Scenes from the Class Struggle at a Restaurant Table, Part 2

The ‘60s marked a sea-change in mores, some for good, some not so good. The relaxation of what was seen by the young as an uptight culture had mixed results. And the restaurant scene did not escape the changes. As with other matters that changed, it began well, or at least, shall we say, groovy.

Hi, I'm your server tonight.

Hi, I'm your server tonight.

The first hipster restaurants I went to were in Pennsylvania. At a popular spot in Philadelphia I saw, for the first time, two men kissing. And they were waiters, or perhaps the waiter and the maître d’ – such distinctions were blurred. At another one, in the town where I lived, the owner was the waiter – if he could be called that. He was a tall and handsome dude with a florid moustache and insouciant manners, and he sat down at my table to tell me what was on the menu. One of the items was chicken or beef, I don’t recall exactly, “with a whole bunch of shit”, he said. He could pull it off because a) he owned the place so he could do as he pleased, and b) he possessed a certain charm. He and his wife had both been industrial designers who had dropped out of the rat race to cook and run a restaurant. The hipster amateur restaurant run by talented dropouts was dotting the American scene, and with it came the kind of chilled protocol I was experiencing.

Mutatis mutandis, this change in protocol led to the familiar, “Hi, my name is George and I’m your server this evening.” I remember walking out of one such place, where the service had been terrible, complaining that the help should focus more on efficiency and less on chumminess. I was living in New York at the time and my favorite restaurants were, as they are to this day, Spanish. Something about traditional Spanish waiters pleased me. They were not there to be my friends for the duration of the meal, nor were they my inferiors. However, they were, in their way, friendly. And efficient. The patron/waiter relationship was not unlike a relationship with any professional. Mutual respect. And a certain formality. I liked it.

I see it in the attempt at reproducing old service mores in Downton Abbey, where the help, particularly depending on their rank, are treated respectfully and formally. There’s no groveling. And there’s no abuse. (Of course, this is a piece of fiction, not a reflection of actual behavior.) Perhaps that’s what I see in traditional Spanish restaurants – modern ones are another matter. A harking back to a service culture.

Service/servants. It’s useful to look at it historically. Spain was one of the last European countries to enter modernity. And I’m not the first to remark that its culture was, in a way, mediaeval. The ethos of the Middle Ages was service. A lord may serve his king, in the same manner that his minions served him. To be a servant meant a set of obligations, and in the case of a lord it might mean willingness to lay down his life for the monarch – in our society we see it in the Secret Service’s willingness to “take a bullet” for the President. With modernity, which is to say, capitalism, service takes a back seat to “filthy lucre.” A waiter may give good service but it’s understood a tip is the reward. I always tip at the old Spanish restaurants but I see no sign that waiters would behave differently were I a good or bad tipper.

Such a traditional service culture is predicated on rather rigid class structures. The servants in Downton Abbey belong to one class, just as the people they serve belong to another. The waiters at the old Spanish restaurants I used to frequent were not actors holding a day job until they got their big break, though some restaurant owners began as waiters and worked their way up, in a case I know by wooing and marrying the owner’s daughter. In a fluid society, waiting tables or cleaning houses may simply be a holding pattern to get some cash while the real career takes root. Thus, many Americans have waited tables at some point. I have. That’s how I learned what’s good and bad service and how to behave at a restaurant table: the way I liked my patrons to behave when I was waiting on them. I am very unforgiving of sloppy service and very forgiving of delays and mistakes when I know staff is overtaxed.

And I picked up something else, which was rather neat. The restaurant where I waited tables was very trendy – a word not in used yet. We took no reservations, which meant there was a long line to get in. And waiters from the best restaurants in town dropped by for dinner since their tips were so formidable – these were very expensive restaurants – they could afford to eat out whenever they wanted. They were great tippers and very kind to us, their colleagues. I would go eat at their restaurants when my own, more modest, tips were burning a hole in my pocket. I got treated like royalty, as I treated them when they ate at my place.

The restaurant’s popularity continued to grow – they got written up in the New York Times – and they moved to a larger spot that could accommodate their clientele. I left the job to go away to graduate school, but when I came back to town I’d go eat there. Sure enough, they’d be a line outside the door, which included some of the town’s wealthiest and most influential citizens. I’d be received by my old colleagues with great warmth and be ushered in ahead of the VIPs. Who’s that, I’m sure they wondered. I walked in, affecting a mysterious air. But what I wanted to do is turn around and say:

“I’m just a waiter.”