The Magazine

Excellent Choice

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Many years ago I gave the Mencken Day lecture at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. After my lecture, a man in his late seventies, possibly early eighties, came up to tell me that he knew H.L. Mencken. He then drew out of a battered briefcase a small light brown frame, in which, tapped out on an old-fashioned typewriter, was a letter from Mencken himself. The letter went something like this:

"Dear Phil, I want to thank you for being so good a bartender all these years at the Rennert Hotel. You have always done your job with tact and craft, and I admire a man who brings these qualities to his work, no matter what a man's job is. Sincerely, Henry Louis Mencken."

I thought about that letter the other night at a restaurant called the Chicago Firehouse, lodged in a converted firehouse built in 1905, in the city's south Loop neighborhood. I had not been to the restaurant before. The rooms were decorated in a calm and understated way, and there wasn't any of that din that contemporary restaurants seem to feel gives customers a go-go feeling of success. The people already seated seemed serious feeders, not there for status or other non-gustatory purposes.

Once seated, my wife and I and the couple we were with felt the air-conditioning too high and the music too loud. After our waitress, a tall woman, heavyset, blonde, in small glasses and wearing a white jacket, took our drink orders, I asked if she could do something about the air-conditioning and the music. She said she would, and straightaway did. A promising start.

My wife ordered a glass of Riesling, and when the waitress brought our drinks, she poured a small amount of the Riesling for my wife to taste and also, in a second glass, a small amount of another wine, a combination of Riesling, Gewurstraminer, Muscat, and Chardonnay, that she thought my wife might like even more. Which, it turned out, she did, a lot. We were, obviously, in the hands of someone who knew her business.

Before we ordered our dinners, this waitress answered such questions as we had with a no-nonsense precision and authority. Presently our dishes were gently slid before us. Our waitress returned to our table once to ask if everything was as we wished; and a second time to refill my wife's wine glass. She and I exchanged brief stories about wine snobbery. She set down menus for dessert, on which we all passed, but we did have coffee, over which we lingered. When she left the check, I, grateful for the professional quality of her service, tipped her 25 percent. If I'd been Mencken, I would have returned home to write this woman a letter of the kind he wrote to Phil, the bartender at the Rennert.

Two days later, I met a friend for lunch at another restaurant. I was five minutes late, and when I asked the maitre d' if my friend had arrived, he said, "Yes, and he anxiously awaits your presence." What crap, I thought to myself, and by the way, chum, he "eagerly," not "anxiously," awaits me. If you can't tell the truth, at least get your usage right.

The waiter, a young man with spiky hair and rather a sad, wispy beard, reporting the special dishes of the day to us, paused to cite one of them as "my own favorite." I saw my friend's jaw muscles tighten. After the waiter left, he said, "I can't tell you how much I hate that 'my own favorite' stuff." "Be grateful," I said, "that he didn't tell us that we made excellent choices or ordered very intelligently." Four or five times, this waiter broke into our conversation to ask if everything was okay. Which it was until he broke in to ask.

Today most waiters, middle and upper-middle class young hoping to be actors or screenwriters or Bill Gates, are merely passing through. The number of professional waiters has become fewer and fewer. These old-line waiters and waitresses didn't see themselves as the equals of the people they were serving; some among them--one thinks of the old contemptuous waiters in Jewish delis who seemed to take especial pleasure in throwing their customers a bit off stride--may well have thought themselves superior to their customers. But they understood that democracy hasn't anything to do with dining out.

No one requires a waiter to mention that he himself just ate the food one is about to eat. Or that he thinks one a man of distinction for ordering the mussels. Or that the desserts in the joint are "to die for." One doesn't want, in short, to be waited on by someone who comes on as if he were one's nephew, the one whose mother recently told you that she was now certain he was never going to take hold and amount to anything. Your entrée may have been an excellent choice, but his becoming a waiter, clearly, wasn't.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN