Remember when fine dining was simple? You were handed a menu, the waiter recited the specials, you ordered, and the rest of the evening was spent in conversation with your dining companions. Listening to the life story of your waiter or waitress was not part of the experience. Nor was an exhaustive recitation of the provenance of the meat, fish, cheese, and chocolate on the menu. It was a less complicated time and I, for one, long for it.
I’ve just come from a week in the Bay area and northern California and I have been overwhelmed with good food, but also a mega dose of pretense.
Take, for instance, my experience at one of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco. We are seated at a gorgeous wooden table and handed menus. Then comes the dreaded water question. “Still, sparkling, or tap?” I am always met with scorn when I answer tap. Call me crazy, but I prefer to spend my money on wine and good food. Our waiter then launches into a long soliloquy about the specials and “what chef prefers to do with pork,” and “what chef prefers to do with pasta.” Fine. I’m OK until I ask for some guidance. “I’ve never been here. Can you help me zoom in on one or two dishes to try?” And then it comes, an absurd response that goes something like this: “There are seven of you here. That gives you seven possibilities. There are seven lives that can be altered by this food. I would never be so presumptuous as to tell you what I think is best. Seven lives can be fed here, tonight. I’ll leave it to you.”
Seriously? I wasn’t looking for spiritual guidance. I just wanted to know if he thought the homemade fettuccine trumped the sole?
The food arrived. We ate, we talked, we drank wine. We were doing fine until Mr. Waiter came over, bent down and whispered in my ear “Have we knocked it out of the park yet?”
I smiled weakly because it was either that, or my totally losing it.
The dinner was a reunion of sorts with family and old friends. It was meaningful for everyone seated around that table. And far as I know the waiter wasn’t invited to be one of the guests. “Like the pork?” he asked. “We get our piggys from blah blah farm and they are fed blah blah diet and finished off in a blah blah bath.” And then the bill came. And with it, a 10 minute explanation of why there was 18 percent added on for a party of seven (OK, they add the tip. I get it) and 5% for something related to Healthy San Francisco, a surcharge to help pay for health care of their kitchen staff (T.M.I.) and then the sales tax was applied to the entire bill, including the tip. “Well if you read the uber uber fine print at the bottom of the menu you would see that we always…” Uber uber?
Evenings no longer include dinner and theater. In our food-obsessed culture, dinner is theater. Unfortunately some very good food is being served by some very bad actors. I love trying new foods, learning about local farms, knowing something about the chef who has cooked for me. I was once a waitress, and I respect the job and all the hard work it entails. But when I have a night out with friends and family, I want it to be about us and the food we share. Is that too much to ask?