How many readers have thought about how very cleverly table-service chain restaurants engineer their establishments so that patrons feel no unease while eating out? They have relieved patrons of the embarrassment so many have felt historically – and which can still occur in formal restaurants today.
It doesn’t take much for restaurant patrons to become tense or self-conscious. They may feel that other guests are staring at them and judging their appearance or table manners. Or that their server is sizing them up. The menu can be mysterious, especially if it contains foreign or unfamiliar culinary terms. They fear they will mispronounce something and be sneered at for their lack of sophistication. Or order a dish they don’t like the looks of (does that explain why I once encountered a South Dakota menu that described salads as made up of “non-intimidating greens”?). If patrons have brought their children, they may worry they will misbehave and earn the wrath of all the tables around them.
Their fears are not entirely unfounded. I have a vivid memory of extreme discomfort I experienced in a restaurant considered among the top in the 1980s. Although the small dining room was fully occupied, it was almost totally silent. There were expensive arrangements of flowers everywhere. They, along with the preternatural quiet, conspired to create the ambiance of a funeral parlor. The waiter never smiled. I felt as though I was dressed for a barbecue. The melon ball-sized food was hard to identify and oddly assorted. I longed to flee to another room where I heard people laughing and imagined them eating real food.
Intimidation has a long history in restaurants. In 1859 a patron complained about his discomfort in the class of elite restaurants represented by Delmonico’s, admitting “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine . . .”
Snobbery was assessed as being greater in the East than the West. It’s certainly true that Eastern eateries did not run advertisements like the one in Portland OR in 1873 that greeted potential customers with “Hi You Muck-A-Muck and Here’s Your Bill of Fare. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken out of your bellies . . .”
Of course there were always casual eating places, but as some Americans grew wealthier in the late 19th century more foreign terms appeared on menus, leading to great puzzlement by diners. Even Easterners had to admit “a feeling of trepidation when confronted with an elaborate menu composed in the artistic and intricate terms of culinary French.” Jokes circulated about the bumpkin who randomly pointed to things on the menu and was dismayed when the waiter returned with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.
Women were afraid to eat spaghetti in public lest they look foolish. No such worries at The Old Spaghetti Factory in the historic section of _____ [fill in the blank]!
Most sources of intimidation have been eliminated by chain restaurants (See 1973 Jacks Or Better advertisement). A circus-like sense of fun, raucous decor, and auditory buzz distracts everyone from other guests and blanks out children’s tantrums. The ethos is “come as you are.” Service is by relentlessly cheerful teenagers who reply to every request with a “No problem.” There are no pristine white tablecloths or carpets to ruin with spills. No foreign terms appear on menus. In the unlikely event that a menu contains unfamiliar items they will be carefully explained or illustrated. Even today a chain of Mexican theme restaurants in the South supplies a guide letting patrons know how to say the names of dishes, including Nachos (Nah-choz) and Chile Con Carne (Che-lee con Car-nay).
It is interesting to reflect on the deep message conveyed by mass market restaurants. Is it that the American public is juvenile in their tastes and easily manipulated? Or is it the more democratic thesis that Americans will accept being talked down to as the price that must be paid so that no one feels excluded?
© Jan Whitaker, 2012