Check, Please

At the Dinner Table, A Comedy of Manners

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By Phyllis Richman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

One of an occasional series of rants about dining out.

For 25 years I was what might be called a restaurateur's pet peeve. In other words, I was a restaurant critic.

It's a cathartic job: You get to complain a lot. When the receptionist put me on hold and forgot, I not only had a beef, I had a column. And I had particularly juicy fodder the week the maitre d' stuck his thumb in my espresso to verify my claim that it wasn't hot enough. Thirty years later, that maitre d' is still protesting that it was his waiter's thumb, not his.

In my decades of dining out nearly every night, the irritants became repetitious and predictable. One stood out, quickly became all-pervasive and lately has developed increasingly elaborate forms.

It's the new competitive sport of plate-snatching.

This is a game played against the clock, with the diner racing to clean the plate before the server manages to clear it. It's a contest that would have been unthinkable way back in the 20th century.

Dining is a communal activity, and table manners were designed to reflect that. Just as it is considered impolite for one person to start eating before everyone at the table has been served, it traditionally has been seen as rude for a waiter to remove one diner's plate before everyone at the table is through.

But manners change. Or in this case, restaurateurs are trying to change them. Servers are removing dishes one by one, as soon as they are emptied -- or even before. Rest your fork for a second, or lean back for a moment's stretch, and your dinner will disappear. The slowest eater is left with her plate a lone island on an empty table. The justifications are lame: Either the kitchen staff wants to pace the dishwashing, the dining room staff is trying to keep the meal moving along, or the busboy is trying to look busy. By now, a few diners are so accustomed to it that they've started to feel offended if their plates sit empty before them.

Some servers have honed their skills to Olympic levels. Recently I encountered a master. She was a charming waitress, enthusiastic and hospitable in her greeting, efficient in her order taking. And sly in her pursuit of our plates.

First she started to sweep our half-full pan of cornbread from the table, but my husband thwarted her. She retaliated brilliantly: As he put a piece of corn bread in his mouth, she grabbed his dinner plate. With his mouth full and his hand occupied, her success was assured. I couldn't resist grinning at her victory. That was before she turned on me. I lifted my coffee cup to take a sip, and she made off with my saucer.

Checkmate.

Here's the irony: When people dream of opening a restaurant, they're usually thinking of hospitality, of bringing pleasure to hungry friends. Once they're running it, though, those hungry people turn out to be strangers -- demanding strangers. The job doesn't feel like giving a dinner party; it's grueling work. The romance is gone, replaced by rules. No substitutions. No reservations. No credit cards. No seating incomplete parties.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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