Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: No, you’re not imagining it
Do you ever get the feeling, when you enter a fancy restaurant, that the manager is sizing you up to decide how much respect you deserve? That the restaurant decides which table to give you depending on how glamorous/prosperous/important you seem? That the rich always get better service than you and me?
If you do, then I have just one thing to say to you.
You are absolutely right.
But first, a few qualifications. There are very good restaurants that always treat everyone equally. And there are restaurants that are so badly run that they lack the ability to be able to discriminate between guests – democracy by default.
But, for the most part, there is no doubt that restaurants look after high-rollers and VIPs; while often paying less attention to the rest of us.
This is not, to be fair, a practice that originated in India. In much of Europe (especially France), the very first time the manager sees you enter, everything that follows is decided at that moment. If you look like a tourist who will never come back, you will get the second-class guest treatment.
At many bistros and brasseries in Paris, there is more than one seating area. French people and the rich will be seated in one room. Tourists will get another area. Sometimes the rooms will look vaguely similar but as the meal progresses you will notice the difference. Nobody at any of the neighbouring tables speaks French. The manager never enters the room, sticking to the other one where the favoured guests are seated. You will be served by trainee waitresses or brusque servers who will avoid your eye when you want service.
This happens less often in other countries – the French are particularly off-hand with tourists – but it does happen. In London, most restaurants have only one dining room so there are fewer opportunities for discrimination and when there are side rooms (at the Wolseley, for instance) that are given to walk-ins, not to guests who have booked well in advance. It used to happen more often in New York but the trend is towards a more egalitarian approach now.
But the room is only part of it. Where you are made to sit is usually a conscious decision. At restaurants abroad (and now increasingly in India) tables are small. A table for two can be tiny and the space between tables will be minimal. (In the pre Covid world, at least.) There will, however, always be larger tables for two (often with sofa- type seating rather than just two chairs) and those will be given to preferred guests. If they like you, they will give you a table for four even if there are just two of you.
The best tables are always those where you can see the whole restaurant, and more important, where you can be seen. If you are famous, the restaurant wants everyone to know you are there. And it also allows the manager to keep an eye on you. Every time you look up, seeking to get more bread or whatever, a server will glide to your side in seconds.
How do restaurants make these decisions? There are three factors. One: how much money are you likely to spend? Two: are you well-known or good looking? If they can impress other guests with your presence, you will get a good table. Three: will you come back or will you help make the restaurant popular on social media or through word of mouth.
Some years ago, I went to a very good restaurant in New York. The room was lovely, the food was outstanding and the service was exemplary. The restaurant had a reputation for all of those things so I was not surprised. But when the sommelier came over for a long discussion about California Pinot Noir and the manager appeared at the end to go through the dinner and ask for my feedback, I began to wonder why I was getting so much attention. Later, I met the owner and told him the story. He conceded (reluctantly) that they googled all their guests once the reservations came in. Presumably the sommelier and the manager knew that I was interested in food and wine from the google search.
Less elegant places train their staff to look for signs of wealth. These days, nearly everyone dresses casually when they go to dinner. So, the staff are told to look at accessories. If you are wearing a gold Rolex, you will get a good table. If a woman is carrying a Birkin bag she will get special service. I found it hard to believe when I first heard this but apparently, hotels, restaurants and expensive shops take this so seriously that they hold classes to teach their staff to recognise expensive watches, Chanel jackets, handmade suits and hard-to-get handbags. (If you are a lady with an expensive handbag, walk into a designer store anywhere in the world and see how well you are treated. A couple of weeks later, go back with a cheap bag and you will notice the difference in attitude.)
Even at restaurants that are famous for entertaining the rich, managers check just how rich you are. At Ma Maison in Los Angeles, which was the restaurant favoured by celebrities and stars in the 1970s and 1980s, the owner would greet guests personally and take their coats. This was a warm and welcoming gesture but as he took the coats to the cloakroom, he quickly checked the labels to see how expensive they were. How you were treated after that often depended on how expensive your coat was.
These days some of the old rules have changed. All restaurants would like to put celebrities on display in their dining rooms but the celebrities themselves often crave privacy and want to sit where they can avoid being stared at. Abroad everybody books but more and more celebrities book under false names to avoid attracting attention.
In Delhi (perhaps more than showier Mumbai) celebs are low profile. Anyone who enters a restaurant with commandos in tow is usually a punk. Three years ago I was at the Delhi Club House when I noticed Smriti Irani sitting quietly with her husband at a side table. The restaurant knew who she was but recognised her desire for anonymity. Twenty minutes later Rahul Gandhi walked in to the same restaurant with a friend. The restaurant was full so he stood by the door and waited his turn. (Obviously Rahul never books. Everyone in Delhi has a story about seeing Rahul queue up at Town Hall or some such crowded place.)
The rise of food tourism has also changed many of the old systems. The old kind of tourist who ordered a modest meal and departed, never to return would now never get into the world’s great restaurants. Instead, at nearly every top (Michelin-starred, 50 Bested, etc.) restaurant between ⅔ and ¾ of the guests are foreigners, usually foodies who have made a special pilgrimage. Of these, at least half if not more are from East Asia: Japan and China.
These people have travelled thousands of miles for what they hope will be the meal of a lifetime. They want to eat all of the restaurant’s signature dishes. They want to drink great wine. They want selfies with the chef.
Far from being one-visit-tourists, they are the people who keep top restaurants in business. As the great Italian chef Massimo Bottura conceded recently, when asked about the post-Covid world “if food tourism resumes, we are okay. If not, we will find it difficult.”
So, the great restaurants have now thrown away some of the old rules. There are fewer bad tables. There is less snobbery. They can’t judge guests by designer clothes because all Japanese and Chinese tourists wear Chanel or Louis Vuitton anyway.
If you book months in advance and give Tokyo or Shanghai as your address, they will treat you well. The crunch moment will come when you order. If the wine you choose is cheap, then you may not get as many visits from the maître d’.
There is a way around this too. If you are a dedicated instagrammer with an influential following (not necessarily a large following; they know all about fake followers) then you’ll get your selfies with chef even if you don’t order good wine.
Should all of this worry you?
Personally, I don’t play the game. I try and dress appropriately of course but I don’t dress to impress. I don’t order expensive wines to convince the restaurant that I am worth fussing over. If I don’t like the table next to the bathroom that has been allotted to me, I leave.
I like good restaurants but I believe that they are not doing us a favour by giving us a table. They should treat us like guests not like marks who they can hit for as much money as they can get. If service is dismal, I always tweet about it to warn other people off. (Restaurants, all over the world, care about that sort of thing.)
I go to a restaurant to have fun. Not to impress. Not
to be mugged. And certainly not to be judged by some greedy manager.
From HT Brunch, May 31, 2020
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