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.

The Power of Forgiving Bad Service

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The other night, I experienced the kind of catastrophic scenario waiting tables that haunts every server’s dreams. One of my tables ordered the most expensive steak on the menu, a prime dry-aged cut of quasi-Wagyu beef from a boutique farm somewhere in bumblefuck that massages the cows and feeds them beer or whatever. You wouldn’t believe the price if I told you, so I won’t bother mentioning it.

When the runner plowed through the kitchen double doors hoisting a tray with their food, the steak plate flopped over and everything, including all of their sides dishes, slipped off the tray and spilled onto the floor. It looked like a crime scene at a butcher shop in a gentrified neighborhood.

This caused a chain reaction. The chef went ballistic. The food runner responsible for the blooper cowered by the dish pit. I almost fainted. The manager’s face turned ghost white. Suddenly, we all went into triage mode like an EMS crew. The manager approached the table to break the unfortunate news. The chef immediately began grilling a new steak. The sommelier opened another bottle of the wine they had free of charge to begin the reclamation process.

Miraculously, the guests who ordered the steak didn’t feel victimized. They seemed surprisingly amused by the whole situation. In high-end restaurants, this is rarely the case. It’s not uncommon for people to walk out in the middle of their meals when food delays cross their patience threshold. But this party showed remarkable humility. They were even concerned that someone might have been hurt when the tray collapsed. I thanked them profusely for being so gracious and promised we’d make their dessert course extra soigné.

The wait for the replacement steak was excruciating. The truth is, most of the time when crisis situations like this happen in hospitality, the staff suffers through it more than the guests do. In restaurants, timing is everything. Minutes feel like hours, and servers bear the burden of long kitchen waits every night like a constant ticking time bomb.

The re-fired steak took forty-five minutes before it was delivered, but it came out perfectly cooked. The guests loved it, but it helped that they didn’t want to hate it. We sent almost the entire dessert menu with our compliments, including a special table-side presentation that drew everyone’s attention. Other tables might have presumed they were friends of the owners. We treated them like royalty because they’d acted like it.

How a restaurant staff performs in crisis situations says a lot about the culture of the restaurant. They should take guests’ bad service experiences even more seriously as good ones. Do they run and hide from conflict or do they address it head on and take responsibility for any wrongdoing? But how guests respond to these crises says a lot about them, too. For people who depend on external sources to make them happy, most likely issues with disappointing food or perceived bad service will exacerbate their misery. Those anchored by inner happiness aren’t as likely to be unmoored by choppy wa ters.

It’s critical to acknowledge that when things go wrong in restaurants that it’s rarely about negligence or even incompetence. More often, service issues result from unforeseen turbulence or the grinding gears that result from the difficulty in trying to make so many different people—with unique tastes and personalities—happy simultaneously.

Yes… you always have the right to be upset. But you also have the choice to show mercy. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your caretakers, and you might respond more charitably. Calling off the dogs when things go awry will make you more worthy of hospitality, the sincere kind. It’s never a pleasure to take care of people who bully their way into restitution. Having the attitude that the “customer is always right” might get you what you want, but it will never get you respect.

Why You Should Never Order White Truffles in Restaurants

On the surface, people who sell white truffles to restaurants aren’t quite the merchants of luxury one might expect. No Rolex watches, no Cartier jewelry. They fly under the radar like undercover cops or the neighborhood weed dealer. It isn’t unusual to see them dressed down, in sports caps and hoodies, nonchalantly wheeling around their nuggets of buried treasure in carry-on luggage like doe-eyed tourists who fly Spirit Airlines.

Their contraband is meticulously sealed in airtight containers to ensure no truffle aromas might seep out and blow their cover. When you’re shlepping around tens of thousands of dollars of rare earth candy, it’s unwise to make a spectacle of yourself. Unlike most business deals between chefs and their purveyors, the anonymous exchange of truffles for money is shady af.

Oddly, it’s difficult to authenticate the provenance of truffles, which adds to their mystique. Even though you’d expect that chefs would insist on buying the genuine article, the truffle industry lacks a proper ombudsman in the way that consortiums govern Italian wine production with A.O.C designations or Italian cheeses are assigned to a specific D.O.P. Truffles trade on trust.

This means there is always a chance that you’re being sold truffles advertised as from Alba that are actually from Slovenia or Istria, among the very few other places in the world that have soils conducive to unearthing these wild little tubers. White truffles cannot be cultivated. Nature decides for herself where they randomly spore, and she doesn’t make them easy to find.

Provenance aside, the most important reason you shouldn’t order them in a restaurant is freshness. Assuming you aren’t sitting over a bowl of fresh tagliatelle in a restaurant in Piedmont, the truffle you’re eating is likely well past its prime. While the importation of white truffles has become more efficient through the years, they’re still among the most highly perishable agricultural products. Even the most fastidiously preserved white truffle will have lost most of its potency within just a few days.

White Truffles

Chefs in upscale restaurant must front thousands of dollars to put truffles on their menus and sales can be very erratic and inconsistent. Unlike other products chefs would dispose of when spoilage is an issue, they’ll do anything possible to usurp old inventory of truffles before serving the freshest ones. They’ll never admit they do it, but they do. Chefs love serving truffles because they’re a profit machine that requires little effort. Buy them, shave them and overcharge.

Sommeliers in high-end restaurants face a similar predicament when opening expensive trophy bottles. If they perceive that certain wines may be slightly off or borderline, they may try to serve them anyway hoping that the guest will not object. Wholesale cost on an $800 bottle that was purchased by auction five years ago cannot be recouped.

All of this means that the truffles on your hundred dollar pasta dish are likely not the freshest ones the chef has in the kitchen. If the aroma is flat or newspapery, you’ve been suckered. Of course, all chefs aren’t guilty of compromising their standards. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know which kitchens are trustworthy and which aren’t.

The best way to avoid being served inferior truffles is to dine at restaurants that do more volume. The more they cycle through product, the fresher they’ll be. But it’s never guaranteed. Chefs prefer to buy larger quantities of truffles to get better pricing. That can lead to an unwanted surplus when sales lag behind expectations.

Beware the bait and switch. You might see sexy “show truffles” on display, filling the dining room with their musky smell but those will often not be the same ones the chef is shaving over your dish. Ask your servers if the truffle will be shaved table-side. If they say no, insist they do. Politely ask to smell the truffle beforehand. If its aroma is not potent when you smell it, its flavor wont be when they shave it over your food. Remember, generously covering a dish with shavings of an old truffle will only make it taste more like an old truffle.