Saturday, September 18, 2010

Detroit Restaurant Week Done Right: Etiquette

The whole concept of "fine dining" has changed quite a bit over the years. Even prior to the collapse of the housing market, mass mentality toward the implied elitism of fine dining (mmmmyesssss) was shifting. Really you could probably attribute it to the Clintonian days of neverending wealth and prosperity for all when people whose pockets were overstuffed with the spoils of 3-year zero-down ARMs had enough expendable income to dine at those same places that were previously perceived to be only the right of the wealthy. Gone are the days of the Patrick Bateman-era $2,000 lunches on Wallstreet.

You could also explore how media has affected this perception, with such hugely successful shows as Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and the overwhelming popularity of the Food Network. Chefs are the country's new celebrities, thanks to a culture that has become much more curious and knowledgable about all forms of cuisine.

The end result of this cultural shift has meant that more people have had more access and less intimidation to experience fine dining, and so the dynamics shifted, the very definition changed. In the late '80s/early '90s, it was an abomination to walk into a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant in anything other than a 3-piece suit. Nowadays it is a rare thing that any kind of dress code is enforced, and you can just as easily show up in jeans.

There is a part of me that mourns the loss of traditional dining decorum, but sometimes nostalgic traditionalism simply must give way to embracing the new order. I love that I can be out with a group of friends and on a whim decide to get cocktails at the Rattlesnake or have dinner at Iridescence, regardless of how we're dressed. I also love that, in the aftermath of the economic downturn, most fine dining establishments chose to redefine themselves and make their prices more "accessible" in an effort to re-attract that same business from before...which means dinner at a place like Roast will cost me just about the same if not LESS than some of the "casual-upscale" chains like, say, Champps or Kona Grill or anything else on that strip of Big Beaver by Somerset. I love that the people who work in these places are all roughly around my age and all share my twisted sense of humor and most of all KNOW FOOD. I love that, especially here in Detroit, food has almost a cultish following, and people get really excited and passionate about it, blowing up Facebook every time some random decides to serve noodles out of her kitchen or someone hosts a dinner party in an abandoned building.

For this season of Detroit Restaurant Week I was asked to do a piece on fine dining etiquette. I liked the idea, but the more I thought about it the more I realized just how much has actually changed in that arena. With this newfound vibrant youthful energy that exists in the restaurant industry -- that customers now embrace -- the rules simply are not what they once were. So-called "table manners" such as how to properly position your napkin when you get up to use the one really cares anymore. These are the rules for a new era.

Rarely you will find a private club or a particularly old-school restaurant in a very wealthy part of town where there is still a suit jacket requirement. But for the most part, and this includes all of the participating Detroit Restaurant Week restaurants, they'd rather you come as you are. My own personal barometer is that if I'm wearing something I would be embarrased to be seen in if I ran into an old acquaintance, then I shouldn't be wearing it to dinner. Everything else is fair game. Nice jeans, cute flats, a shirt that doesn't have a brewery name on it...minimal effort is required to look presentable, and that doesn't have to mean being uncomfortable.

Table Manners
No one cares if you pass to the right or left. No one cares how many pieces of meat you cut at one time. But there are still some basic rules of etiquette that should be exercised, and they apply to most social situations.

(1) Don't talk with your mouth full. It's gross. I'm sure whatever it is you have to say is of such immediate importance that you can't bear to make us wait, but really -- it's fine.

(2) All that silverware can be daunting. In Titanic Kathy Bates gave the advice to start at the outside and work your way in. That's pretty much how you do it. Things might get a little more complicated if you start dealing with caviar spoons and bone marrow scoops, but I'm thinking you probably won't encounter that problem when ordering from the DRW menus. Cocktail forks, oyster forks...when you order something that has its own specific utensil associated with it (oysters, mussels, crab legs, even steak and lamb) the proper instrument will be brought out to you along with that dish. So just use it.

Also, when you've finished a course, leave the silverware you used on the empty dish. More will come, promise. If you have to ask that's their bad, not yours.

(3) Elbows on the table are still a no-no, just like your parents told you. Feet anywhere else but on the floor are also frowned upon, and I say this as someone who'd rather be curled up like a cat at all times.

(4) Napkins go on your lap. I don't care if it's folded halvsies in a triangle, rectangle, or rhombus -- as long as it makes it to your lap, you're good.

(5) Sneezing and coughing should be done into a napkin and facing away from the table. I'm here to eat the food; not your germs.

(6) Do we need to go over tipping again?

(7) Don't ever shout at the server from several tables away. That's just uncouth. You are not a child.

(8) If you order drinks at the bar first before being seated at your table, it is proper to cash out at the bar and leave a tip with the bartender, even if they offer to transfer the tab to your table.

(9) Those valets really hustle and even if the service is complimentary, you should still give a few dollars' tip -- especially if you closed the restaurant down and they have your car pulled up already and are clearly waiting for you to leave so they too can go home.

(10) If your table is full of smokers and you decide to leave the table during a lull in the meal to step outside, it is polite to make your server aware of this.

(11) If you're unsure, ask. You might find it embarrassing to admit you don't know what something is, but it would be even more embarrassing to stumble your way through the pronunciation and order it only to find it completely unappetizing ("these sweetbreads aren't very sweet..."). No one's going to make fun of you; junior high is a long way behind us all.

(12) Ditto with the wine list. Not everyone's a conoisseur, but the sommelier sure is. Don't hesitate to ask him/her for a recommendation.

(13) If you're really blown away by your meal, send your compliments to the chef. It's always nice to hear when someone else thinks you've done a good job, and no one ever really hears that enough.

(14) This is my own personal behavior guide, but it's one I'm very strict about adhering to: when the server comes to your table, make eye contact. Listen to him as he speaks. Don't thumb through your menu disinterestedly as he rattles off the night's specials. Maintain eye contact, smile, and say please and thank you. ALWAYS say please and thank you. You can shuck every other rule here right out the plate-glass windows (except for tipping) as long as you ALWAYS say please and thank you. This level of politisse may seem excessive, but trust me--it can make your server's whole night. Busboy fills the water: thank you. Server asks to take your menus or remove your plates: yes please, followed by thank you. It's simple. It takes no additional effort on your part. It's mindless grade school etiquette. It's a very small thing, but it shows respect -- both that you are a respectful person and that you respect the hard work that your servers are doing for you. Beyond that you could use a butter knife to spear through the tomatoes in your salad and I'll be straight with you.

There are volumes of writing, whole "rule books" dedicated to the subtleties of fine dining etiquette, right down to how you butter your bread (don't butter the whole piece at once, egads! and so forth). Ignore them. The rules are archaic; dated. They apply to a time when dining was still an exercise in elitism, which it no longer is. Be polite. Be respectful. Bon appetit.

Detroit Restaurant Week starts in one week; have you made your reservations yet?