"Would you like Evian, San Pellegrino . . . or D.C. tap ?"
The waiter asks about my preference in water, dropping his voice with the third possibility, as if it's a choice between Tiffany and Target. How hip are you? he seems to be challenging me in front of my guests. Designer water or dreck?
One can understand his eagerness to get my table to buy the bottled stuff, which sells for more than $6. But his sales pitch turns us off; we decline the still and sparkling waters of the French Alps and Italy in favor of what's local and free-flowing.
The push to get diners to quaff labels--an irritation that ranks right down there with out-of-season ingredients and misleading menu descriptors (ever had a filet mignon of tuna?)--is one of several off notes I've encountered as a ravenous participant of the Washington restaurant scene. Having spent the last two years dining out a dozen times a week, and savoring much of it, I've cut a wide swath through restaurants haute and humble, city and suburban. And while there's much to admire in and around the nation's capital, home to more than 7,000 eating establishments, this diner's wish list has grown longer than Metro's Green Line.
From coast to coast, U.S. restaurants have never been so good or so varied. We have come to expect and demand basic building blocks--good bread, coffee with character, produce of pedigree--and have welcomed a style of service that is uniquely ours: confident and intelligent if sometimes as casual as the Gap.
That said, a robust economy and a local unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, well below the national average, mean that a lot of restaurants are looking for labor in a pool nearly drained of talent. Hiring, training and keeping a staff is one of a restaurateur's most time-consuming chores.
A plea to managers: Please give your hires the support they need to embrace the dining public. Show them how to serve wine. Tell them what goes into the food--and let them taste the dishes. Teach them how to "read" a table, so that they can bond with diners who like that sort of service or respect the privacy sought by others.
And give them the authority to market your menu: "If you're not happy with the wine," I had one server offer, having pitched an unfamiliar label, "I'll take it back." Another restaurant greeted patrons during its opening week with discounted meals--"preview prices"--a thoughtful gesture that helped smooth the bumps typical of an upstart (and encouraged my return). Kudos to the restaurants that print out their daily specials and brickbats to those that make their servers recite passages that rival "War & Peace."
Do chefs taste what they serve us? I sometimes wonder, spooning into Army green avocado ice cream that goes down like chilled Crisco, slicing into venison with a chocolate sauce that's better suited for a dessert course, or sampling a beurre blanc so astringent it could double as window cleaner. Some cooks just need more restraint and better editing, like the chef who serves perfectly respectable shrimp, sauteed with garlic and basil, then suffocates them with a garniture that includes a succotash of undercooked fava beans and diced red pepper, a crisp and cheesy potato fritter, a hailstorm of capers and (whew!) a lightly foamy blanket of saffron-rich aioli. The dish is as busy as the Beltway during rush hour.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of experimentation and daring in the kitchen, and there are plenty of flights of fancy worth devouring around town. But too often, too much of it tastes like a work in progress rather than a complete thought. Confident chefs know there's beauty in the simplicity of a perfect roast chicken or a plate of ripe fruit and can resist the impulse to throw 15 ingredients together when five will suffice.
"Less is more" is a fashion dictate that could also be applied to those restaurants that appeal to us with Paul Bunyanesque portions, which seem only to fuel gluttony. I applaud generosity as much as the next diner, and I'm fond of leftovers as well, but do we really want tomorrow's lunch on tonight's dinner plate? Frankly, I'm turned off by salads that look like Jurassic Park, Titanic-size banana splits and the sight of diners leaving that wildly popular chain restaurant with shopping bags of uneaten food.
In a city that sipped its way through seven gallons of wine per person last year, why do so many restaurants make it hard to enjoy the pleasure of the grape? It's dispiriting to see wine lists that underwhelm with middling labels, shock us with markups sometimes four to five times wholesale and then forget to include vintages--there's a marked difference between a '94 and a '95 Barolo, after all.
Equally frustrating is the way wine is mishandled, either in storage or in the glass. Even at better restaurants, I've had wines served so warm, they appear to have been stowed near a stove (or the men's restroom, as I once discovered), and poured into clunky, thick-lipped glasses that look as if they were plucked from a college dorm room. It doesn't take a sommelier to know that warm wine emphasizes the taste of alcohol over fruit or that thin-lipped stemware enhances the drinking experience. And I resent the practice of keeping a wine glass filled to the brim, as if it were ice water. (That goes for restaurants that act as if the bottled water they're pouring nonstop is complimentary. Are they working on commission?)
Dessert is a restaurant's final opportunity to impress a diner, yet a lot of what shows up for the third act lacks any imagination or innovation. Some of it makes no sense, like the appearance of banana-fudge cheesecake on the menu of an expense-account Italian destination. A pastry chef in a top D.C. restaurant can cost a place $35,000 or more a year, an expense most establishments can't afford. But surely someone on the staff can come up with something sexier than such tired standbys as creme brulee--a classic that has had more flavors forced on it than Baskin-Robbins--bread pudding and tiramisu, the last so ubiquitous that I've even spotted it on Chinese menus.
Dining isn't just about food, of course. Lighting, acoustics, seating, all conspire to make or break a restaurant meal. One dining room might be operating-room bright, another so dim that your menu catches fire when you lean into a votive to decipher the document (note from Real Life: cocktails do not make good fire extinguishers). Music should reflect the mood of an establishment, a thought that occurred to me one night when the background tunes segued from Sinatra to Pavarotti to Billy Joel in a single course (what, no Randy Travis?) And I don't patronize one of my favorite restaurants very often because the chairs appear to have been designed for Barbie. Another hot new eatery serves the cooking of a famous chef on plates the size of hubcaps--atop tables the size of postage stamps.
It's all in the details.
Diners could make the restaurant game a lot more fun by playing fair and taking control, too: Honor your reservations. Register any dissatisfaction promptly and tactfully. Turn off your cell phones and save any such conversation for outside the dining area.
And, from the perspective of a hired mouth with 1,200 restaurant meals in 24 months behind him, this morsel: Favor the places you love with your patronage. "My favorite restaurant is the one where they know me," the late James Beard reminded us.