Revelation: restaurant fanciness displeases me
This revelation was brought on by a dining experience at Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA a few months ago. Cyrus, by many published ranking I've come across, is reported to be one of the best restaurants (most say it's #2 to the French Laundry) in the Napa/Sonoma wine country area.
But first, a little history:
I suppose I'm like many of you - I will spend too much on food. Actually, my guess is that my salary is probably way more out of line with my restaurant choices than most of yours. Once a trip is agreed upon, I spend many, many, many hours researching restaurants, and once chosen, I have many more good hours daydreaming about how pleasurable the meal will be. Then we dine, and the experience often lives up to or even surpasses my expectations! Oh food! How I love thee!
Back to my revelation which I will now expand on. A good dining experience for me takes place when I'm in a good mood, hanging with my homies and eating tasty/interesting food in a relaxing environment. I've found that to eat the really, really interesting and really, really good food means sometimes I gotta go to an expensive restaurant. Like I said earlier, expense is no problem. The problem - I'm finally realizing - is that many expensive restaurants do things that are not relaxing to me! This point was driven home at Cyrus.
Opinion: Cyrus is disgustingly shi-shi. Shi-shi is not relaxing.
Soon as we sit, a clumsy attempt to up-sell the caviar and champagne option is made by a chap in a monkey suit. "Champagne and caviar" is such a shi-shi cliche, oui? The staff all wore a variation of strange tuxedo-like monkey suits that I believe indicated their rank and function. They looked so uncomfortable! Why the formality?
We tried to connect to the staff as human beings, but failed on all accounts. They smiled and engaged and were pleasant, but not in a natural way. They seemed to have been programmed to respond in a way that reflected the belief that elegance and lavishness are high virtues. Go to the restroom and a specialist rushes to grab your napkin and neatly fold it on your chair. As these useless acts of elegance pile up my comfort level goes down. I suppose the idea is to make people feel important and pampered, but my guess is that more and more people are like me and find this a distraction from the overall experience. What say you? By the way, the food was pretty good - a bit trendy, overly-precious, and not great, but still pretty darn good. I say this as an aside because food is only part of my equation. The meal was $500 for two and not much fun. My equation now includes fun.
You can see some Cyrus pix mixed in with a set of mine on Flickr:
This experience made me re-evaluate other experiences at "great" restaurants. Lutece in the 1980's. The menu is in French with no prices, and the waiter corrects my father when he tries to order two dishes with puff pastry: "No-no monsieur, you do not want two pastries." I told all my buddies how awesome it was! I see it differently now - the food was really, really good, but the experience was the opposite of "awesome". It was not fun, but somehow I was conditioned to value it. How was I conditioned this way? I can't fully explain it.
Nevertheless, a good meal should be fun. Seems so simple. . . now I know. . . future plans will take this into consideration.
When I was in Paris this year, I did not spend so much time on the Metro going to a “destination.” I spent more time – umm, wondering around. I walked, bum knees and all. I made four visits to Mariage Frere and went to some restaurants more than once. This is a different kind of experience than saying “I have this many places I HAVE to see.” I watched the people and did not speak so much. When I got caught in a down pour, I caught a bus going somewhere just because it was out of the rain. The French people I saw were not “courteous.” They were considerate of others. “Courteous” has come to mean a rigid adherence to set laws. “Consideration” in this context means following the spirit of concern for the comfort and well-being of others. As jfood has related, that place had a rigid rule against shorts but was not able to apply a spirit of dressing decently or appropriately. The staff at the over-the top place the OP described was stiff and uncomfortable because they were trying to follow someone’s rigid idea of “proper” rather than their spirit of service that would help the diner have a comfortable and enjoyable dinner.
Actually, I think the problem might be Cyrus, not fancy restaurants. I like to eat at very nice restaurants quite often, but when I ate at Cyrus, I was also struck by their somewhat awkward and overly formal service. It was almost like their service staff had seen real waiters on tv and were just imitating them without really understanding their meaning or purpose. Nothing was outright *wrong*, but even they seemed a little uncomfortable with their actions.
IMHO good service at a high end restaurant is unobtrusive, helpful and graceful. I've found that at plenty of fancy restaurants, and I definitely wouldn't write off the whole category because of one uncomfortable experience.
"The menu is in French with no prices, and the waiter corrects my father when he tries to order two dishes with puff pastry: "No-no monsieur, you do not want two pastries."
But.. actually.. many people would complain if the server DIDN'T point that out.
Now, some will argue that the server could've worded it differently.. but it is safe to assume that English may not have been the server's first language.
I think formality and elegance is something that should be preserved.
No one forces people to go to fancy restaurants. But I for one want the option of going to a place where I know I will not be seated next to a group in cut off jeans and tank tops with their screaming dirty children.
Its funny, people who like formal dining rarely complain about the existence of non formal restaurants. But it seems people who don't like fine dining feel so insecure about it they question its validity as an option.
Generally, one knows when the place one is going to is formal. There is always the option to not go.
I think there's a fine line between being well-taken care of in a proper way at an upscale restaurant and too fussy, like everyone working in there is holding a dime between their butt cheeks. The latter makes me uncomfortable and I have a hard time dining as I'm paying attention to my posture and how I'm sitting or paranoid I may for a moment set my elbows on the table or slurp my soup. These types of places also seem to be very, very quiet or with some faint and overplayed classical music (Vivaldi's Four Seasons comes to mind, as does Eine Kleine Nachtmusic). It just feels stiff and uncomfortable.
I *do* like being taken care of and a certain level of fancyness when I go to that type of restaurant, but it's a delicate balance to achieve. If you get a waiter who pinches his lips together into a thin line of disapproval because you order an inexpensive glass of wine or something, it's not going to be fun.
I'm a stickler for etiquette and one of the things I like about the upscale places, however rarely I visit them, is that they know what to do with the napkin and such. But given my choices over and over, I pick less formal restaurants as I like more relaxed dining.
I recommend that the OP have dinner at l'Espadon at the Ritz in Paris. Formal service should never make you uncomfortable, and the tuxedoed staff there performs a beautifully choreographed ballet as they cater to your every need. From the champagne cart, through the 6 course tasting menu, to the cheese cart, there is someone who anticipates every need, almost before you think it. When you go to a restaurant that provides service at that level, you have responsibilities too. Among them is the awareness that you are a participant in an exceptional experience, and that your appreciation will be enhanced by embracing the restaurant's culture, whether it is formal French or Japanese kaiseki. Put the baseball cap and sneakers away for a night.
I definitely run into "high-end fatigue". It's the brother of "low-end boredom". I address both by going to a mix of high-end restaurants and low-end holes-in-the-wall.
I can't ask ONE restaurant to address my whole way of thinking and eating, any more than I can ask to eat only ONE dish.
Champagne and caviar isn't cliche, it's classic. I actually enjoy all the fussing and pampering. It doesn't make me uncomfortable at all, and I'm in my 20s. I frequent plenty of wonderful places with casual service, but when I enjoy a triple-figure meal that is the level of service I expect.
No worries, you're as entitled to your opinion as the rest of us. I did not feel that you were being critical of anyone's personal preferences. At least now you have a firmer idea of the restaurant experiences you enjoy the most, which can only help maximize your pleasure while dining out!
First off - totally disagree.
It appears to jfood that this attitude reflects the me-first, me-only entitlement that so many young people have adopted. They want to choose the rules, the whereabouts and the attitude that they want to evoke on those around them even if it disturbs others.
It is interesting how the OP does all this research and the has an epiphany when he arrives at the elegance of Cyrus (and no jfood has never eaten there). And what disturbs him? The waiters are wearing tuxedos, the waiters fold his napkin when he leaves the table for a few minutes, and then he besmirches those who expect good service at good restos to "make people feel important and pampered."
Personally jfood likes everything you described. No, he does not want to see your dirty napkin rolled in a ball on your table when you go to the men's room and the waiter folding or removing is a positive, not a negative. Hopefully your dning companions feel the same. Likewise not every resto is a playing field for obnoxious and boorish behavior, while others are.
Having "fun" is not only playing touch football with the "homies" or sticking your head in a wine vat for a neat photo, it is also enjoying a relaxing meal with freinds and loved ones and having good service and good food. And it is not the custo that dictates the ambience of any resto, it's the resto's business and if you like it you go, and if you don;t , well choose another resto.
But please do not ruin it for others by acting inappropriately. The resto is there for everyone.
But jfood agrees, eating at a resto should be fun with your friends and if it is not then you need to change either the restos you go to or your friends.
There's a different type of restaurant with a different level of food, service, and experience for each and everyone of us to choose from. I like, no - love, no - obsessively seek to wear short pants as a matter of comfort. I plan to be buried or cremated in a pair of shorts. I wish the fashionistas would declare it to be acceptable to wear a suit that included short pants to anywhere calling for a suit - not just in Bermuda or a couple of other countries that really have their act together (of course, that's only IMHO). The only places I'll even consider wearing long pants are at (most) weddings, (most) funerals (but not mine), and the (very occasional) restaurant with some sort of implied or formal dress code.
Cyrus sounds like one of those restos where I would feel practically naked in a pair of shorts. I wouldn't be caught dead in a place like that on an average day (unless one of those funerals I spoke of earlier happened to be mine and the herse carrying my cold Quicksilver shorts-laden body swerved into Cyrus's storefront while trying to avoid one of my many enemies throwing stones as a last act of revenge) unless I was invited there for a special occasion. If this were the case, I think I could quickly and easily learn to enjoy a true "shi-shi" experience (not shi-shi like Alan408 describes - there are adult internet pay-sites galore that provide this service at competitive rates - oh, someone told me about these kinds of sites) as I recall having a few dining experiences similar to Cyrus in my otherwise casual-intensive lifestyle.
Like rearends, everyone has an opinion, or two. The OP definitely is entitled to her version of what fun is. But maybe - just maybe Ellibobelli is just a little too banananana-fofeli-fed-up with fru-fru places because she has finally seen the light as well. Tuxedos need to be offered with short pants, and I'd bet a dime to donuts that Ellibobelli is covertly pushing for this so she can show off her calves like me...
Jfood - I'm glad you're back - your master (or are you the boss of the house?) did a fine job filling in while you were out (sniffing out Jfood leads from your place to... Alaska and back?) but we missed you dearly. Please do not stray away ever again...
to be fair, jfood spends most of his leisure time in shorts and tee shirt and barefoot as well. he even wanders to the curb barefooted in the middle of the winter for the paper. and going to tux-waitered restos is not a weekly event after getting beat up all week in the office.
BUT, like the basic good manners of being a member of the human race and one that maturely needs to act appropriately in the environ one is in, attire is part of the gig. and if you want the food, you pay the price, not just monetarily but ambiencely (just made that word up).
jfood was pretty ticked off when he took college jfood to a resto two weeks ago where she wore a nice pair of shorts, a nice blouse and open toed shoes. She was told by the MOD to go back to the dorm to change. The jfood complied. They returned to the resto and were seated and not 10 minutes later a mom and son show up and the son (19'ish) is wearing ripped jeans and a tee-shirt. The two ladies arrived, one wearing a red leather cowboy hat and the other wearing an alligator sun visor. And they kept them on for the entire meal.
But the resto had "one rule, no shorts" as the MOD told jfood again on the way out. Go figure.
What jfood say about the napkin makes sense - I never thought about that as an issue for other diners. I definitely didn't mean to insult people who expect good service when I said I guess the restaurant wants to make people feel important and pampered. Perhaps my post was a little too aggressive. . . I agree with everything jfood says, I just think we define "good service" a little differently. And that's o.k.!
I would never insist that a restaurant change there standards for me, but like bulavinaka, I have a preference for casual attire. I do have pretty good calves (actually, they're incredible), though I'm a guy. The "elli" part is short for elliott.
Btw, I can understand being confused by the timing of my epiphany. I don't know why it took me so long to figure out what I like.
Hey Elli(ott), sorry to assume you were Ellie. I first posted everything as he/she, but decided, awh whattheheck - Elli must be the nice lady in the middle of the two blokes in the photos - so you're one of the blokes - still, you look like you'd hold up well in a pair of shorts and a tuxedo... I guess that's why I suck at gambling as well - even when the odds seem pretty good, if I'm betting on red, it's going to come up black.
If you want a really top-knotch dining experience where you don't have to dress up, try the South Pacific. Most of the tourist destinations have world class hotels and resorts where the staff is very well versed in etiquette, the food can be amazing, and you'd be laughed out of the dining area for showing up in anything more than a nice aloha shirt and a clean pair of shorts. Also, the views are of heaven.
You lost me at shi shi.
Before Chowhound, the only experience I had with shi shi was with young children. Shi shi means "to urinate" in Hawaiian and or Japanese.
I used to wonder if the Chowhound posters meant chic, but based on the way it is used on this site, I don't think they mean to use chic.
Please explain what you think shi shi means, or provide a link that defines the word.
The thing is, fine dining and good service should never be hat uncomfortable. I adore whe I can afford a place that treats me well and gives me good service.
Some places, however, go too far. They do not understand the true art of service. They attempt to copy a "french fancy" standard that is not real. French waitstaff and servers study intensely for years to to it right. In fact, in cooking schools in French, students eventually have to choose between waiting and cooking.
an owner or restauranteur who believes that fancy, upscale service means that the customer must be taken by the hand firmly and "shown the way" is a twit. Good waiters may gently guide a diner towards another option if it is one that he know the customer ultimatley will not enjoy (say, an awful wine pairing or mix of app and main) but in the end, he should never say what the diner wants. the diner wants what they ask for.
Primping and picking and constantly tidying after the dining is terrible when obviously done, but a gentle weep of the crumb catcher is not out of place, as long as it is discreet.
Putting the napkin on your chair is actually something you should do, as a sign to the busboy that you are not done and do not wish your plate cleared. Sort of like how closing your menu and putting it down signifies you are ready to order. there are tons of these signs that we have forgotten about as dining out etiquette has faded away.
when I pay $$$$$$ to dine and drop my fork, I have to say I do not lean down to pick it up. 70 years ago, NO ONE anywhere picked up their own fork when eating out. You were paying for someone to cook, and serve you,a nd the service was part of the bill. A dropped utensil or napkin would quickly and discreetly be picked up by the manager or waiter. and replaced with a clean one.
guess the bottom line is that a fancy expensive place should ensure their staff is warm and yet discreet in their duties. Making the customer feel stupid or picked at is never a good thing. Neither is ignoring them. Proper discreet waiting by good waitstaff is an art, and hard to come by these days, since anyone can be a waiter without much training.
Then again, look at how our standards are dropped. If I pay over $100 for a meal for two, I still expect everyone to be dressed well, meaning no jeans, t shirts, sweaters tennis shoes or baseball caps, let alone low-rider sweats with words written over the ass. People tell me I'm silly to still think that. For that kind of environment, I have to pay over $500 for two, and even then, in LA, I can expect bluejeans and a trucker cap or two. And probably at least four screaming babies or insane toddlers.
I agree, Diana, that restaurants in the US sometimes try to copy the service in France but don't really understand it. At one bistro in Paris my girlfriend dropped a glass of water, which broke on the floor. One of the waiters - I don't know what level of the waitstaff hierarchy he was - instantly swept the shards of glass under the banquette, to deal with later, and replaced her glass smoothly and in a way that greatly lessened her embarrassment at having made a faux pas in the first place. That epitomized good service to me.
It seems this ethic has been replaced in this country by the upselling ellibobelli mentions. I never saw any of this in Europe, and it certainly does detract from the meal by making everybody uncomfortable, servers and customers alike. It's got nothing to do with the food; it's about the business.
My theory on the disconnect is that high-end restaurants, which originated largely in Europe, originally catered to the upper classes. The problem was that the best dishes they served were originally peasant dishes, or derived from peasant dishes. The service was one way to set the experience apart from the lower class restaurants, serving similar food to poor people at much lower prices at the tavern a few doors down the street. How it transformed into the stuffed-shirt parody of elegance that you see at some places nowadays is something else, probably driven largely by business concerns as above.
re: Bat Guano
The whole point of service, as well as all rules associated "good manners" is to make other people feel comfortable, no matter what they do or say. That's all we expect from others and it's the best we can do for people we work, socialize, live or eat with.
The French waiter who quickly swept the glass shards under the banquette was successful at that.
The pomposity that Diana described was not.
I love great food and at times spend the $$$ to experience something usually as a pioneering aspect. As if I want to learn how to cook it. Other times as in sushi I would not attempt at home. Still $500?
I think we're seeing more emphasis on what I call nuts and bolts dining. I love good food and don't need to see any pretense involved. No matter how involved the recipe or ingredients can be. When I enter any service oriented arena I want to be educated accordingly. And certainly not the hipster condescending attitude that's found all too often. While I enjoy tipping higher than most. Thanks for bringing light to this subject.