Tableside theater

Is tableside service the kind of glamour that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny? It may be a noble tradition in French restaurants, but in the United States it’s another story. Depending upon how you look at it, it can be fun — or it can be understood as a way to charge more for lower quality food.

I haven’t been able to determine how common tableside service was in 19th-century America. But clearly chafing dishes were employed long ago, especially where oysters were served. A widely circulated story from 1843 described a man staying at a fine hotel in New Orleans who was outraged that he should “cook his own victuals” when he ordered a venison steak and the waiter brought a chafing dish for him to prepare it in.

How times change! By the mid-20th century, restaurant guests were delighted to prepare food themselves with a hibachi or fondue pot.

One of the most flamboyant sorts of tableside service is the presentation of food on flaming swords. It represented the consummate display of tableside theatrics, particularly at Chicago’s Pump Room of the late 1930s and 1940s. Master of ceremonies Ernie Byfield asserted that he preferred to host “laughing eaters” rather than “grim gourmets.” He was quite frank about the degree of pretense involved with tableside service at the Pump Room, implicitly acknowledging that formal French service was out of step with mainstream American culture. [Pump Room flaming swords, 1943]

Tableside service as entertaining floorshow got a foothold in American restaurants in the 1930s. By then, according to an essay by A. J. Liebling, Prohibition speakeasies had introduced middle-class New Yorkers to “a pancake that burned with a wan flame,” a reference to Crepes Suzette.

The popularity of flames at the table and other forms of tableside food preparation grew in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The full show was described by the proprietor of the Bubble Bar in Akron OH in 1952: “Just as your Flaming Sword Dinner is about to be served, the Rajah (that’s my assistant) and I dim the house lights and approach your table, sword in hand aflame with choice morsels of lamb, beef tenderloin or chicken. . . . And of course, following such an adventure in dining, you wouldn’t think or dare to order any dessert but our Flaming Cherry Jubilee or Flaming Crepes Suzette.”

Alas, a look behind the scenes quickly dissolves whatever magic adheres to tableside drama. The 1974 how-to book Showmanship in the Dining Room leaves little doubt that tableside service in all its forms — whipping up sauces, tossing Caesar salads, serving beef from shiny rolling carts, flaming things — is all about money. The book builds upon the wisdom articulated in a July 1966 issue of Cooking for Profit that asserts that, for “the table-cloth operation,” service is the prime merchandiser. Tableside service, goes the thinking, makes customers feel important and willing to pay more for what is often food of lesser quality or quantity.

Here are some of the magic-dissolving points made in the Showmanship book:
– The rolling cart has a virtually unique benefit. It allows the restaurateur to sell items he could not otherwise sell.
– Wines on a cart allow the waiter to push particular bottles. Few people can resist when a bottle is held before them with the waiter’s recommendation.
– Coffee can be served by a specialist. For some inexplicable reason customers accept an individual dressed like an Indian maharajah much more readily than a native of a coffee-producing country.
– A casserole item with a low food cost, such as curry made from turkey thighs, which could not be readily sold otherwise, can be merchandised from a self-service chafing dish on the table.
– As a general rule, carving in the dining room gives the operation a better yield; The carver becomes proficient at making less meat look like more; the waiter can divide a piece of meat that is less than the sum of two individual orders.
– If flambéing is done properly, the customers enjoy it and willingly pay for it. In most instances, it does not harm the food very much at all.
– Any waiter who can light a match can flambé a dish.
– Nothing about the perennial flambé favorites, crepes Suzette and cherries Jubilee, is exciting except the showmanship.
– But people like sweet tastes, and people like flames. The combination is seemingly irresistible, as it sells at menu prices so exceeding the cost that they would make a desert water vendor blush.
– The matronly waitress might be able to flambé successfully . . . but she may look domestic making a steak tartare and resemble a washerwoman when tossing a Caesar salad.

Let the patron beware!

© Jan Whitaker, 2021


Filed under food, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, theme restaurants, waiters/waitresses/servers

11 responses to “Tableside theater

  1. There’s other kinds of table-side service that live on, in lower-price venues. I’m thinking of Lamberts (I know there’s more than one, but the one in Ozark, near Springfield, Missouri, is the one we have been to), “home of throwed rolls” which has circulating servers distributing sides. The big, fluffy bread rolls are, indeed, thrown to anyone who indicates interest; there’s also fried okra, potatoes, blackeyed peas, and molasses for the rolls (getting the molasses person to come around close to when the roll guy [it’s always a guy, as near as I can tell] does is a challenge, though).
    You can just get the sides, or an entree with the sides. It’s a whole production.

    • You are so right that special delivery of rolls, etc., is also part of tableside theater — especially when thrown. I have a postcard from Lamberts that maybe I should have included.

  2. Sean Sullivan

    My stint as a waiter at Kemoll’s on North Kingshighway in St Louis included many tables side preparations of fettucini alfredo and spaghetti carbonara, cream, butter, bacon, cheese — what could be bad? Everyone loved it. Easy to do too.

  3. Mark

    THANKS for this entertaining article. I remember reading OF these places when I was growing up in the 60’s / 70’s, but either they were hard to get to/un-affordable from the northern Virginia suburbs, which were MUCH more bucolic then, than now. I remember a place in Falls Church, VA called “Inn of the Eight Immortals” that served food from a cart, I think it was the first Chinese restaurant in the area to serve dim sum. There was also a lady that played a Hammond organ in the corner, and a costumed hostess, it was exotic and exciting.

  4. misenplacememoir

    Nostalgic for me too. I worked in the kitchen at The Marketplace in Portland, Oregon in 1978 where our tuxedoed waiters served up Steak Diane and Crepes Suzette tableside. Also we made chateaubriand for two and they carved it tableside. And come to think of it, these menu items have gone by way of the do-do bird.

  5. Barton Byg

    Maybe it was theater, but the salad at Blackbird in Chicago, with crispy potato and poached egg, is one I will sorely miss. I don’t care if it cost more to see a man in a designer suit attack it with knife and fork after placing it before us, to blend the egg and potato crisps with a flourish. It was worth every penny!

  6. Emily

    I really enjoyed your article and this trip along memory lane. It reminded me of a flaming waterfall of a dessert coffee that used to be served at The Los Feliz Inn in Los Angeles. However, serious mistakes can happen:

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