“As a former server, I know tables are only wiped down with a rag after each meal. They’re not really cleaned,” read the unpublished submission. Regarding the napkin as possible protection, “the napkin is for my lap,” wrote the reader, who asked, “Is there a way we can get restaurants to start providing a clean place to put utensils without having to ask for it? Absent a bread and butter plate at the really nice places, there is nothing.”
Nathan Jarvis to the rescue. A clinical assistant professor at the University of Houston’s Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, the microbiologist says he regularly places his utensils on a plate, provided there is one, or on a cocktail napkin “or some of the time across the top of my glass. I also will lay the fork tines across the handle of a knife,” elevating them from the table.
Diners can take some comfort from Matthew Moore, assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. While he says it’s “a good idea to reduce utensil exposure to the table,” relative to a lot of other things — food cooked to a safe temperature, hygienic food handlers — “it’s not the highest risk.” Restaurants can help out by first cleaning, then disinfecting surfaces. “You want to clean to remove the ‘organic load’ so you can kill the microbes,” says Moore.
Both Jarvis and Moore said that the best way for diners to avoid germs and remove pathogens is tried-and-true hand-washing before they eat: warm water in combination with soap and vigorous scrubbing (including under the fingernails) for at least 20 seconds, followed by drying the hands with paper towels.
For extra precaution while scrubbing, Moore says, “I sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in my head — twice.”
Months after he booked a table at the world-class River Cafe in London, a reader who asked that I use only his first name received a phone call from the Italian restaurant the day before he and his fiancee departed for England. “It was during an extremely busy period at work, so I didn’t have time to take the call and (full disclosure) forgot to call back to confirm,” Evan, a District resident, wrote me. “My fault, I admit, but, all along, we had every intention of honoring the reservation.”
The couple walked into the equivalent of a lecture at River Cafe, he said, where the hostess made a point, several times, of letting Evan know the restaurant hadn’t heard back from him. “I asked if it was a problem, and she said, ‘Well, thankfully, we do have a table available anyway.’ The whole experience really put a sour taste in our mouths right off the bat — why even bother to bring it up if there’s a table unless it was to shame us?”
Evan is sympathetic to the plight of restaurants. “I understand that people sometimes no-show, and I agree that’s poor form, but if it’s a major, recurring issue for them, they can take a deposit at the time of reservation (as many restaurants do and which I have no problem with).”
By not showing up for reservations, a few bad apples can lead to serious losses for restaurants. Even if the reservation is for a single table, it must be kept free for the party that booked it, which means other customers can’t be seated there without risk. To mitigate any losses, dining establishments have tried a host of strategies, from adopting prepaid ticketing systems and overbooking (just like airlines) to blacklisting no-shows or dispensing with reservations altogether. Each has its plusses and minuses. Countless readers have told me they dread calls from restaurants reminding them of their commitment, a sentiment I happen to share.
Evan poses two questions:
“Am I off base in assuming that, unless a diner cancels a reservation, the restaurant can assume that the diner will be there and it’s not the diner’s responsibility to affirmatively confirm?” While returning the restaurant’s call would have been a nice gesture, not calling back shouldn’t be seen as a broken promise.
“Were we wrong to be put off by the hostess’s snarky greeting?” Given that the reader held up his end of the bargain and hit his mark, the digs from the hostess were unwarranted. Restaurants are in the business of hospitality, not hostility.
No less than Ruth Rogers, one of the founding chefs, called me to register her disappointment with the experience Evan described, and which she says the veteran hostess on duty at the time remembers as more positive. “I’m shocked by the story,” said Rogers from London. “We never, never, never want to correct somebody.” The chef said she didn’t want to engage in a he said/she said and went so far as to offer her contact information for Evan to use — a gesture that sounds more like one of my favorite restaurants in the world.
Dressing for dinner (or not)
The mere mention of restaurant dress codes can unleash a torrent of yeas and nays. Following a recent online chat during which the subject became Topic A, dozens of readers let me know how they felt.
“Why don’t people think of the dress code as part of the ambiance of the restaurant?” submitted one follower. “Your reviews mention the decor and ‘feel’ of the place as much as the food; certainly, what patrons are wearing is part of that ‘feel.’ Someone wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts at the Inn at Little Washington is not going to match the decor; someone in a tuxedo in McDonald’s similarly clashes.”
“Assuming people are otherwise behaving themselves, how does someone dressing in shorts show disrespect to others who are dressed more formally?” posted another chat participant. “How does what someone else is wearing three tables away interfere with your dining experience? Isn’t some poor sap wearing an oversized, ill-fitting ‘loaner’ jacket more of an eye sore than someone in a simple button-down shirt and jeans?”
Someone else argued both sides, with a caveat. “First: I am NOT a snazzy dresser. I tend to spend my money on anything but clothes ... for instance, eating out. But I support any establishment’s dress code, so long as it is spelled out. It’s their place, they can do as they want. If it’s too oppressive, it will be their loss.”
The Washington restaurant that seems to best address the situation is the fine-dining lair of chef Aaron Silverman on Capitol Hill. Its website states: “We do not have an enforced dress code at Pineapple and Pearls . That being said, we do consider it a celebratory kind of evening, so we ask that you come looking your best.” (While “your best” is open to wide interpretation, Silverman says that “so far, this has worked quite well for us.”)
My pet peeve is men wearing ball caps in dining rooms, which didn’t go over very well with a chat participant who claimed to have been seated at the upscale Fiola while wearing jeans and a hat. He called my annoyance “discriminatory,” without providing any details.
Call me prehistoric, but removing one’s hat indoors demonstrates respect. Was I missing something? I took the matter to The Post’s esteemed fashion critic, Robin Givhan, who settled the matter to my great satisfaction when she responded via email that “unless that dining room is at an actual ballpark, I say take off your cap. To me, keeping it on just makes you look like you’re ready to flee the scene at any minute.”
Givhan added, “It’s a little like sitting in a dining room with your sunglasses on. Take them off. Stay a while.”
Next week: A review of Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria.
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