The stereotype of the surly Parisian maître d’ may be losing currency nowadays, but for the determined efforts of one man: Philippe Pinoteau, owner of Le Baratin, a bar à vin/bistro in the 20th Arrondissement. A skilled sommelier and manager, Pinoteau is even more adept at making his customers feel like so much terroir. A friend once showed up with his wife 17 minutes late for a reservation. There was an empty two-top in plain view, but Pinoteau made them wait at the bar…for exactly 17 minutes. “We watched him watching the clock,” recalls Oliver, still incredulous. Dinner, when they finally got it, was apparently worth the humiliation—Oliver’s story wasn’t a warning but a ringing endorsement.
Perhaps because rudeness is more memorable than niceness, every food lover has a story (usually a funny one) about being mistreated at some legendarily rude restaurant—places where the staff is not just sullen or distant but egregiously, deliberately obnoxious. And yet we go anyway. Repeatedly. And like it. We endure the admonishments of sushi chefs, notorious scolds who can shift from placid indifference to rage in the blink of an order. (God forbid you ask for spicy tuna rolls at L.A.’s Hiko Sushi, or mix wasabi into your soy sauce at Sushi Sasabune, in Honolulu.) We obey the ornery house rules posted at countless barbecue joints (no cameras no ketchup no lingering no substitutions or you’ll be shot). We even flock to tourist haunts where the rudeness is patented schtick: Ed Debevic’s, in Chicago; Pat’s King of Steaks, in Philadelphia; Durgin-Park, in Boston; Sam Wo, in San Francisco; Peter Luger Steakhouse, in Brooklyn.
Just as five-star Asian hotels are renowned for gracious service, certain restaurants are known for the exact opposite. The five-story madhouse Wong Kei is London’s most famous Chinese restaurant, less so for the food (agreeable but ordinary) or the ambience (duck sauce–stained tablecloths) than for the comically rude waiters. Harried staff bark at you the second you walk in (“SIT DOWN THERE YOU ORDER NOW NO MORE DUCK!”); busboys throw down plates with the clatter of a Max Roach drum solo. And still the queue outside grows longer. The cult of Wong Kei has even inspired two Facebook groups on which the faithful trade stories about, for instance, ordering an after-dinner drink and being told to “Go find a f***ing bar—we need table back!” In truth the rudeness is more rote than real these days; some veterans have even complained that the new employees are “too nice.”
Why do restaurants get away with this when other service enterprises do not? You’d never return to a hotel where the bellhop scolded you for arriving late. You wouldn’t shop at a boutique that forbade pairing these pants with that sweater. (Unless the person doing the forbidding happened to be named Lagerfeld.) You wouldn’t go to a masseuse known for pummeling customers with insults. (Okay, maybe if it were a Russian bath.) Yet the promise of a great meal makes us willing to prostrate ourselves: to call exactly one month ahead at 9 a.m. for a coveted booking, to drive three hours just to get there, to line up in the freezing cold, to squeeze in at a tiny table by the toilet—all for the privilege of having dinner.
What strange impulse makes us seek out such abuse? Is it the same one that compels people to go on bone-rattling amusement-park rides, or to visit S&M dungeons? Is it to atone for our guilt over stuffing ourselves—are we really that ashamed to eat? Does all the scolding and reproach make us feel somehow at home—like toddlers in our parents’ kitchen?
Or maybe it’s not so twisted and Freudian. Knowing the rules is a way of showing you belong, that you’re an insider—not some clumsy neophyte who thinks he can ask for ketchup. I remember being paralyzed with fear while waiting in line at the Beacon Drive-In, a greasy spoon in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the scowling counterman shouts “TALK!” at each new customer and then sends him off to the pick-up area with “WALK!” Making it out of there with my burger alive was like surviving a skydive; my first thought was, Wow, I want to do that again.
It bears noting that restaurant people are not necessarily “people” people. Some are in it solely for the food, or for the money, and would rather be in the kitchen, or in the backroom counting cash, than out here dealing with all your nonsense. Others are just moody eccentrics. Kenny Shopsin, whose namesake Manhattan luncheonette—since closed—was the subject of a New Yorker tribute by Calvin Trillin, had, among many house rules, a ban on parties of five. (No splitting the group into two tables, either. That would get you ejected.) Yet people loved Shopsin’s, even if Shopsin’s didn’t love them back.
Of course the whole transaction falls apart if the experience isn’t worth the abuse; the ends have to justify the meanness. And in plenty of cases—from Hiko Sushi to Peter Luger—they do. Some diners view rudeness as the gantlet they must run to earn a great meal; they take brusqueness not as a personal affront but as a mark of quality and seriousness of purpose.
The line is easily crossed. At the Chicago hot dog stand the Wiener’s Circle, the staff heap abuse on customers like relish—and, per tradition, the customers give it right back. Me, I found the whole routine disturbing: white male customers and black counter ladies trading the most vicious insults, like a Neil LaBute play with an even uglier racial undercurrent. No hot dog is worth that.
Still, definitions of “good” and “bad” service depend on where you are. “In certain cultures lack of politeness is not only acceptable but expected: Russia, China, Belgium, Holland, not all of Italy but certainly Rome,” says T+L food writer Anya von Bremzen. “The thought is that rudeness equals authenticity, whereas excessive politesse is considered suspicious.” Better a sincere jerk than a disingenuous sycophant.
If being treated badly confirms that we’re in exactly the right place, being fawned over provokes a sense that we’re being duped. Compare the you-are-nothing nonchalance of the staff at, say, L’Ami Louis, a brasserie in Paris, with the unctuous pleading of the touts outside all the tourist traps along Rue de la Huchette (“You like moussaka, sir? Come taste the best moussaka in Paris!”). You can hold the flattery and smiles; I know whom I’ll trust with my dinner.
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