The Magazine

Pretensions à la Carte

Joseph Epstein, dining without pretense

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Fifty or so yards from the apartment building in which I live a new restaurant has recently opened called Found Kitchen and Social House. It’s doing land-office business: Lines of people awaiting tables gather in the foyer, its bar stools are perpetually filled, hustling valet car-parkers are kept on the run. The food, I’m told, is quite good. I have no plans for going there—ever.

tom labaff

tom labaff

All I remember of its menu, placed in the window during its opening days, is an appetizer of arugula and white beans and a main course of chicken-liver mousse with bacon marmalade and toast. Looking in from outside, I could see a number of tables, chairs, and couches set up among large plants and globes, giving the impression of a vast living room. (The furnishings were all found, hence the name of the restaurant.) “This space is really a personal expression of my full evolution,” declares the owner, Amy Morton, a woman of 50, long in the restaurant business. A friend who recently dined there told me that the waiters, arriving at one’s table, ask, “May we feed you?”

Pretension has become an inescapable part of contemporary dining. Some of this pretension entails phony familiarity. Increasingly young waiters and waitresses—now known as “servers”—address customers as “guys.” The reason they fall back on “guys” is that they are unsure how to address female customers. “Ladies” these days, in the rigid etiquette of political correctness, could be taken as an insult, and the neutral “guys” is a way around that.

After reciting the day’s specials, these waiters and waitresses frequently tell you their first names. “I’m Kimmie [or I’m Tyler], and I’ll be your server.” Hope I don’t seem sniffy, but I should prefer not to know their first names. I wonder if Kimmie and Tyler know that the origin of filling customers in on their first names comes from the sexist-to-the-highest-power Playboy Clubs, where bunnily dressed girls, before taking drink orders, announced: “Hi. I’m Carol, and I’ll be your bunny this evening.” 

The pretension to democracy—that is, the notion that we are all equal—follows naturally from the phony familiarity. Someone orders the veal limone, and Kimmie says, “Oh, that’s my favorite.” Another person orders the mushroom-barley soup and a Caesar salad, and Tyler replies, “You ordered very intelligently.” I am glad that my mother, who was something of a grande dame, is not around today, for she would have been utterly mystified by Kimmie and Tyler. Why, she would have asked, should we possibly be interested in knowing Kimmie’s favorite dish? And how, she might have inquired, one eyebrow raised, is Tyler in a position to judge the intelligence of my order? And just who are these guys to whom they refer?

Young men and women have for a long while now taken up waiting as a stopgap until they find work in their chosen fields. Many of them are would-be artists, lots of them actors. In New York the joke used to be that when one wanted more coffee or one’s water glass refilled, one called out not “Waiter” but “Actor.” In Los Angeles, a friend tells me, when someone announces he or she is an actor, the response is, “Really? At what restaurant?”

The job of professional waiter is all but gone. Often it was filled by immigrants who had no other training, or middle-aged women who could find no other work. I sometimes have lunch at a nearby Greek restaurant where the same middle-aged women have been working for decades. They do not tell me their names or their favorite dishes or that I have ordered very intelligently. Nor do they come to my table seven or eight times to ask if everything is okay. Friendly though they are, they know that I have come to the restaurant to eat, and not to establish a relationship. I make it a habit to over-tip them. 

Kimmie and Tyler could learn a thing or two from these women. They would, in fact, do well to spend a few weeks at Jewish delicatessen waiters’ school, if only such an institution existed. There they might meet up with the waiter who, when asked by two genteel women to see the sommelier, replied, “Ladies, if it’s not on the menu, we ain’t got it.” Or the waiter who told a customer that, if he wanted the cabbage soup, he should’ve ordered the borscht. Or the waiter who, in response to a question about how the restaurant prepares its chicken, answered, “First thing is, we tell it it’s going to die.” 

A shame that Found Kitchen and Social House can’t avail itself of one of these crusty old Jewish waiters as its maitre d’. He’d give the joint the tone it much needs. 

 

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