“To the best of my knowledge, when you go to a restaurant-supply store to look at chairs, there is an idea of quick turn, medium turn, and slow turn” that influences the sort of chair you will buy.
“They have estimates about how long people will sit in them before they’ll just leave. You don’t have to say anything to them — they’ll just go away. It’s not a science, but the suppliers have a fairly good idea. They do surveys, and they have hundreds of people sit in them and see when the people get up. Generally, if the back is more upright, you won’t last as long. Also, if the seat is shallower — you don’t have enough support. If you are opening an inexpensive café and want a quick turn, you might opt for stiff, straight-backed, shallow-seat metal chairs. They’ll be attractive, but not conducive to long chats over postprandial coffee. If you’re outfitting the latest challenger to the gastronomic throne, you may look for something more hospitable.”
It is tempting to dismiss such a story as another urban legend, possibly born of a stiff back and sore backside following a less than dazzling meal at a cheap diner. But the storyteller here is Charles Matson, a man who has given more attention and thought to the matter of dining out than anyone I have ever met. The matter of chairs and their comfort-to-time ratio falls well within the realm of subjects about which he may be expected to possess sound knowledge.
Dining out has this in common with several other activities (such as driving): everybody does them, and so everybody assumes that they know how to do them. You call to make a reservation, you go to the restaurant at the appointed time, you sit, you order, you eat, you pay, you leave. The process requires no special skill or great effort — indeed, part of the purpose for going out at all is to reduce the amount of skill and effort required to enjoy a good meal. But just as some drivers are more aware of their surroundings and the factors influencing the safety and comfort of their journeys, there is at least one diner whose detailed sense of the restaurant experience affords him what he considers to be a greater degree of pleasure in his repast.
I first noticed Charles’s particular attention to this subject a few years ago, shortly before Valentine’s Day. He asked after my plans; I told him that my wife and I would, as usual, be enjoying a late dinner at home after the children had gone to bed. He complimented me on my good sense for not going out and wondered at the desperation that must be being felt by so many poor slobs as they scrambled for last-minute reservations.
How lucky they would have been to count Charles among their friends. In early January, or possibly late December, of the year previous, he had made Valentine’s Day reservations at several high-end restaurants around town. Then, as the lovers’ day approached, he was able to ask his date for the evening, in an offhanded sort of way, where she was interested in dining. Odds were, since he knew her tastes, she would name one of the places he had phoned a month earlier. He had the reservation in hand, his lady fair had her choice of establishments, and to top it off, he was in a position to play savior to some of his less farsighted friends. Rather than cancel his spare reservations, he farmed them out, thus granting prime restaurants and seating times to fellows who might have otherwise spent the better part of the evening waiting for a ten o’clock seating and the dulled attentions of an exhausted waiter at their second- or third-choice eateries.
Charles’s study of the matter has led to the development of an unwritten dining code, which he summarizes thusly: “Basically, when I get things, I get them done my way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way, but it’s the way I want it. I’m the customer, and that’s what I intend to get.” A brash attitude, perhaps, but it is not born of simple arrogance. It has been earned through experience and tempered by an understanding of the party on the other side of the power struggle — the restaurant. (Charles himself has worked either in or around the business for years.) Nor does it ignore the essential character of a particular establishment. Charles is not about to order a hamburger well-done at Mille Fleurs. He may, however, request that his salad be served after his entrée, or that his white wine be a little warmer than refrigerator temperature. “A lot of times,” he explains, “the purveyor doesn’t care [what I want]; they do things and they think that’s how it is and that’s what works best for me. So there’s a certain negotiation going on — them having the smooth flow, and you getting what you want. We’re doing a dance. It’s like, ‘Who’s most important here? Me, the customer? The kitchen? The server? Or the people behind us, [waiting for the table]?’ ”
Often, the purveyor assumes authority because no one else seems interested. The diner is content to be so much putty in the restaurant’s hands. The dining experience may be so infrequent as to be almost utterly foreign, or it may be so common as to attract no notice. Or there may be other influences, not the least of which is the intimidation of exquisite decor and exotic cuisine.
Charles was inoculated against this last factor early on. “I used to go out with a group of friends. We all appreciated wine, and we would all go to different restaurants. The idea was, someone would choose a restaurant and a theme, and we would all bring bottles and conduct tastings. A couple of my friends were more assertive than I was, and I saw the results — the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You say, ‘I don’t want that; I want that,’ and you get it. When you go out with a bunch of guys, you’re eating, you’re drinking — there’s no pressure. You’re not as afraid to make mistakes, because these are your buds.