Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fine dining

Amber's lentil soup sounds much more promising that the one I'd already gotten going upon reading her post. (This is what Elaine Benes would deem a "small coincidence.") Mine consists of, in completely unmeasured amounts: lentils (Canadian ones, which look, as one might guess, like a cross between French and regular ol' American lentils), olive oil, not-fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, yellow onion, garlic (some burnt, some not burnt to compensate), dashes of supermarket-balsamic and gourmet-store-white-wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. And water. And, I'm a bit concerned, pink nail polish, having just noticed that I've chipped two nails, although I think this preceded the soup production.

In other culinary news, while I had a great time catching up with a friend (who will go unnamed, on the off-chance her feelings about the place were more positive), the restaurant we went to, "Les Enfants Terribles," was... what everyone said it would be. It was not so much a case of bad service as of usury-meets-food-service.

(Cultural note: The restaurant is not quite French in terms of cuisine, but it is by-and-for French people. After noticing the NYMag reader reviews, I was hoping being with someone French would make me more welcome, but... no. As my friend pointed out, this was a place where a waiter was wearing a beret-like hat to remind us of his Frenchness. If you enter not under the impression that French waiters are rude--Francophile that I am, I did not--you will be left thinking either this, or that every other French waiter you've encountered has been positively dripping with politeness. Rudeness is, clearly, part of the show at this establishment, at a place where the waitstaff do shots between serving dishes, and where, if you are sitting on the outside chair, as I was, they yell 'excuse me' furiously every time you sit up straight in your seat. Tiny though I am, I felt very much the gigantic American.*)

So, back to the story. First, I ordered a dish that was $15.50. The waiter asked if I was sure I didn't want the special, also something involving beef. I asked (how gauche!) how much the special was, whether it was the same amount as the one I'd picked. Oh, it's $24. Hmm. I attribute the waiter's sneakiness to the fact that I'd ordered a drink, which perhaps signaled that I was willing to spend anything. Alas, a few sips of one drink, even by someone as Ashkenazi as I am, did not take away my other, also stereotypically Ashkenaz willingness to risk unsuaveness to avoid being overcharged.

The lesser beef was not bad, and the fries were fries, always a positive experience. I was even spontaneously brought ketchup, which I attribute to my being a feathered-haired, fanny-pack-and-white-sneakers-wearing, 6'6" and 300 pound American. I like ketchup, so all was well, except when a waiter wished to pass by, and I was not crouching obligingly.

The check appeared suddenly while we were still eating, but I didn't take offense, because the same happened to the Latvian model and her date sitting next to us. (That this was a beautiful-people place is both the restaurant's saving grace and its downfall.) Problems arose, however, when our waiter, the same man who'd tried to sneak the special, chased us as we left the restaurant, explaining, now in English, that you have to leave a 20% tip, and ours was not 20%. I've never before felt true nativist rage, not even when, last summer, the whole of Europe arrived to remind Americans just how useless our currency had become. I kept thinking, I'm from here! That's not how it works! I didn't go into the whole 'I'm from here' bit, which was, I think, obvious. But I did point out that there's no mandatory tip--if this particular restaurant had one (which would not be surprising in that they seem keen on ripping off those too beautiful and drunk to care) they hadn't exactly alerted us to it.

Which about brings us to the lentil soup.

* My "I am not French" tag has never been put to such good use!

14 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

Posts like this make me really wish I lived in New York. I love this kind of place. I tend to be a beloved regular at the sort of joint for which there are dozens of yelp comments bemoaning the hipster snobbery of the staff. Which, I suppose, is a sign of terrible character.

Phoebe said...

Bad service/hipster snobbery doesn't bother me, it's the getting ripped off that does. A small but key difference.

Petey said...

How much did you leave? You do really have to leave at least 15% if you're going to leave anything at all.

And if you do choose to leave nothing, the waiter is fully within his rights to confront you about it.

Petey said...

Also, when you patronize LES restaurants with DJ's, I believe you contractually forfeit your right to complain about getting ripped off during the dining experience.

Phoebe said...

I at least double the tax, crappy service or excellent, because that's the staff's wages.

As for the waiter having a right to confront those who don't, hard to say. There's clearly no right to confront those who tip less than 20%, let alone to claim a 20% tip is customary and that those who fail to pay up are rubes. It's insulting.

That out of the way, should a waiter chase down those who tip less than 15%? None? (Assuming of course the chase-down doesn't culminate in a demand for 20%.) If they see that customers are tourists who genuinely don't know, they can urge 15%. But really, this info is in guidebooks, everyone knows, and ultimately a customer does have the right to leave no tip, pestered or not by the waiter.

The pointlessness the tip is that it does not, as it currently exists, work to encourage good service and punish bad. To under-tip or not tip at all is to say you don't care if the waiter's out on the street. A high tip makes you a humanitarian, a show-off, or a flirt, depending on the context, but has little to do with a job well done.

As someone who truly doesn't care about good service beyond the food being something like what I ordered, and takes it as a given the waiter a) dislikes me, by virtue of my being a customer, and b) (esp. in NYC, where waiting tables is a for-now job) dislikes bringing food to Point A to Point B, and as someone who does mind meals out being this unspoken contest between waiter and customer over who can sneak out with the better deal, I'd rather an extra 17% (or whatever) added to the cost of each dish.

Phoebe said...

Petey 2nd comment,

There was a DJ? I'm afraid your second comment's too hipster-in-the-know for me to respond.

Petey said...

"I at least double the tax, crappy service or excellent, because that's the staff's wages. "

Yup.

"As for the waiter having a right to confront those who don't, hard to say."

I think it's pretty clear. The etiquette calls for north of 15% or a confrontation. The whole restaurant tipping thing is a bit like a "trick or treat" choice.

"That out of the way, should a waiter chase down those who tip less than 15%?"

They are well within the bounds of etiquette to do so.

"ultimately a customer does have the right to leave no tip, pestered or not by the waiter."

Yup.

"As someone who truly doesn't care about good service beyond the food being something like what I ordered..."

Now, here's where I'll truly disagree with you.

You cared about the bad service involved in the waiter trying to upsell you in a manner you found rude.

That was bad service, and you cared enough about it to complain about it in blog form.

In fact, were you able to live your life pre-scripted, you could have used the opportunity of the waiter complaining about getting 17% instead of 20% to respond, "You're lucky I gave you anything at all. The service was shitty." And you would have been on the correct side of etiquette in responding that way.

Petey said...

"As someone who ... takes it as a given the waiter a) dislikes me, by virtue of my being a customer"

Better etiquette calls for operating under the assumption that the waitstaff loves you and hates the job.

Phoebe said...

Bad service is, the waiter's rude, takes forever to get your order, brings you the dish the table over ordered, doesn't apologize, rolls his eyes when you ask for 'just a salad' or, if overweight, the dessert, chats with friends who stopped by rather than bringing you your drinks, gives you a look if you're dining alone, and so on. It's anything that isn't a smiley staffperson promptly bringing you the food you ordered. I can live without prompt, polite, or smiley. Being cheated out of money or asked outright to pay more is maybe a subset of bad service, but is really it's own beast.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and there was another comment. I don't think it matters if one assumes one is liked or disliked, and there's also something patronizing about being too sure a waiter hates his job. It's just a professional (loosely defined as not personal) interaction, in which both people act more interested in the other than they probably are.

Petey said...

"I don't think it matters if one assumes one is liked or disliked, and there's also something patronizing about being too sure a waiter hates his job. It's just a professional (loosely defined as not personal) interaction, in which both people act more interested in the other than they probably are."

But it's also an oddly intimate interaction. Meals are a rather domestic activity, even outside the home.

No matter what the actual reality, my point is that there is value for both sides in the shared polite fiction that the customer is lovable and that being on the clock is odious.

The polite fiction provides context for the oddly intimate interaction, and gives reassuring roles for both the server and the served.

whitney said...

Wow. If a server ever (EVER!) confronted me about the amount of a tip I left I would be BEYOND appalled. Especially if the service at the restaurant was so obviously subpar.

How did you respond to that server, Phoebe? That's all I want to know. (I don't need to hound every last sentence.)

Will121 said...

"The pointlessness the tip is that it does not, as it currently exists, work to encourage good service and punish bad. To under-tip or not tip at all is to say you don't care if the waiter's out on the street. A high tip makes you a humanitarian, a show-off, or a flirt, depending on the context, but has little to do with a job well done."

I disagree that tips are pointless. In a few cases they make a real difference

1) If you are a regular somewhere and you routinely slightly over tip (say 25%+) you will get treated with priority. You can get seats even if there is a line, get a table even if its late and the kitchen will close soon, or in the case of delivery get food in the rain without it having gotten cold. Even somewhere with as much turnover as new york, places still have memories.

2) At fancy places, I'm told that management notices tips as they do have something to do with service and will get rid of waiters who are frequently under tipped. So you tip helps improve the restaurant. That said I don't know if this is actually true since I've never run a fancy restaurant, it may just be a myth.

Both of those aside. My experience from a lot of travel and a decent sample size of places is that (excluding Japan) there is a strong correlation with the level of service and the custom of tipping in a country. So even if one it doesn't do anything, across soceity as a whole it seems to.

Pamela Poole said...

Hi Phoebe.

I live in Paris. What Americans can perceive to be rudeness is often just seriousness. The French are mortally afraid of seeming silly. This explains their semi-permanent scowls and why they think we look like morons because we smile so much. Also, the difference with being a waiter here is that it's a métier-a career-and so they are proud of what they do. While in the States, waiting tables is considered a crap job pretty much by anyone. So it must be hard for a French waiter who has some pride about his job to wait on Americans who think he's a loser...

I've never heard of a waiter running after someone for a bigger tip. As you know, here 15% is added on to every bill and they are more likely to be offended if you leave too much more than that. There's a lot of room intercultural misunderstanding in these situations. I've lived here for 2 and a half years (originally from California) and it's been--interesting.

I actually stopped by because you have declared yourself a francophile, and I thought you might like to know about www.francophilia.com, the social network for francophiles.

We launched a year ago, and in 2009 we're going to add a marketplace where you can get your fill of French stuff. We're a tiny startup operating on a shoestring budget, and depending on francophile bloggers like you to help get the word out.

Hope you and your readers will stop by and join us! And please help spread the word!

Merci et à bientôt.

Pamela Poole (LaGoulue)
Founder