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.
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.
“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.
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.
In her episode of Chef’s Table, Asma Khan, reflecting upon her success as a restaurateur, sums up her philosophies about hospitality by saying that “a guest is an incarnation of God.” She envisions her role as a chef beyond the kitchen—devoting herself spiritually to the people she feeds. Chef Kahn’s statement implies that a chef’s path toward achieving enlightenment is found through the joy of her guests.
Today’s diners expect transcendent restaurant experiences which has brought about a dramatic change in the way hospitality is administered. In extreme cases, a restaurant staff must faithfully commit itself to service in the way that some dedicate their lives to a set of religious beliefs. This quest for purity can make modern restaurant work an ascetic pursuit, where holiness can only be achieved through deprivation. Individuals that are incapable of achieving the level of piety necessary to please guests are defrocked.
In the most dogmatic restaurants, the idea of achieving salvation through hospitality can border on the occult. In reality, supplicating ourselves on a daily basis to serve others exacts an immeasurable psychological toll. Restaurant work is already hazardous, mentally and physically, but being expected to unconditionally love guests who often don’t reciprocate is toxic. We bend but don’t break, yet we cover up our bruises and convince ourselves that abuse comes with the territory.
One busy Saturday night at a former restaurant job, the staff was relieved to learn that the last reservation was a no-show. The line cooks—drenched in a combination of sweat and animal grease—began gradually breaking down their mise-en-place, as they do every night when they’re given the “all-in” signal from the host stand. There is a ritual to this denouement in busy restaurant kitchens. In the dining room, waiters mustered the necessary adrenaline to shepherd the last few tables to completion. The staff was exhausted, many had already been working for twelve hours straight.
Almost thirty minutes after the restaurant had officially closed, the no-show party materialized and, of course, expected to be seated. Many restaurants would have apologetically refused them a table but high-end restaurants, like this one, tend to be more charitable. The manager on duty scurried into the kitchen in a panic to plead with the attending sous chef to accommodate the latecomers. The morale of the staff deflated as the manager made the executive decision to seat the table.
The dining room was almost empty which meant that the entire staff would need to extend their work day by several more hours to care for one late table. In any other realm where appointments are compulsory—hair salon, doctor’s office, airline, theater—this group would have been denied service. Turning guests away in a restaurant, though, is an act of war—an affront to one of the basic tenets of hospitality.
Of course, we all put smiles on our faces and treated their party graciously, but the staff was incensed. Putting our feelings aside is part of the job in restaurants—it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA. But should we also be expected to put our well-being aside too? Is there a threshold where the welfare of our staff should be placed above the welfare of our guests?
Occasionally restaurateurs will defend their staff when guests are careless, but the vast majority take a passive approach in the face of impropriety. In hospitality, we’ve been programmed to always take the high road even when our guests’ behavior is beyond reproach. The high road is a one way street.
Every restaurant worker has witnessed countless tables of loud, inebriated businesspeople destroy the atmosphere of a restaurant with boorish behavior. Despite complaints from neighboring tables, management rarely intervenes to ameliorate the situation. The risk of offending the noisy table isn’t worth appeasing the others who are bothered by it, so we take a docile approach. We tolerate their behavior like bad parents, and they continue misbehaving like spoiled children.
Instead of asserting ourselves, we’re trained to “kill them with kindness,” even though most of these situations call for discipline. Part of the reason that people so confidently misbehave is because there is so little risk of being reprimanded. Poorly-mannered, paying guests often revel in their immunity.
We choose to pacify them because there is an unwritten Hippocratic-like oath in hospitality to which we pledge to adhere: Every guest must leave happy, even the ones who arrived miserable. Committed restaurant professionals take that responsibility very personally. But there is a hidden cost to our tolerance. The old tired tropes about how servers can “turn problem guests around” feel out of step with the times.
We inflict emotional damage on ourselves through the selflessness that service jobs require. Feelings of humility descend too easily into feelings of inferiority and the consequences are corrosive. The psychological baggage we carry around with us from our daily nightmare scenarios manifests itself in relationship problems, workplace harassment, excessive consumption of alcohol, drug abuse and insomnia. And, yet, we come to work everyday and are reminded that denigrating ourselves for the edification of others is the only path toward righteousness. It isn’t.
The emerging mental health crisis we face in the restaurant industry varies directly with the metastatic popularity of restaurants. The more seriously people take their dining experiences, the more emotional energy is required in the background to make those experiences successful. The harder we work, the more entitled our guests are becoming. As much as we wish we had more leverage, it will always be a buyer’s market.
We rarely look at some of the public scandals of abuse and harassment in the restaurant world and blame the culture as a whole. Of course, we must hold rogue individuals accountable for their behavior, but we cannot expect to stem the tide without addressing the underlying dysfunction in our industry.
The deep-seated problem lies in our subconscious belief—upheld by generations of restaurant professionals—that we are less important than our guests. Attempts at self-preservation are routinely met with proselytizing and hospitality jingoism. If you don’t like dealing with difficult people, find another line of work. (See: The comments section of this article for the inevitable backlash.)
The goal in hospitality is to make people happy, but should feeling responsible for other people’s misery also be considered part of the job? Restaurant guests have been conditioned that if they fuss enough, we will cower and meet their demands. We always negotiate with terrorists, and we concede too much because we’re afraid that if we don’t they’ll start killing hostages.
We need to start by decoupling our satisfaction from the satisfaction of our guests. As restaurant professionals, it’s possible for us to perform at a high level and still not convince our clientele of our greatness. If they don’t leave satisfied, we shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed. Too often, we tie our self-worth to external factors. We obsessively read online reviews, shoulder the burden of guest malpractice and stay silent when dissatisfied people sling mud at our reputation.
Industry leaders also need to be less rigid about what constitutes good service and more forgiving of their employees when guests are critical. Management should empower staff to stand their ground when confrontation arises. Why should servers have to run to tell mommy and daddy (the managers) every time they have a problem with a guest? Rules should be firm and apply to everyone. Ham-handed attempts to flout the rules should be unapologetically rebuffed.
Holding our guests to a higher standard has inherent risks but calling them out when they are disrespectful reminds them that we are equals and humanizes the transactional nature of hospitality. If—like Chef Kahn says—our guests are truly godlike, it shouldn’t be too much to expect for them, like God, to also be merciful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Guest. Amen.