The rise of dining aggression

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Vested Interests
The rise of dining aggression: Dear Table 2, we think you're kind of rude

The Globe and Mail

Chris Nuttall-Smith

April 11, 2013

Claude Bosi of London’s Michelin-starred Hibiscus lashed out at a food blogger last year, and other chefs joined in.

On a busy Saturday night late last month, Jen Agg, the owner of The Black Hoof, a popular restaurant in Toronto, had had enough. The room was packed, the waiting list for tables was long, and a few of her customers were being rude to the servers, Agg said in an interview.

And so the restaurateur took to Twitter, writing to her 7,300-odd followers, “Dear (almost) everyone in here right now. Please, please stop being such a douche.”

It wasn’t Agg’s first time biting back at her customers via the social network. One night, she complained, “Dear Table 2: You seem really nice, but you’ve been ‘finishing your drinks,’ for like, an hour. It’s time. New Table 2 is so cold & hungry.”

Agg has taken aim at squeamish patrons (“2 women sitting at the bar: ‘Tongue benny? Ewwwww.’ ‘Blood sausage McMuffin? Ewwwwwww.’ Don’t they have anything normal?’ ”). Another target: the indecisive. (“Best ever. Bar 1/2 went through the whole wine list on the phone with who, I can only imagine, was his personal sommelier.”)

The “douche” message triggered the greatest reaction by far. I was among those who suggested that Agg had gone too far; the next morning I re-broadcast her tweet, with the heading, “File under ‘Own worst Jenemy.’” In a response that seemed to sum up much of the sentiment, one of Agg’s followers wrote, “Wow. Talk about customer appreciation gone wrong. Yikes.”

Yet she also found plenty of support, particularly when she began to explain herself. “People can be publicly rude to servers, but we have no right to be publicly frustrated with that behaviour?” she wrote the following morning.

The culture war between restaurant staff and their patrons is heating up.

We are living in a time of heightened dining aggression. Restaurateurs complain at almost any opportunity about the insensitivity (and cost) of reservation no-shows, among scores of other bad behaviours. One owner I spoke with this week said that customers these days – yes, he used the phrase “customers these days” – demand free meals and drinks for even the slightest of service hiccups.

When that doesn’t work, patrons often take to social media and crowd-sourced review sites to complain at length. Spend more than five minutes on the food-discussion site Chowhound and a pattern emerges: A solid 65 per cent of the writers are actually Kim Jong-un.

“Restaurants are low-hanging fruit,” said Neil Wyles, the owner of Vancouver’s Hamilton Street Grill. “We are in the hospitality business and we don’t fight back.”

But they do, increasingly. In Beverley Hills last month, a popular restaurant called Red Medicine began using its Twitter account to publicly name and shame no-shows – a tactic that restaurateurs in Australia have been using for a couple of years now.

Claude Bosi, the chef behind London’s Michelin-starred Hibiscus restaurant, responded to an amateur food blogger’s relatively tame criticism of his food late last year with an expletive-laced tweet that’s unprintable here. Other top London chefs soon joined him, echoing and amplifying Bosi, using the hashtag #chefsunite.

Food bloggers are a frequent source of irritation; a couple of years ago, the Toronto chef Claudio Aprile posted a set of ground rules on his website, addressing it to “all people that have or plan on coming to Origin with huge zoom lenses and flashes that induce seizures.”

“If you can do a better job than me and my staff then why aren’t you doing it?” Aprile’s post asked.

One of Toronto’s weekly newspapers, The Grid, runs a semi-regular advice column by an assistant manager at a local barbecue spot on how to be a good restaurant guest. Among its lessons: Don’t “camp out” at a table for more than 20 minutes after eating, don’t make a mess of the bathroom, read the menu before asking questions (“Servers are there to assist, not to be your eyes and brain”) and don’t get mad at the servers if you have to wait for a table – an act, the column advises, that “will only make you look like a douche.”

Another local publication, City Bites, ran a feature in this month’s issue on the “seven sins of dining out.” Among those sins: stealing, not tipping, abusing employees. It reads as if every customer is a latent psychopath.

Restaurateurs have complained about their customers for as long as there have been restaurants, said Andrew P. Haley, a historian at the University of Southern Mississippi. Haley is the author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of The American Middle Class. His book tells the story of the battle the growing U.S. middle class fought to gain access to restaurants a century ago, which were often elitist institutions at the time.

Then, as now, the popular press contained articles about how to be a good restaurant customer. The difference, Haley said, was that the articles were typically written by diners’ peers, and not by hard-bitten service staff. The advice columns were meant to be helpful. Professional associations for elite service staff in New York had their own publications; they often published members’ grievances. The magazines were generally circulated only within the trade, Haley said. That’s worlds away from insulting your customers in real-time, online.

Though it’s easy to chalk up much of the current aggression to poor impulse control and the rise of social media, the shifting balance of power between restaurants and their customers is also largely to blame. In just the past five or six years, the experience of dining out has changed radically in Canada. It can be disorienting.

Thanks to places like The Black Hoof, which was a pioneer in democratizing and enlivening the nation’s restaurant culture (writing in enRoute magazine in 2009, I called it one of Canada’s best new restaurants), you can now get great food and superb cocktails and wine without having to dress up or pay off the maitre d’. Eating out is no longer a choice between stuffy and expensive, or cheap and barely adequate. There’s a thriving middle ground now, and often the food is better there than at the top.

The trade-off, particularly in the early days of that shift, was that many of those more democratically inclined places didn’t take reservations, or accept credit cards, or engage in some of the basics of hospitality. In one unforgettable incident, I remember walking into Toronto’s Local Kitchen and Wine Bar one quiet night in 2009 and being told I couldn’t sit at a table until my dinner date arrived. (He showed up 15 minutes late. The restaurant was still empty.)

Yet the culture shift that started a few years ago hasn’t ended. Many of the best new restaurants in Canada these days combine that early, indie ethos with a sense of genuine hospitality, a professionalism that dictates the customer is right at least most of the time.

For her part, The Black Hoof’s Jen Agg seems intent on sticking to her style. “I don’t want to run a corporate-style restaurant,” she said. “It’s a place that I want to be and I want to be happy, and so I built a restaurant that suited my needs.

“There’s enough businesses out there that offer the-customer’s-always-right service.”

And her restaurant does, in fact, offer excellent service, Agg said. “If you’re excited to be there and excited about the restaurant, we respond in kind.”
Vested Interests

While it's obviously rude and against Customer Service 101 to insult your customers on Twitter, given that Black Hoof appears to be a popular and trendy spot this strategy will likely work in Agg's favor. This will likely signal attitude and exclusivity to other diners who will be eager to eat there. The possibility of being insulted lends people to the challenge of wether they're hip or high brow enough for Black Hoof. Appealing to status consciousness is almost always a good marketing strategy for restaurants and clubs. This is why clubs keep long lines out front even if they're hardly full or restaurants which don't take reservations.

What the article doesn't mention is things like Yelp and Groupon which actively empower the low brow. If opinions are like assholes and everybody's got one then every asshole likely has an asshole opinion. This is Yelp in a nutshell. People will tear a very nice restaurant to shreds because they feel the bread basket wasn't worth the $50 for $25 Groupon they had. These same people will then write six paragraphs of praise about the local CVS. Yelp will then keep the worst reviews at the top of the page and contact the restaurant in question, offering to push them to the bottom for a fee. Groupon is for cheap lowlifes who only dine out if it's "a deal." This is just extreme couponing applied to restaurants. Of course the people who are paying the least are often the most vocal and demanding. Cheap, uncouth, brash and entitled. Who does that sound like?

Food bloggers are by far the worst but any restauranteur who takes them seriously deserves to go out of business for being so gullible. These are people with a wordpress or blogspot handle who make business cards for their blogs which nobody reads. I once had a guy give me his business card who told me his name was Vinny Garette (get it?) I've also had travel bloggers email me asking for a free nights stay in exchange for a positive review on whatever no traffic blogspot they have. These people are are complete and utter losers. Thomas Friedman would applaud them though for inventing their own jobs.

Bronze Age Pervert
Popfop's aggression in not getting me a job as doorman at nightclub, as nightclub promoter, etc., is here to be noted!

As for the article I say the following:

1. Restaurants should immediately stop letting pregnant women work as waitresses or indeed in any capacity. It is grotesque when you come to have a nice meal to be confronted with this brutal and primitive display of biology. Pregnant waitresses furthermore like to rub their condition in your face (figuratively, but often literally too) as a means to assert their supremacy. Let me emphasize the aesthetic complaint here though, more than the moral: it is simply a grotesque spectacle that gives the feeling that the restaurant is unclean and filth.

2. Waiters must be instructed to be attentive and deferential, but they must immediately stop trying to be your friend or overly chummy. That is just as offensive as being rude, I mean to put themselves on an equal level and intrude with their phony "friendship." Waiters shouldn't be allowed to give you their name and say "I'm X and I'll be your waiter for tonight." They must also not be allowed to be too effusive, to clap their hands, or to touch you. They should be nearby and should come at command, but should not stop you in the middle of a meal or conversation to ask "How are things?"

3. Children under a certain age must be banned from dinner hours after 8 or 9 PM and from all hours in certain restaurants. It is uncivilized and a sign of lack of standards that you go to a nice restaurant and there are loud-mouthed brats there who are sometimes running around and bothering other people. Some restaurants even have the nerve to offer coloring books. I've seen small kids yell and scream and run around, and their idiot parents with a proud, smug smile on their face! The worst is also when some SWPL-type parent starts to "educate" their kids and does so in a loud voice to let others know they are raising "gifted children" and so on.

4. Political discussions around the table should be banned, and hosts should not tolerate this kind of pollution to persist in their establishments. We can't rely on standards of civility anymore--a contemptuous look from others will not stop certain diners from talking in a loud voice about politics. This is disgusting to others. Certain people with loud or annoying voices must also be asked to leave.

5. There is very high turnover in the staff of many restaurants. But the owners should take note of regulars and make sure that new staff knows to treat them accordingly. Too many restaurants take regulars for granted. Regulars should not tolerate this, even if the food is good. Restaurant owners must know that they should run civilized establishments.
Bronze Age Pervert

Regarding point 5 above, I am often especially angry when some new twit of a waitress doesn't know I'm a regular in a restaurant or coffee shop...often I can be seen at these times shaking my head and muttering under my breath, "...who knew not Joseph..."

It should be noted that "family friendly" dining, along with the notion that dining out should somehow be fun, is a particularly American phenomenon. I've seen this parodied in British comedies on a few occasions. Historically, the closest there was to family dining was at a tavern or pub. In the case of a tavern, travelers, often whole families, could get a basic meal and bed for cheap. In the case of a pub, this was often the center of community activity, especially in Ireland and the UK. In the United States, there is a stigma about bringing children into an establishment primarily meant for drinking so the need for specifically family oriented restaurants was created. Of course, obnoxious SWPLs feel they are above such pedestrian establishments (and to be fair places like Applebee's and TGIFriday's are wretched) so they bring their children to nicer restaurants where the food they consume is part of some enlightening, cultured experience. If SWPLs want to teach their kids about culinary diversity their should prepare these meals at home, the only true family friendly dining environment.

The dining experience you describe is part and parcel of the casualization of dining and the reproletarianization of the restaurant industry. Up until about the 1980s in the United States, being a waiter in a fine dining restaurant (i.e. where a jacket is required and women were often prohibited), hotel restaurant or private dining club was considered a respectable, working class job. Waiters were taught proper etiquette which of course meant being attentive, deferential and largely emotionless, in other words, professional. False chumminess or touching patrons was considered a faux pas. They would also be very knowledgeable about the food they'd be serving and if there was no sommelier, the wine too. The position of the waiter is now part of the New Precarity so even in a nicer restaurant one is likely to get some idiotic slut or bored college student who is unlikely to know how to pronounce the items on the menu correctly or tell you anything about wine outside of the fact that there are whites and reds.
Vested Interests
Bronze Age Pervert popfop

There was a mulatto at a favourite new Italian place of mine who was bartending at the lounge and pronounced Chianti "Chee-an-tee" when a friend of mine was asking for reds. Needless to say she's no longer there.
This thread is now where we share dining aggressions.

I don't have anything too good but I remember being in a restaurant in Arizona and seeing a skinny woman in a baseball hat and oversized t shirt emblazoned with the words, " Winston's naked! " I was a kid then so I didn't understand that Winston was a cigarette brand but even so it seemed like a rather inappropriate thing to wear in a restaurant.

My second aggression isn't related to restaurants but in same category of dealing with classless rubes. I once got a call at work from a woman whose son and husband were staying at the hotel and were out at a football game. She wanted to send "some goodies" up to their room. I offered to send up some of our signature desserts but she didn't want this. Instead she wanted me to go to the gift shop, buy some chips and soda with her credit card and then place them in the room as a surprise. This request was denied.

Vested Interests
Years ago I had a Portuguese friend who would always complain with his girlfriend about the fare we'd have. He wouldn't complain to the wait staff but would rather weakly critique the dinner to us. It was never a condemnation but always something worse like "this bass could have used a bit more salt" or "the chicken was just slightly dry". Never anything wrong substantially, just minor things that could have been easily forgiven and not mentioned at all. I would understand once or twice, but they would do this every fucking time.