Don’t Ignore the B-Sides

Most nights in countless restaurants all over the globe, a healthy collective of random tables will order the exact same thing. They’re commonly referred to as the Chef’s “Signature Dishes” in today’s foodie nomenclature. I despise the term and so should you—if not for the simple reason that it sounds like a line of frozen microwaveable entrees. These tables don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. “We heard the [blank] is a can’t miss—best in the city,” they’ll tell the waiter as they hand back the menus they never bothered to consider. It happens everywhere. They say they “heard” about it, but they really mean they spent three hours scouring articles on Google and swiping through countless Yelp images and reviews of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

When people order this way where I work, our staff jokingly refers to it as the “Number 1”—our version of an upscale McDonald’s value meal. You learn to forgive them. They might never have a chance to dine with us again—whether because of the herculean task of securing a reservation or the trans-Atlantic distances they’ve traveled—but it doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t really experiencing the restaurant as it was intended. Signature dishes are poisoning our dining experiences. Our meals are becoming monolithic and our choices driven less by our personal tastes and more about the flawed wisdom of the masses.

Chefs put together their menus with the same thought and care as musicians do conceiving an album. Everything matters—from the order of the songs and the cover art to the recording equipment and the personnel in the studio. Our dining habits mirror the way we listen to music in the digital era—more and more diners follow popular trends and choose the hits over the deep cuts. We are more apt to click on the songs we know or the ones that come up at the top of the “Most Played” list when we search a particular artist. On the surface, we’re robbing ourselves of the joyful unpredictability of a spontaneous dining experience but, on a deeper level, of the possibility that we might actually prefer the tracks on Side Two. So why have diners become so fearful of flipping the record?

Take the time to read the menu. Making too many obvious choices can lead to disappointment.

My dear friend the late, great Gina DePalma would occasionally stop serving her wildly popular Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake at Babbo—an embargo against the general public for ignoring the rest of her pastry menu. She poured so much of her heart and soul into her pastry program and loved all of her desserts like her children. If you asked her which dessert was her favorite, she’d demure like a proud mother. Eventually, she’d cave in and reinstate the Cheesecake just so she wouldn’t have to listen to everyone complaining about her taking it off all the time. Maybe she was also playing a little hard to get. Either way, selling thirty cheesecakes a night while a seasonal tart she’d labored over for weeks went unsold drove her nuts.

Is there a statute of limitations on how long an iconic dish is still essential to the experience of the restaurant? There should be. As time goes by, some chef’s “signatures” don’t have the same luster—like a graying 70’s lite rock artist signing the same song over and over years past his prime. The song doesn’t always remain the same. Yet like pop musicians who have throngs of fans, well-known chefs face backlash if they don’t cook the hits. It incensed the Bob Dylan faithful when he plugged his guitar into an amplifier. But it was necessary to his evolution as an artist; and he was probably sick of singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” every night. As much as his fan base yearned for the old Bob, most of those people didn’t stop listening to him. His updated sound also brought new fans into the fray. They understood that experimentation is part of the creative process. It’s the same with food, but we’ve become too casual as listeners. The best way to get to know a chef is by tasting the dishes on his or her menu that aren’t popular.

As an audience, we affect the type of music chefs play. If we order conservatively, they’ll cook conservatively. We need to be more supportive of chefs when they have the courage to abandon the past and carve new paths. To accomplish this, we need to rearrange our mindset about what it means to be disappointed with what we’ve ordered. Dining is fraught with risk. It costs the same money whether you like what you’re eating or you don’t. As the expense of dining out has risen, so too has our proclivity to hedge—making safe choices and following the herd. But we need to understand that hedging, while limiting losses, also limits profits. Having someone you don’t know cook for you is already a leap of faith. But, in a restaurant, it’s so much more exciting to jump without a net.

Restaurants Have Become Too Important

The joy of dining out in a restaurant is based on a simple equation: You pay money to have a group of total strangers relieve you of your kitchen duties for the evening. When a restaurant lives up to its promise, its charms are irresistible. You finish your plate without having to clear it, have your food seasoned and cooked more precisely than you can achieve in your home kitchen, and—the icing on the cake—enjoy the privilege of excusing yourself from the table without having to worry about doing the dishes.

In the Age of Internet and Social Media, however, the exercise of dining out has become something greater than it was originally intended. With the proliferation of 24/7 Food TV and sudden-death kitchen reality shows, the dining public is no longer a humble audience. For most restaurant enthusiasts, sitting through a meal without passing judgment takes the fun out of it. Most people now visit restaurants with the purpose of evaluating them rather than for pure enjoyment. This new generation of foodies has a forum to broadcast its amateur opinions on personal blogs and in Yelp reviews. Restaurants—which once offered the community a gathering place to convene for the purposes of nourishing itself—are now arenas for sport. A reservation is your ticket to the rodeo. No jacket required.

The term restaurant is derived from a French word that refers to a type of restorative broth or bouillon that was traditionally served in France to weary travelers. The modern concept of the American restaurant, as we know it, is actually a somewhat recent phenomenon. The word restaurant did not become common parlance in America until the late 19th century. Historically, the growth of restaurants can be tied to the explosion of urban populations where tight living quarters forced people to seek comfort dining in larger public spaces. Political upheaval in France led to many private chefs being released from the confinements of their aristocratic households. What followed was an era of Nouvelle Cousine, a movement catering to an emerging bourgeoise class hungry for a more exciting and fresh approach to cooking. The modern restaurant experience and the elevated status of the Chef owes debt to this culinary French New Wave. Somewhere between Marie-Antoine Carême and now, we have lost our ability to enjoy the act of dining out.

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“This smoked Uni dish is off the chain, brah!”

The modern restaurant has morphed into a perverted spectacle—where the audience delights in the sadistic pleasure of commoditizing food and kitchen professionals scramble in their quest for one-upmanship. In this new voyeuristic world, we like to watch. Social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram are saturated with food porn. Whereas in the past the restaurant would function as the pre-cursor to the evening’s entertainment, now going to a restaurant is like attending a live performance. As the price of admission rises, the consumer feels more entitled to experiencing something that transcends the plate. Your choice of restaurant is not something to be taken lightly; it’s a status symbol (“Guess who’s going to Per Se tomorrow night?”), a political statement (“Oh my god, Marea is totally overrated!”), or even an extension of yourself (“I can’t live without the pork buns from Momofuku.”) But lost in our obsession, we have forgotten how to enjoy dining out.

Any time you set foot in a restaurant, you hope for profundity and you risk catastrophe. But our experiences only stand to be successful if we approach it with the right mindset. As diners, we need to accept how our energy affects the atmosphere around us. If you make a conscious decision to observe the dining experience rather than engaging with it, you disregard your role in giving it life. Don’t just sit there as the parade marches by, grab a baton and start twirling! You won’t have nearly as much fun watching from the sidelines.

Thoughts On Tipping

It happens a million times. The waiter drops the check. The guest stares at the credit slip with a furrowed brow, twiddling the pen and staring blankly at the empty tip line.

What should I leave them?

Every diner faces the inevitable decision at the end of the meal of how they will tip. It’s a lonely place. They endorse the check quietly worrying to themselves, wondering if they did the right thing.

There have never been any official published guidelines for tipping—it’s always been a very ambiguous custom—which makes it even more difficult for diners to navigate. There are a lot of gray areas in the debate over gratuities; diners are hungry for change and servers are frustrated by inconsistent and unpredictable income. As unpopular as the custom of tipping has become, it begs the question:

Why hasn’t anyone tried to institute reform?

There are many issues impeding change. The same people who want to abolish tipping altogether are not prepared for the inevitable higher prices that would result. Consumers have become accustomed to a particular price point for dishes when they dine out, but those prices are subsidized by the depressed wage levels of tipped employees. Most states allow restaurant owners to pay adjusted hourly rates that are well below state and federal minimum wages. In some states, this can be as low as $2.13 an hour.

Over time, the burden of paying waitstaff has institutionally shifted from the employer to the customer–likely as a way of artificially keeping food prices down and boosting perceived value. Psychologically, you feel better about the price of your meal when the check is 15-20% lower, even when you are customarily expected to leave “extra” for service. But if Front-Of-House (FOH) are paid below minimum wages, should the tip really be viewed as extra? Even though a service charge is rarely included, many diners have come to perceive the tip as an additional tax. Customarily, leaving gratuity is optional and unenforceable by management. When you leave the waitstaff a deficient tip, however, you are essentially flouting payment for the services you received. What other industry allows you to receive services without mandating that you pay for them?

It is considered taboo for a restaurant manager to approach the table after a guest tips poorly. But wouldn’t management insinuate themselves if that person didn’t leave enough money to pay the bill? Tipping customs have evolved so that your tip is considered an evaluation—either punitive or rewarding. Under the current system, a substandard tip would be considered justifiable if service was unsatisfactory. But sometimes people skimp on the tip in order to save on the cost of the meal. They’re just cheap or—especially in the case of foreign guests—they are ignorant of or don’t feel responsible for obeying customs. In this respect, the current system fails. Even those who resent having to tip on top of their check should be required to pay an appropriate premium, however modest, for service if it isn’t included.

ChangeTipDiners aren’t the only ones to blame for impeding change. Many restaurant workers who receive tips actually prefer that their income be negotiated in an open market. The potential upside of winning the tip lottery is more thrilling and can be infinitely more lucrative than fixed pay. Otherwise, all waiters would work in catering. Waiting tables you feel more like an independent contractor or a commission-based salesperson. Talent will migrate where the tips are highest. Busier restaurants will attract the most tenured staff, struggling ones will be plagued by heavy turnover. Any overhaul to the system would upset these market forces which are deeply entrenched in the industry, in all their dysfunctional glory.

So, what can we do to change the system?

Here are five ideas:

1) Gratuity should no longer be considered optional – Under the current system, menu prices are set artificially lower because restaurant owners can legally pay substandard wages to service employees who are tipped. The “tip credit,” to which it is often referred, evolved out of the determination that gratuities function to make up the difference for any built-in deficiency in hourly wages. However, the system fails when customers skirt their responsibility to tip properly. There may be some cases when service is unsatisfactory and a sub-par gratuity is warranted, but it should be management’s discretion not the guest who decides that a payment for service be withheld. If you are unhappy with a dish in a restaurant, it is ultimately management’s decision whether you pay for it or not—the same should apply to service issues. Every situation is different but there are certainly far too many occasions when an inadequate tip is issued arbitrarily. The bottom line is: If you paid less for your food with the customary understanding that you would leave a gratuity for service, then you should not be allowed to walk away without making an appropriate contribution to compensate those who served you.

2) We should eliminate adjusted minimum wages – The current system is antiquated and is due for a reassessment. According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, tipped employees are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line. Restaurants should not be afforded the opportunity to underpay FOH simply because they receive tips. Hourly wages often go toward helping servers pay taxes on whatever tips they receive. Seattle has recently passed legislation to insure city-wide minimum wages apply to restaurant workers and, as you might imagine, it’s already causing a stir.

3) Diners must learn to accept higher prices – Detractors will say “If FOH wages go up, so will menu prices as restaurant owners are forced to incur higher labor costs.” It’s true, prices will go up. But maybe they should’ve never been so low in the first place. One of the biggest impediments to fixing the system is a consumer who must learn to accept the real cost of dining out. This includes proper compensation of the waitstaff.

4) Guests should not feel pressured to tip on a percentage basis – After ordering an expensive bottle of wine, many diners silently wonder why they are expected to leave a larger tip when all the waiter did was open the bottle and pour it. They usually tip anyway to avoid backlash. But why should a guest tip exorbitantly more money just because they spent more? Conversely, if a table spends less than average on their meal, why is it considered acceptable to leave a smaller tip just because they spent less? Didn’t the server deliver the same services as the big wine check? If minimum wages were raised for tipped employees, it would take some of the pressure off the tenuous relationship that often exists between the guests and staff.

5) Offer more full-time waiters a salary – As more people enter the hospitality industry as a legitimate career it makes sense to have more non-managerial FOH positions that are salaried. Including service charges automatically or adjusting menu prices to subsidize service will create a more consistent pool of revenue for a restaurateur to securely pay his top talent in the dining room. Obviously, it may not work for every restaurant and every situation but there are benefits for both sides if it’s feasible to offer servers more consistent wages.