There are many things to love about eating in big, fancy restaurants. There are the crisp white tablecloths, gleaming with the promise of a good meal. There is the smartly-uniformed wait staff, with nary a soiled shirtfront or stained trouser in sight. There is the soft whisper of muted conversation, the discreet tinkle of wine glasses, the occasional clunk of the silverware, all of it adding up to an atmosphere of temple-like calm – all the better for you to enjoy an outstanding meal served up by the presiding deity in the kitchen.
What’s not to love, right?
But even at the risk of sounding like a churlish grump, I have to confess that there are many, many things I absolutely loath about dining experiences like the one detailed above.
First off, is the overbearing attention. From the time you enter to the moment you depart, there isn’t a single moment when you feel truly alone, enjoying a lovely meal or a special occasion with your loved ones. There is always someone infringing into your personal space or lurking within earshot to listen in to your conversation. And it is impossible to go 10 minutes without someone asking if your dish was okay, if you’re having a good time, if you’d like something else. The much-touted concept of the dining ‘bubble’, the sacrosanct space within which no server should intrude, is something that very few fancy restaurants seem to understand or respect.
So, if anyone who runs or works in such an establishment is reading this, here’s a handy list of the many things I hate about eating out in fancy restaurants.
* Waiters who rush up the moment you are seated, unfurl the napkin lying in front of you and place it, with a flourish, on your lap. There are so many things wrong with this scenario that I don’t quite know where to begin. There’s the assumption that you can’t perform a simple task like unfurling your own napkin. There’s the intrusion into your personal space, when your server’s hand are perilously close to your bosom/stomach/groin area. And there’s the aspect of hygiene: why would I want that pristine cloth that is about to be placed on my lap to be touched by someone else? (The last one is probably just me and my OCD speaking.)
* The first question you are asked when you have been seated and ‘napkin-ed’ invariably is: “Still or sparkling?” Or, if the establishment is even more pretentious than most, the question comes coached in terms of “Evian or Perrier?” I have yet to visit an expensive restaurant that offers you tap water as an alternative. If you want tap water – which is perfectly safe in such establishments – you have to ask for it. And they are depending on the fact that you will be too embarrassed to ask (for fear of being seen as a cheapskate) to make a profit on every sip you take. Which is why I make it a point to do so.
* Food served in shallow bowls or plates with a rim. As far as I am concerned, the only thing that should come in a bowl is soup, or at a pinch, a risotto. Anything that requires cutting with a knife and fork should come in a plate; because there is nothing quite as awkward as trying to cut a piece of meat or fish in a shallow bowl which wobbles precariously with each attempt. And no plates with a raised rim please. When I place my fork and knife on the plate between bites, I have a reasonable expectation that they will stay in place, not clatter off and fall on the floor. It’s embarrassing for me, and more work for the wait staff if they do. So, just stick to simple, old-style plates, and we’ll do just fine.
* Upselling everything, from the aperitif to the wine to the overpriced lobster. This is especially galling when you see your host being press-ganged into ordering pink champagne as a pre-dinner drink, or an expensive bottle of red/white, even though he was looking for a bargain. And waiters/managers who push your guests towards the Beluga caviar when asked to recommend something deserve a special place in dining hell.
* When I visit a restaurant what I want is a good meal without a side-order of freezing-to-death. But no matter what the season, you can be sure that the temperature in a fancy restaurant will be Arctic in nature. If you complain, three members of staff will come and offer you a shawl (“We have pashminas in every shade for our lady guests”). Surely it would be simpler to just turn up the temperature on the AC controls. But no, that seems a step too fair. It’s the pashmina or perishing in the cold. Take your pick.
* Sometimes when I come out to lunch or dinner with a book, I really am looking forward to reading that book. But to the wait staff at a restaurant, I just look like a sad, lonely soul, who has been reduced to eating out alone. So, they gamely – and I am sure, with the best of intentions – try and sit in for my missing friends, making small talk as I eat my meal. And no matter how monosyllabic my replies or how discouraging my body language, they persist with their conversational gambits. But guys, I really am okay being on my own. And I really would like to read my book. In peace. With no interruptions. Though another glass of that pink champagne would be just great.
From HT Brunch, August 21, 2016
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