Turning the Tables

Is the hospitality industry losing its way?

–Photo: Trinity Lancaster

We open on a well-regarded, upscale D.C restaurant. White linen tablecloths blanket the room. Besuited staff hustle silently about. A nice burgundy has just been poured. The server, a polished-looking chap in his 40s with just-so hair, approaches.

“There are some tricky words on this menu. Let me help you out.”

Such began my experience at Corduroy. Don’t you already feel bathed in the warm enveloping glow of conviviality?

But let’s give the guy a break. He first informed our table that satsuma-imo, from which a soup had been made, is a sort of Japanese yam. I’m willing to bet that most patrons didn’t have that particular kernel of culinary obscura at the ready (we certainly didn’t). Perhaps, similarly, many of his guests wouldn’t be familiar with shiso (though we were), the definition for which he provided. Also provided? Many, many other things — an unprompted elucidation supplied for an ingredient on nearly a full third of the menu. We were told that fluke was “like flounder,” that a lamb loin was “sort of like a rack of lamb, but without the bones,” and that a guinea hen was merely a kind of diminutive poultry, lest we be alarmed.

Now, I don’t want this to turn into some yelp review-type hatchet job. That would be undeserved. The place was, on the whole, perfectly fine. The food was hit and miss. The crab blintz tasted of little but fryer oil; the aforementioned guinea hen was probably the best I’ve had. Our server was kind and attentive, so I’m not trying to overblow this. By and large, he did a fine job.

But while it’s trifling, I suppose it should be noted that if one must resort to that sort of pedantry, one should probably also take care to be right. When we were told, for example, that the oysters would be served with a “minuet” rather than a mignonette, I took a long sip of wine, choking down the urge to ask at what point they’d be wheeling out the piano.

The whole exchange had a lasting effect. We weren’t left eagerly anticipating the food that was to arrive; we were left asking ourselves, “What the heck was that about?”

As I write this, I’m drinking a lovely cocktail made by an equally lovely bartender friend. I asked his take. After all, he’s a hospitality professional and I’m not. Maybe I’ve missed something.

Bartender Friend is unequivocal in his denouncement. His case, boiled down a bit, is that it’s simply inelegant. There are, we suppose together, any number of better ways to go about it. He suggests, “There are a few things on our menu that might be unfamiliar. Please let me know if you have any questions.” Sounds better, no?

The whole point of the hospitality industry has traditionally been to be welcoming, to invite one’s guests into an establishment and provide them satiation and warmth, much as one would in one’s home. As Dan Barber states in “The Third Plate,”

The surprising thing about the prerogative of the chef is that until recently it didn’t exist. The chef’s authority (and celebrity) is such an accepted fact of fine dining today that it obscures the fact that for most of the past century, it was the diner — not the chef — who held power over the menu. Restaurants were the public’s domain… They came for entertainment, yes, but also for convenience and comfort. Restaurants, after all, are named for a restorative, a large bowl of soup.

Speaking of chefs, overhearing the discussion, one chimes in with his take: “You should never make the customer feel dumb.”

The devil’s advocate, I’m guessing, would argue that by volunteering all of the information up front, Corduroy was trying to avoid doing just that; to protect against someone feeling stupid for having to ask a question. That’s admirable, but — at least in our experience — it had the exact opposite effect.

Rather than being inviting, it created a hierarchy. It drew an indelible line through the meal between what we know and what you know. And, worse still, in many cases, it would have done so needlessly. Say, for instance, we were vegans. In that scenario, nearly the entire exposition would have been pointless as no amount of oratory, no matter how informative, would have convinced us to care about the fluke, the lamb, or the hen. He’d have been wasting our time as well as his own, since those three or four minutes could have been better used tending to other guests. He was speaking, rather than listening. As a result, we were left with the impression that Corduroy was — in this way at least — more focused on itself than on its guests.

It’s easy to jot this down as an isolated incident; the wrong night at the wrong place. Lots of places still care. There’s no epidemic afoot. Heck, the guru of all things hospitality, Danny Meyer, has even launched a consulting company based on the customer-focused practices which earned him his reputation.

But that’s the thing about trends; they tend to sneak up on you. And there does seem to be something going on.

Take, for instance, something as seemingly innocuous as photography. In this 2013 New York Times piece, David Bouley, speaks out against diners taking pictures of their dishes.

“[Photography] totally disrupts the ambiance… It’s a disaster in terms of momentum, settling into the meal, the great conversation that develops.”

He’s absolutely right. Also, you look like a douche. But when has that ever stopped anyone?

Bouley’s critique is especially fair, as he was speaking about flash photography, which clearly detracts from the experience of those around you. But what are we to make of restaurants like Momofuku Ko and the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, who have shunned photography altogether? Regardless of our personal preferences, we all know people whose meals are seemingly enhanced by being able to share the experience instantly. Shouldn’t they be afforded that freedom? Granted, you can’t take photos in museums, either. But has our culinary hero worship caused us to elevate restaurants that far?

In a way, it comes back to the same questions Corduroy raised. How much of the ‘hospitality’ portion of the hospitality industry been devalued? With chefs serving as rock stars for the young urbanite, how far should a restaurant be able to dictate the parameters of our experience? In short: How much of today’s dining experience is about the folks who are doing the dining?