Restaurant Life

The (Few) Things I Miss About Working In Restaurants

I had a server recently who had such virtuoso command of the table, such mastery of her craft, that I could only sit back and admire her skill. She greeted us with the perfectly calibrated balance of cheerfulness and poise, recited specials eloquently, answered menu questions with aplomb, and recommended featured cocktails—including a selection of “adult slushies,” so convincingly that I ordered one as if I’d been hypnotized. I wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed as I slurped down something that tasted like a sugary, guava-tinged frosé.

While under this waiter’s spell, a perverse thought crossed my mind. She floated by the table again to check back on our entrees, and I found myself daydreaming about her corralling a table of feral guests and hogtying them with a stealthily sadistic charm. Even the most rabid patrons would be no match for such a competent and confident server. I couldn’t stop thinking about how thrilling it would be to see her dog-walk rude or entitled people.

That was always one of my favorite things to do with troublemakers when I waited tables. There’s a special joy you get waiting on unruly guests—when you so skillfully conceal your contempt that they can only marvel at how warm and hospitable you are. I miss being so damn good at my job that no one, not even the most ornery douchebag, could possibly knock me off my center. When you take those people’s money, the grift is euphoric.

Having had some time away from restaurant work now (I was a fine dining server for two decades), I would describe the healing process as very similar to going through a difficult breakup of a long-term relationship. In this case, it’s not totally clear who broke up with whom. The pandemic was a catalyst for our divorce, but it’s safe to say that neither of us really ever loved each other in the first place. We both put on a convincing act for over two decades—an exhausting marriage that probably should’ve ended years ago. I’m still not quite sure how we managed to stay together so long. I guess the sex was good, occasionally, and when it wasn’t, the money made up for it.

Most of the reasons I have for enjoying working in restaurants, however, have nothing to do with the work itself. I certainly don’t miss coming home smelling like grilled meat or having to launder my white shirts three times to get the random sauce stains out. There’s a special camaraderie among a restaurant staff that’s difficult to explain if you’ve never been a part of it. Even when those bonds are tenuous, they’re still much stronger than conventional workplaces where colleagues are quarantined behind their desks like windowless animal shelters. In restaurants, you work in open trenches like a soldiers in a platoon. It’s always us versus them, and we instinctively protect our tribe.

Working in restaurants

There’s an impermanence to working in restaurants which makes it more tolerable than other careers. Restaurant jobs are disposable—we try them on like outfits and get bored with them easily—although it’s become a far more serious profession in recent years. Unless you get sucked into management, most restaurant people aren’t looking for long-term relationships. When a restaurant wants a deeper commitment, we usually break up with them and hook up with another restaurant that’s willing to respect our need for space.

As glorious as life after restaurants has been for me at times—a recovering hospitality professional—I do miss some things about my restaurant career. I miss staff meals. No, not the food. It’s usually atrocious. I miss breaking bread with fellow staff every night, and how it fortifies the deep bonds we share. The staff meal table is where you learn about each others’ dreams and passions, stumbles and failures, relationship drama, or just work gossip. We call them “family meals” for a reason. It’s like having dinner with your adopted family every night. Love them or hate them, they’re your family.

That camaraderie carries over to the end of the night, which I also miss—the never-ending late night bar crawls, punctuated by round after round of drinks you buy for each other. The worst shift can always be ameliorated by a raucous night out with the staff—whether it’s cheap beers and pickle-backs or a full-fledged dinner that starts at 1am. We appreciate good food, and we aren’t afraid to treat ourselves when the moment is right. We’ll never feel guilty about blowing an entire night’s earnings with our mates after work.

I miss learning. Outsiders think working in restaurants is vocational, but the best restaurant jobs are academic—where restaurants function as universities of flavor that educate staff about food, wine, and spirits. Working in restaurants teaches you to respect good food. You’re exposed to wines of the world, craft cocktails, ingredients you’ve never heard of, and recipes that help you become a better home cook (and you don’t need to work in the kitchen of a restaurant to learn those lessons).

I hate to admit it, but there’s even a part of me that also misses the connection with a table of appreciative guests that value the knowledge and passion behind great service. The artificial nature of a server’s warmth can often inhibit this bond, but appreciative guests can always disarm disgruntled waiters. As much as disaffected guests would often ruin my night, a fun table could always enrich it.

My restaurant career wasn’t all glorious, of course. No one’s is. But it’s easy to look back and dwell on the most dreadful parts: coke-head managers, derelict owners, entitled patrons, and sore feet. But, at the end of the day, I know I could never have survived as long as I did unless there were many aspects to the job that thrilled me. Although I have no plans to rekindle my romance with restaurants any time soon, I can’t lie, I miss some of the fun times we had together.

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Restaurant Life

Why Do Restaurants Still Have Dress Codes?

Though “jacket required” policies are far less common today, many restaurants still mandate proper attire, especially in fine dining circles where archaic dress codes stand as symbols of prestige. Some restaurant owners view them as a way to curate ambiance in the dining room — as with Angie Mar’s new Les Trois Cheveaux in New York City — but it’s increasingly unclear exactly whose interests these policies serve. As American dining habits skew more casual, dress codes are becoming increasingly anachronistic. Much the same way that going to the theater or flying in an airplane have lost the glamour they once had, restaurants — even the fanciest of the shmancy — have become more populist. Legislating style feels out of step with modern cultural norms.

Dress codes also have a sordid history of being discriminatory. Such was likely the case this past week when the former mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was denied service at Capital Grille for arriving to the restaurant wearing leggings. It appears Capital Grille offers a “polite notice” about the policy on its website, saying that “for the comfort of all guests and to better deliver on our promise of a refined atmosphere, proper dress is required.” The disclaimer goes on to explain that this applies to: gym attire, sweatpants, tank tops, hats, clothing with offensive language or images, and exposed undergarments.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the part that sticks out most is the restaurant’s “promise to deliver a refined atmosphere.” This statement is so loaded with potential biases that it’s impossible to believe that Mayor Bottoms is the first victim of the fashion police at this Capital Grille. Also, who gets to set the standard of what constitutes “refinement” in a Capital Grille or any restaurant for that matter?

Capital Grille offers a note about its dress code online

As a server working in fine dining, I’ve had customers comment to me on the appearance of others they consider underdressed, and it’s always felt awkward to be on the receiving end of those comments. Why are these people concerned about the way other guests look? Is a more casually-dressed neighbor somehow compromising their dining experience? The standards of refinement — like not wearing hats indoors — are generally faded remnants of a bygone era of Emily Post-style attitudes toward dining etiquette. Enforcing rules in restaurants is often necessary, but it might be time to update rule book.

Of course, all of this belies a deeper question: Does a restaurant have an obligation to ensure that everyone who enters is dressed “appropriately”? If it does, how do they measure what’s appropriate and what’s not? Restaurants that have dress codes will likely argue that these policies are designed to protect all guests from exposure to attire that is obscene or makes others uncomfortable. It isn’t about fashion, they’d say, as much as it is about regulating common decency.

But we’ve also reached a point where fashion isn’t standard anymore, and formal attire is far less common in restaurant settings. Men rarely wear blazers or suits out to dinner unless they come directly from work or it’s a formal occasion. Women might wear dresses, but it’s because they want to, not because they’re worried they’ll be shunned if they don’t.

While it’s difficult to prove these policies racist, it likely plays a role in Mayor Bottoms’ situation and others. Dress codes have often been used to discriminate against marginalized Black and brown people whose style might not fit with mainstream white standards. Numerous photographs have already surfaced on social media of white women outside of Capital Grille wearing leggings and men dressed in athletic wear or gym attire.

Last April, The Ashford, a bar in Jersey City, was accused of discriminatory practices by a Black patron who claimed he was refused service for wearing sweatpants. After being denied entry, he witnessed numerous white customers dressed similarly allowed in. A few months later, The Turkey Leg Hut in Atlanta sparked controversy when it announced a dress code that forbade “excessively baggy or sagging pants.” The restaurant’s Instagram post (deleted soon after the announcement and eventual backlash) indicated that the Turkey Hut “is a family friendly restaurant.” Skeptics were quick to point out that the co-owner of Turkey Leg Hut, Lyndell Pierce, had been arrested earlier in the year for allegedly pistol-whipping a man at a local bar.

It’s unfair for owners like Pierce to put their staff in the uncompromising position of policing their clientele’s appearance or determining who is worthy of entry. It’s a difficult ask to charge staff with providing warmth and hospitality while at the same time scrutinizing guests’ attire. Empowering employees to enforce flawed policies opens the door for flawed outcomes.

Dress codes also violate the most basic tenet of good service: extending a warm welcome to everyone without prejudice. I can tell you from my years of experience that customers are rarely understanding when a staff member asks them to remove a hat or tells them that their attire doesn’t meet the decency standards of the restaurant. Most react defensively and feel personally attacked. I’ve been asked to remove my hat myself as a guest, and it seems more pretentious now than it ever has.

Fashions change and restaurants should acknowledge that instead of trying to force people to dress like some mythological, idealized version of the past. There were times in American history when certain races were denied service in restaurants simply because of the color of their skin. Restaurants that spend so much energy trying to recapture the glamour of the past —while at the same time inviting discrimination — are inadvertently capturing the less glamorous parts of the past, too.

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