Friday, July 24, 2009

Where everybody knows your name

Is this a joke? The only places where I've ever been a regular are muffin-and-coffee establishments, so no maitre'd tipping was involved. OK, I'm also a regular at Chelsea Thai, but when food comes on a tray, and when a get-one-free stamp card is involved, presumably being a regular really does just mean showing up often and, you know, paying for the food.

Also confusing: people want to be regulars at restaurants? I can't say I'm delighted that the man at Chelsea Thai gives me a knowing glance when I order the Pad Gra Prow, vegetarian, no mushrooms, nor was it so fantastic in high school when, at Downtown Delicious, the cranberry muffin would appear on the counter, it seemed, as soon as my friends and I were in earshot. If it were up to me, I'd rather be anonymous in these situations, my face not immediately associated with particular foodstuffs, but the thing is, once you find a place you like, returning is by far the more convenient option.

Perhaps it's different with upscale restaurants? The whole experience is less directly about the food, so 'they know me' is presumably less about connecting you to your preferences as about the staff knowing, in some deeper way, who you are, or at the very least connecting your face to the name on your credit card. Still, if the motivation is to get the occasional free drink or dessert, but to get to that point you need to spend thousands of dollars convincing the staff to remember your name, I'm not seeing the point.

Joke or sincere, the message of the article is clearly to not eat in restaurants. Doing so is, by the standards of the piece, either too expensive (for those who can't afford to tip - in gifts and cash - 400% of the price of their meal) or too agonizing. The piece is tailor-made for those whose liberal guilt causes them to think it tragic that another human being is carrying them their food, but who for whatever reason continue even after this epiphany to eat in restaurants. This mindset leads to the bizarre belief that being a good customer means not only politeness and a reasonable tip (i.e. respect), but also learning the names and life stories of the entire waitstaff, treating the restaurant trip as a charitable donation to food-service workers.


PG said...

In the sense that it's from New York Magazine and you're trying to apply it to the life of anyone with household income of less than half a million per year -- yes, it's a joke.

I can't afford to be a regular in any place that has bottles over $80, but in the more mid-level restaurants I often come back to, they get to know me without predicting what I'll be getting, because a mid-level restaurant worth multiple trips has more than one good thing on the menu. E.g., the staff at Calle Ocho knows us somewhat (we've been coming there at least once every two months for the last three years, we had our post-wedding brunch there, etc.), so they give us some leeway when unexpected additions arrive and we need our table expanded. But even the brunch menu has enough different good things on it that they wouldn't venture to predict what we'll order on any given day.

The only people who assume they know what I want are the guys at the Wrap n Run, and that's because there's only one item on their regular menu that I find reliably tasty and somewhat nutritious (the spinach and chicken wrap).

I suppose it would be nice to be comped stuff, but as you say, it doesn't really work out as a sound investment if you have to spend so much money to achieve that status. If I didn't have an acquaintance with the person opening a restaurant, I'd feel like an ass bringing him a bottle of liquor. What if he's in alcohol addiction recovery? (I made an error along those lines with my real estate agent, so now I try to avoid assuming that people drink, even people who are very social in NYC.) Mistakes like that can just highlight how little you actually do know the person despite pretensions to being BFF.

Phoebe said...

I can never tell who the implied audience is for NYMag - actual rich people, or people who like to read an article aimed at the rich, but who themselves don't have any particular amount of money. The reason I tend to think it's the latter is that I went to school with many of the magazine's supposed target audience, and find that little of the implied lifestyle rings true. Even the really rich in Manhattan spend normal amounts day-to-day at places like Duane Reade, the local pizza place, and the GAP, the difference being that they don't worry about these expenditures the same way that, say, I do. It's not as if everything, down to breakfast cereal, has to be covered in truffles. Whereas in the NYMag universe, wealth is about 'cheap' dinners for $50, 'cheap' t-shirts for the same, etc. This lifestyle has to be true of some NYers, but exceedingly few, and of those few, debtors are probably quite prominent. The point, then, is probably to make readers feel at one with some imaginary version of The Rich, more than it is to document how most rich people in NY actually live.

The liquor bit in the story was very odd, but at least a number of comments there addressed what you mention, that there are a whole lot of recovering alcoholics/non-drinkers out there, that even those who do drink might not want or be able to do so while on the job, etc. But the line that had me thinking the whole thing was a joke was the bit about how you should tell the staff that you dine out regularly in the West Village and this steak tartare is superb. It just screamed parody.

Will121 said...

I find that if you just go to the same place (these are ordinary restaurants not super high end) a lot, say hello / be polite to the staff, and tip reasonably you get regular status. People remember who you are and even if they don't give you free stuff will at least give you tables far away from crying babies

Britta said...

I agree with Will121, if you go to any restaurant on a regular basis and aren't an asshole, you should get regular status. In my experience, being a regular is very popular with old people, especially old men, which makes sense. There's stability in the food you'll get, it's a chance to interact with someone outside your family, and most waitresses will humor old men's desires to be seen as chivalrous or extremely generous for leaving, say, an extra dollar with the tip.

Phoebe said...

I agree that regularly going to a place and paying and not punching anyone or whatever means being a regular. But what I don't see is why (aside from the aforementioned old men) people would want to do this. It seems to me, both from a brief experience working in food service and from various experiences dining out, that a 'regular' is as likely to get a good table as to be 'that guy' who the staff snickers at behind his back.

This could be specific to coffee bars with hipster pretensions, but customer 'crimes' can be nothing greater than being a bit awkward while ordering. But it's not just coffee bars - at a Greek cafe (step above a coffee bar formality-wise) with great food downtown, there was (although I think no longer is) a waitress who would reliably badmouth every customer upon their leaving. For doing things like asking if there was a restroom, not for failing to tip, sending good food back, etc. I figured I also got this treatment once I left, but have no proof, but regardless really didn't care - how could I take it personally?

But it does seem to me that this case was just an exaggerated version of what happens in a lot of restaurants below the posh-stellar-treatment level, and that showing up more often might well stand only to increase the amusement the staff will derive from your very presence.