Restaurants Don’t Belong To Us Anymore

There was a time not too long ago when you could grease your way into a trendy restaurant by slipping a crisp $50 bill into the maître’d’s palm. I suspect there are still a few impressionable gatekeepers willing to trade a cozy corner table for a generous bribe, but the good ‘ole days of buying your way into a restaurant are pretty much over. Scoring a reservation at everyone’s favorite place is becoming harder without connections, and many restaurant owners work hard to keep the velvet rope as short as possible. In today’s luxury-driven market, access to restaurants must be earned, and guests are expected to prove their worth through consistent spending habits.

Contrary to public perception, restaurants aren’t democracies. Conventional wisdom suggests that anyone can make a reservation, so we should all have equal opportunity to dine in every restaurant. However, the truth is that restaurants, especially high-end ones, function more as meritocracies. That means that people who consistently spend more money will often have an easier time getting a reservation. I can also tell you from experience that management in fine dining restaurants cultivates these relationships, establishing private lines of communication to facilitate the exchange of preferred access for generous patronage. Most restaurateurs won’t admit that they arrange such favors, but rigging the reservation book for the rich has been going on forever.

Restricting access has historically been an effective strategy for restaurants to build a reputation on exclusivity. In Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, Katie Lawson and Elliott Stone note that, even in the late nineteenth century, restaurants like the one in the Waldorf Hotel in New York City were known for limiting access to curate a certain clientele base. “Fine dining establishments, especially those at the very top, thrived not on friendliness, but on gatekeeping,” they wrote. “By being selectively welcoming, these places created prestige and demand.” The dynamic they describe sounds remarkably contemporary.

Gold-plated steak from Nusr-Et Steakhouse

I’m sure you’ve noticed that restaurant prices are skyrocketing lately. In a recent post on his LO Times Substack newsletter, former Eater food critic Ryan Sutton notes the corrosive effects of surging prices, lamenting how recent hikes are pricing people out from dining at their favorite restaurants. “Some of these increases are simply the unfortunate byproducts of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities,” he writes, of New York City, “and yet sometimes it feels as if more and more operators are saying to themselves: let’s go “whale hunting.” It’s true that many restaurants have become more whale-friendly than ever, but the “pivot to the rich” he’s describing is hardly a new development.

Reservations have become status symbols, especially in affluent circles, and the ability to get into a restaurant has become a form of social currency. For years now, high-end restaurants have been experimenting with alternative reservation systems to exert greater control over who has access. It started ten years ago with ticketing apps like Tock that treat dinner reservations like rock concerts, where securing a table requires guests to prepay their meals in advance. Today, third-party concierge services like Dorsia provide exclusive reservations to customers that are willing to meet spending thresholds that help insure restaurants against costly no-shows and provide a boost of adrenaline to their bottom line.

Companies like Major Food Group in New York City have been actively developing private membership models that cater to their most affluent clientele. The buy-in at Major Food’s ZZ’s Club and Carbone Privato in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, for example, starts at $30,000 with recurring annual dues of $10,000 (250 members were offered “Founder’s Club” status for a $50,000 initiation fee). Similar members-only restaurants like the 60,000 square-foot Core Club in NYC (and soon to open in San Francisco and Milan) are popping up all over the country with membership fees that range up to $100,000 annually per family. Carbone Privato provides curated experiences that include a private “chef concierge” service that will cook any dish of the menu for members (including personal family recipes with ample notice).

The privatization of restaurants seems exclusionary and classist, but the pay-to-play model was already firmly in place long before this new wave of membership models. Luxury restaurants create a club-like atmosphere by inflating menu prices to a level that only a certain caliber of clientele can afford. I had an experience recently at a swanky midtown Manhattan restaurant that reminded me of how prices can be exclusionary. The menu was littered with gratuitous upsells labeled “enhancements”—like adding king crab to any salad for an extra $33 or upgrading from the run-of-the-mill $27 burger to a Wagyu version for $37. The add-ons seemed designed as flexes more than anything that improved individual dishes in a meaningful way. It also made the default settings, expensive in their own right, feel pedestrian. The restaurant’s signature prime rib cost a full $100 and a lobster pasta with a few paltry chunks of meat sold for $75. It would be virtually impossible to have a proper meal for less than $200 per person, even without drinks. There was no big-name chef in the kitchen or farm-to-table ethos to justify the astronomical prices. Everyone present seemed to understand that we weren’t only paying for the food but for the privilege.

Caviar served with everything, except a reason.

Aside from booking high-end fine dining destinations like Noma or Alinea, most restaurant goers still reject the idea that they should be expected to pay in advance for the privilege of dining in a restaurant. Average guests still view a restaurant reservation more like a gentleman’s agreement than a contract. The same people will happily pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars above face-value to see a Taylor Swift concert or for tickets to the latest Broadway smash. For some reason, we reject the idea that restaurants should ever cost more than what we order from their menu.

Anyone who thinks that online reservation platforms like Resy prove that everyone has an equal opportunity to dine anywhere should be reminded that Resy was recently bought by American Express (presumably to ensure more exclusive access for their wealthiest clients). Heavily in-demand restaurants also often withhold a percentage of their tables (especially the more valuable prime time slots) from those online reservation services, to make sure they have availability for VIP guests, affluent regulars, friends of the owners, and celebrities. Once someone has demonstrated themselves to be a reliable guest who spends a lot of money, management tends to find ways to get those people in, even when reservations are tight.

These developments collectively portend a sad reality where average people are losing access to their favorite restaurants. “This is an era when becoming a regular, or even going to a nice restaurant once a year, can feel like an unattainable luxury,” writes Sutton, in his newsletter. He’s right that the days of our favorite restaurants always being there for us when we need them to be may be gone forever. The truth may be exactly the opposite: that we will need to be there for restaurants whenever they want us to be. Don’t forget to bring your wallet.

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Why Hospitality Evangelism Is Harmful

When Danny Meyer’s book on the power of hospitality came out in October of 2006, it became the seminal text for restaurant industry insiders and entrepreneurs. Before Setting the Table, no one had given much serious thought to the notion that a restaurateur’s wisdom could provide a framework for success in other businesses. When Meyer opened Union Square Café, his first NYC restaurant, in 1985, his signature brand of “enlightened hospitality” became the gold standard by which many restaurateurs measure themselves.

Meyer’s impact on the restaurant industry has been profound, but adherence to his hospitality ideology has also contributed to a myopic service culture in fine dining that glorifies self-sacrifice. His company, Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), spawned an entire generation of overachieving service industry professionals who’ve helped spread the gospel of enlightened hospitality far beyond his restaurants. To Meyer’s credit, his organization helped to legitimize restaurant work as a viable and attractive career path. However, when his apostles—former servers, bartenders, managers, and chefs—migrate elsewhere, they often parrot his teachings without giving proper thought to how these philosophies should evolve over time or adjust to different climates.

I thought about Meyer’s inheritance while reading Will Guidara’s new book, Unreasonable Hospitalitya well-intentioned but boilerplate regifting of Setting the Table published by Optimism Press last fall. Guidara openly acknowledges the debt he owes to Meyer for helping shape his own hospitality purview. He apprenticed under Meyer early in his career at various USHG venues (most notably Eleven Madison Park while Meyer still owned it). Many consider Guidara to be Meyer’s prodigal son and heir apparent.

The conceit of Guidara’s book doesn’t stray too far from Setting the Table. Unreasonable Hospitality implies a relentless pursuit of exceeding guests’ expectations, with a fanatical desire to go above and beyond even the highest standards of what constitutes great service. The book cleverly re-arranges the table setting from Setting the Table without compromising Meyer’s philosophies. Guidara presents a more rigorous, less reasonable, vision for hospitality excellence with the bravado of a self-proclaimed perfectionist. Spoiler: The secret sauce is never being satisfied.

It’s impossible to dissect the inherent flaws in what I call hospitality evangelism (the preachy kind) without acknowledging that, as its most visible gurus, Guidara and Meyer have largely built their careers catering to a privileged class of people. Not to detract from their achievements, but they’ve cornered the market for hospitality ideology mainly through their commitment to showering privileges on the privileged.

Unreasonable Hospitality
Will Guidara’s new book was published by Optimism Press last fall.

In Unreasonable Hospitality, Guidara describes a scenario involving a family from Spain spending their last night in NYC dining at EMP with two young children who are awestruck when it begins snowing outside during their meal. The children, who’ve never seen snow before, are fascinated. Guidara dispatches a “dreamweaver” (a staff member whose sole responsibility is helping execute unreasonably hospitable moments) to buy sleds for the kids and arranges for a limousine to chauffeur the family to Central Park after dinner so the kids can enjoy the snow up close. The gesture is touching, but I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that these affluent guests—dining at one of the most expensive restaurants in the world—had likely just spent over $2,000 on one meal, more than most families spend in a month on groceries.

Guidara insists that these “unreasonable” gestures need not be so grandiose. He surprises one table of four gastrotourists with a street cart hot dog cut into bite-sized pieces after overhearing them lament missing out on that part of their NYC culinary tour. But the impact of this humble gesture is heightened because of the stark contrast of a “dirty water dog” against the backdrop of a tweezered tasting menu. It’s patronizing for Guidara to behave as though a $2 hot dog can make everyone a hospitality hero.

Whether intended or not, the unicorn scenarios in Guidara’s book perpetuate a mythology around hospitality that feels untethered from reality. Guidara appears to live in a Steve Jobs-esque reality distortion field at EMP—a bubble that reminds me of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Inside the restaurant, Guidara keeps all his Oompa Loompas dancing in unison to maintain the façade that everyone’s dreams are coming true. But just because the Oompa Loompas are all dancing and smiling doesn’t mean they all love their jobs or subscribe to Wonka’s mission. (A cynical reading would suggest that the Oompa Loompas are actually imprisoned by Wonka, but I digress.)

Guidara ignores how subordinates can become alienated when management laments losses more than it celebrates wins. “Praise is affirmation,” Guidara writes, “but criticism is an investment.”  The subjects of his criticism are expected to withstand the constant headwinds resulting from his relentless pursuit of hospitality nirvana. Only in recent years have restaurant industry leaders become more sensitive to the toll that daily self-sacrifice takes on workers. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, it’s impossible to improve mental health in the service industry without rejecting the more dogmatic aspects of unreasonable hospitality ideology like Guidara’s.

At its core, Unreasonable Hospitality is a book about leadership. But unfortunately, it’s weighed down by superficial anecdotes about awards and accolades that depict Guidara as a restaurateur who is distracted by his quest to make EMP the best restaurant in the world. In his eyes, every prestigious award bestowed upon EMP—like inclusion on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List—serves to validate his approach. But taking home trophies from highly politicized culinary pageants doesn’t feel like compelling evidence for the potency of his ideology.

It’s impossible to read Unreasonable Hospitality without wondering how many hard-working employees have felt oppressed by Guidara’s austere management style or how many well-intentioned people were exiled because they weren’t sufficiently devoted to his “unreasonable” habits. He assures us that his staff at EMP largely bought into his vision during his tenure, but only someone who’s never worked in a restaurant would believe it. The truth is that hospitality orthodoxy like Guidara’s can be outright hostile to those who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. The quest for purity often leads to unhealthy competition among the staff, much the same way it does in educational environments populated by overachievers.

Among the many unreasonable extracurricular activities that EMP employees were expected to engage in under Guidara’s reign: eavesdropping on tables’ conversations to concoct unexpected surprises, Google-stalking photos of customers in advance so they can be identified by name without introducing themselves, and feeding parking meters on the street for guests while they dine. As a former server I can attest that it is certainly not reasonable to indenture staff to frivolous side hustles that encroach upon their ability to perform primary tasks.

Guidara admits that his dogmatic approach can come across cultish, but he insists that Unreasonable Hospitality isn’t a cult. “I have since come to realize,” he writes, “that a ‘cult’ is what people who work for companies that haven’t invested enough in their cultures tend to call the companies that have.” A closer look, however, suggests that it checks many of the boxes: a rigid belief system by which followers are expected to loyally abide, a hierarchy that prioritizes conformity, and a charismatic leader with a singular vision of how an insular community should function. As with cults, non-believers are ostracized. Guidara insists that he encourages staff to be themselves at work, but he only empowers them to be the version of themselves that he needs them to be for the restaurant.

In one passage, he describes transferring EMP staff over to his new restaurant project at the Nomad Hotel to serve as mentors for his new hires. “I thought of those transplants from EMP as sourdough starter,” Guidara writes, “not only would we have the benefit of their impeccable technical training, but they’d seed the new spot with our culture.” It’s revealing that he characterizes the staff’s purpose as being a simple vessel for transmitting hospitality culture and growing it like yeast, a brainless organism that spreads mindlessly. For someone who opines so reverentially about human resources, the analogy is reductive and dehumanizing.

It’s hard not to admire Guidara’s reckless optimism, though. “Hospitality is a selfish pleasure,” he writes, “It feels great to make other people feel good.” Of course, it does. But when guests’ expectations swell out of proportion—which happens quite often in elite restaurants—the onus is usually on the staff to fill in the gaps. Being a minion for leaders like Guidara often requires having to “turn people around” or “kill them with kindness” when they’re unhappy or underwhelmed. Pleasing unpleasant guests is viewed as a challenge by hospitality evangelists like Guidara, but it can be fraught, and, in environments with rigid culture like EMP, staff often goes to great lengths to satisfy people that don’t deserve or appreciate it.

Setting the Table
Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table was published in 2006

To account for this, Guidara quotes from the Book of Danny: “Make the charitable assumption,” a healthy reminder from Setting the Table that staff should assume guests’ best intentions whenever possible. Meyer and Guidara both agree that charitable assumptions don’t apply to cases where guests become belligerent or abusive. But in a restaurant setting, disrespectful or abusive guests are often skilled at concealing their nastiness. I’ve worked in countless restaurants that tolerated intolerable regulars, no matter how much grief they repeatedly caused the staff. Most managers would prefer servers to take it on the chin rather than confront an ungrateful or ornery guest. As restaurant workers, we never have the luxury of expecting guests to make charitable assumptions about us. I suspect that neither Meyer nor Guidara would ever dare burden their guests with that expectation either.

Guidara certainly isn’t the first person to codify principles around a business ideology and sell it as universal to other industries. Many entrepreneurs have built massive fortunes peddling manufactured optimism and obsessive work ethics—like Anthony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuk, Joel Osteen, and Simon Sinek (Guidara’s publisher). It’s worth nothing that, at least in the mainstream, marketing self-empowerment schemes and big-dick-energy manifestos on positive thinking has been primarily a white male pursuit. There’s inherent privilege in Guidara presenting himself as the purveyor of the highest hospitality ideals when his world view has been largely shaped by making affluent people feel like the 1% of the 1%.  

It’s possible to respect Guidara’s approach and his accomplishments without putting his ideology on a pedestal. The service industry, still reeling from the corrosive effects of the pandemic, can’t afford to glorify a pie-in-the-sky mentality about hospitality right now. There is no shame in cultivating more pragmatic models that work for us as much as they work for our guests.

I’ve argued before that continuing to define hospitality excellence according to the white male gaze and lionizing restaurateurs who are cut from the same white tablecloth only reinforces the industry’s diversity problems. By canonizing these white male figures, we exclude competing visions about hospitality excellence from marginalized communities and communities of color. When will influential publishers deliver a book that celebrates hospitality culture in Black or brown communities? Iconic restaurants like Sylvia’s in Harlem and Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans have had a much more profound impact on American culture than any Danny Meyer or Will Guidara restaurant ever will, but you won’t find any mainstream books that celebrate the unique style of hospitality found in them.

We deserve a new, more diverse and compassionate framework around hospitality that gives restaurant workers agency—that gives voice to the voiceless and expects guests to reciprocate the generosity they’re shown. Although it isn’t to blame in every case, hospitality orthodoxy fosters toxic environments where dysfunction has historically festered. Abuse, harassment, violence, and misogyny flourish in oppressive workplaces where perfectionism suffocates individuality and compassion. We can’t fix the cultural problems endemic to restaurants without reining in the zealots who subject their workers to unreasonable expectations.

“Start with what you want to achieve, instead of limiting yourself to what’s realistic or sustainable,” Guidara writes defiantly, “or as I like to say, don’t ruin a story with the facts.” I’m quite certain that Guidara would not like his book to be ruined by the fact that his utopian vision of hospitality has hidden costs. In its purest form, unreasonable hospitality can only exist when it comes at the expense of those who administer it. It’s incumbent on those people to be convinced that the self-sacrifice benefits them. But whether we believe that there’s salvation in serving others or not, ultimately, instead of canonizing overzealous manifestos like Setting the Table and Unreasonable Hospitality, the restaurant industry should embrace new paradigms that prioritize compassion and empower staff, where unreasonable expectations aren’t necessary to succeed.

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