a beat, the table proceeds to order the most talked-about dishes on the menu. It’s obvious to the waiter that they must’ve scoured the Internet in the days leading up to their reservation to prepare in advance. Even after hearing the specials, they were unwilling to veer from the script. “Everything sounds really good but we’ve just heard so much about the [appetizer] and the [entree] that we have to try them,” they say proudly, returning the menus. 

Technology has drastically changed the way people make decisions in restaurants and has caused table-side negotiations to become more anti-social. Waiters approach tables to offer guidance and routinely find everyone on their phones swiping through photographs of popular dishes. Instead of asking about specific menu items, some guests unapologetically show the photos to the server and ask him to identify it.

The “Show-and-Tell” method has become a very common way for restaurant guests to solicit help navigating the menu from their servers. These guests only care about the most photogenic dishes that look good on their Instagram. Some guests don’t interact at all. They forgo help because they’ve already invested time beforehand researching fan favorites and critically-acclaimed dishes. They willfully trust the opinions of total strangers over the staff’s expertise. 

Storyboarding-restaurant-meals

The “storyboarding” of restaurant meals is a poisonous trend that turns potential great restaurant experiences into pedestrian ones. More diners are planning their meals in advance like film directors who have a particular vision of how their films should look aesthetically. But dining this way negates impromptu decisions that might stray from the original plan but improve someone’s meal. Often the storyline they’ve scripted ahead of time is static instead of the dynamic experience they would have had if they’d approached dining more openly. 

A restaurant visit is meant to be a spontaneous experience. One of the joys of great restaurants is their ability to surprise you unexpectedly. That can’t happen with so much advance planning. Everyone can recall thanking a waiter for a suggestion that changed the course of their meal. One could argue that as restaurants have become more expensive—the cost of bad choices has gone up too—so preparing in advance is a preemptive measure that can help curtail disappointment. Unfortunately, safer choices don’t always mean better ones.

Putting so much faith in other people’s opinions will often lead individuals to make poorer choices for themselves. Ordering based on popularity—instead of one’s own personal preferences—sets these guests up for failure. Just because everyone raves about a particular dish, doesn’t mean that it’s the right dish for everyone. Chefs work very hard on every dish they put on the menu, and it drives them batty when guests only gravitate toward the “signature” dishes. 

Negative reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, aside from grumbling about prices, often condemn signature dishes as being “not worth the hype.” In most cases, these diners were let down because they ordered popular items instead of approaching their meal with a blank slate. Groupthink makes diners less adventurous and their choices more monochromatic. Servers are now tasked with trying to force guests into conversation about the menu when it used to be the other way around. 

Luckily, it’s very easy to correct these bad habits. There are simple steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls of storyboarding. First, read as little as possible about a restaurant beforehand so you don’t arrive with too many preconceived notions. Engage the staff and ask about “sleeper hits” not just the “blockbusters.” Be more open to suggestions and willing to take risks with your order. Step out of your comfort zone. Instead of everyone at the table ordering the same famous dish, try to diversify your menu choices by including that dish among a variety of other shared plates. Approach dining out with the understanding that pleasant surprises can’t happen without the possibility of disappointment. It’s always worth chancing because restaurant experiences can only be great if you let them. 

Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order.