I’ve been eating and working in restaurants since the Last Supper. I’ve bussed tables on Noah’s Ark, made final cocktails on the Titanic, and was in the kitchen when Henry VIII knighted Sir Loin of Beef. One day, while comparing dining establishment experience, I remarked to a younger colleague, “I’ve got food stains on aprons older than you are!” And it’s true; I’ve been around the culinary block so many times that the James Beard Foundation had my kitchen clogs bronzed. In all my years of eating and working in restaurants, I have never heard anyone say, “Hello, I’m here to work your last nerve,” but sometimes they do.
Here’s a scenario: You’re working the floor or possibly the sauté station in the exhibition kitchen and in comes an ex (that no-count that made a fool out of you) with his/her boisterous buddies, parents from Peoria, or new “friend” and wants to sit in front of you/at your station. He keeps his hat on, slouches at the table, and signals the server with a snap of his fingers for beer. She sends back the well-done burger because it’s cooked too much, spends the majority of time texting while he steps out for a cigarette just as the food is delivered (that he will send back because it’s cold). He switches from his phone to his iPod to watch a sports match while she reapplies makeup. The new paramour has brought twin fives that run amok, imperiling life, limb, and property playing tag. The group takes up the table for three hours, leaves a mess and an eight-percent gratuity, citing their “experience” being sullied by the appearance of an insect. You’re not allowed to kill them.
The subject of restaurant behavior is timely—being that this is the restaurant issue—so we’ll explore the nuances and social mores of eating in public places, leaving employment war stories for another time. Having partaken in away-from-home meals for a millennium, I feel more than qualified to tug on your turban. Question: do you often eat out with other people, alone, or at all? AND, have you ever been on the service side of that ritual? Whatever side your bread is buttered, you can be sure that diners, cafés, coffee shops, bistros, affairs, food trucks, formal dining “establishments,” and joints all share a common denominator. Wine and dine or grit and split, it boils down to one thing: appropriate manners are expected, if not required.
Define appropriate manners? Simply: the logical modification of behavior that is extended by you as a courtesy to an individual or company that is supplying you with comestibles for your enjoyment, nourishment, and—hopefully—satisfaction.
Wherever you partake in food that is not just you eating over your kitchen sink at home, from a to-go container, in your boxer shorts, drinking milk directly from the jug and wiping your mouth on the back of your arm, like it or not, you have an obligation to hold up your end of an unspoken bargain. That agreement is that both you and your host will act according to the environment and circumstances of the area given over to you for your dining pleasure. The faux pas range from asking for a knife to cut up fried chicken to wearing a baseball cap at the table in Ella Brennan’s place—from the Colonel to Commander’s, there’s a dance to be done and you’re either ballerina or buffoon.
Figure it’s good training if you ever want to get ahead in the world, instead of left wondering why you weren’t told it was going to be like this when you grew up, if ever you do (grow up). Your choice is either to cultivate the ability to act “according to Hoyle” in any given eating circumstance or progress no further than the way you acted in your high school cafeteria. And it will, like it or not, come to define you as an adult in the real world—from Chez Panisse or Piccadilly, the Waldorf or Waffle House. You will be judged. A chameleon-like ability to blend in to any given occasion is a mark of a superior mentality, so here’s kind of a beginner’s primer:
First of all, if accustomed to eating out alone, you’re allowed to behave whatever way you like and reap the karma. However, if you are with others, it’s up to you not to be an embarrassment to mixed company. Napkins are universal, from damask to cheap paper—learn how to use them. If you’re not paying the bill, you don’t get to order the wine; don’t make a pass at your server unless you’re a real catch (you’re probably not); do make your culinary restrictions known well before you enter the door; don’t expect any better treatment than anyone else unless you’re handing out C-notes; make sure that you’re not off-color, rude, sloppy, loud, or ill-mannered. Accept the traditions of the place that you’re at, and don’t ask for anything that’s unreasonable like chopsticks at the Dairy Queen; vegan or gluten-free options where there aren’t any (except possibly fried potato skins); a table of six for two people; or a change in the music, room temperature, lighting, or “Can you just make me a soft-boiled egg and some dry toast?” at Crescent City Steak House. Believe me, a person can go an entire meal without taking a smoke break or using an electronic device. Tip lavishly and don’t get loaded in public … ever. If you’re including children, call ahead to insure a kid-friendly menu is available and note that it’s up to YOU to control their behavior, unless you’re going to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Whenever/wherever you eat out, remember: “act your age, not your shoe size”; I will happily join you; and, I’m really good company.